Thursday, 20 January 2022

Rediscovering a rare plant from childhood... and it’s just as glorious

Rediscovering a rare plant from childhood... and it’s just as glorious

MY word, hasn’t it been windy of late? I had intended to visit some nearby woodlands to see the early flowers but, being a cautious type, decided to wait until the gales had died down (I didn’t want to be crushed by a falling tree!)

Today it has calmed down so I am embarking on a search for one of our early flowering rarities.

As a youngster exploring a local copse, I encountered one of the strangest looking plants that I’d ever seen. What was it?

Having read The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, I was cautious on my approach, remembering what I had seen in the film adaptation.

Once back home, I looked it up in the only book that I had to hand, Keble Martin’s Concise British Flora.

Well, there it was, a stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus), a member of the buttercup family and a rare woodland plant associated with chalky soils like that of the Chilterns. So today I have decided to see if this odd and eerily handsome plant has survived where I’d first encountered it all those years ago. Getting there is a bit problematic to say the least. An approach from the east is made impassable as the bridleway is so deep in mud and unfortunately disfigured by some fly-tipping so a change of tack is needed and I decide to close in from the north by way of a vehicular detour. Underfoot the going is difficult but pleasing as there are some fine views and graceful old oaks to either side of our path.

Eventually we find our way into the trees, leaving the squelch of mud behind. There are many beautifully shaped specimens here, wiry hornbeams with their silvery bark and contorted trunks, common limes coppiced long ago but not seeming to have a grudge at previous arborial mutilation and fine young yews, perhaps destined to live for another few thousand years.

It is apparent that long ago this was a woodland used as a precious resource. As with so many others, work seems to have ceased some time around the end of the Second World War.

Hazels are weighed down with huge boughs and creak as the wind blows. Cherries stand in stoicism.

Striking along a path with vast swathes of nascent bluebells to either side, I navigate by remembering the trees from long ago.

An ancient lime denotes a turn and then... there they are in all their splendour, the mysterious flowers from my past. Ten flowering spikes and I nearly jump with joy in recognition. They are where they were years ago and so striking!

Heading back to the car, I trip on something rather heavy, an old horseshoe no less. Is this luck? Who knows? I take it home.

Back inside later (and having cleaned my boots), I decide to consult one of my reference books, The Flora of Oxfordshire (Killick, Perry and Woodell, Pisces Publications, 1998) to see how many times this curious plant has been recorded.

The book tells me that since 1660 there have been 10 recordings in the county. I can add another two to that number.

Sometimes I wonder do I find the plants or do they find me?

Vincent Ruane

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