A Hint of Spring

The vernal equinox falls at this time of year, when the day length matches the night length, indicating that longer days are ahead, with the promise of warmer weather and emerging plants. So a day to celebrate and, doubly so as it is my daughter’s birthday! After recent cold conditions it was rather uncertain that many of the spring flowers would be showing on the banks of the River Tees at Gainford, but a small party from the DWT botany group was keen to have a look.

Gagea lutea

A particular quest was to find and count the delightful Gagea lutea (yellow star of Bethlehem). We were not disappointed. Fal Salker from Darlington and Teesdale Naturalists’ Field Club joined us for the day and took charge of the count – the Field Club has been surveying this plant for more than 100 years! Most of the plants were still in bud and others were at early stage of flowering. The most advanced presented their flowers drooping gracefully  in a small cluster, yellow with green stripes. The blooms are umbel-like, the bracts quite long and the large leaf is hooded with a trigonous (three-pointed) tip. The narrow, lanceolate, basal leaves have the lateral veins typical of monocots, in this case three, which is a helpful distinction from the other monocots when flowers are not open. The final count is yet to be confirmed, but at least 100 were seen which is a great result.

Of course, with any visit of botanists, it is always a long job to get out of the car park – the focus is on seeing the plants more than the walk. On this occasion the delay was also forced by a dog walker with his water bottle who was expounding the virtues of ‘taking the water’. In the Victorian era Gainford became famous as a ‘Spa town’ (or village?), attracting folk from near and far to enjoy the health benefits of the heavily mineralised water in local streams. To this day you can taste the water issuing from a fountain just off the main road, and our reporter had done just that, taking a bottle of the stuff away to improve his complexion and overall wellbeing. One of our group had tested the equivalent water from Croft Spa in the lab and was not so convinced after noting its microbiological content. And sniffing the ‘bad egg’ sulpurous air near the fountain,  we all agreed that our health and wellbeing were more likely to be promoted by the plants we were about to see and smell rather than the stuff we drank.

Allium scorodoprasum (sand leek)

Most ‘shop’ plants are bought for there attractive look and delightful smell. Some of the ones we were finding were the same, perhaps not as showy as their domestic relatives, but to us maybe more so. Its Latin name, Galium odoratum, suggests that woodruff should have a scent – and it does,  a faint whiff of vanilla. Myrrhis odorata (Sweet Cicely), with a sweet smell that you can almost taste, repeats the theme.

Our noses were also used to find the familiarly pungeant onion-smelling Allium ursinum (ramsons / wild garlic) and a small bunch of Allium scordoprasum (sand leek). A spreading patch of Viola odorata (sweet violet), had lightly-scented flowers but we could not smell the musk aroma of Adoxa mochatellina (moschatel), also called Town Hall clock or Good Friday plant – apparently you need warm damp days for this. However, the flowers were just emerging and the clocks were telling us it was lunchtime.

Well, not before we had a good look around to try to add to the plant list from our visits last year. It was certainly a challenge because the plants had been knocked back by the recent severe cold weather. Plants that we would have expected to be well in flower were just about reaching that point, with only a few opened of Anemone nemorosa (wood anemone), Ficaria verna (lesser celendine), Viola riviniana (common dog-violet) and Primula vulgaris (primrose). Arum maculatum (Lords and Ladies) was in leaf only, as was Viola reichenbachiana (early dog-violet) – a pity that we couldn’t compare the petals with its more common cousin. We were not bold enough to declare any Viola hybrids this year.

Symphytum grandiflorum (creeping comfrey)

We had lunch in the car park of the Gainford church that it turned out we were not looking for and eventually found Gainford St Mary Church that Keith had discovered was the site of many long-established alien species. Our wander around the churchyard was not particularly pleasant with strong smoke from a neighbouring garden fire making us smell like kippers! But, around the corner, along the banks of the Tees, we found what we were looking for – masses of Symphytum grandiflorum (Creeping Comfrey), Trachystemon orientalis (Abraham-Isaac-Jacob) along with more Gagea lutea, Caltha palustris (Marsh-marigold) in flower and sprouts of Petasites hybridus (Butterbur) poking through the mud.

Trachystemon orientalis (Abraham-Isaac-Jacob)

Altogether we found the same number of species as last year, three new ones making up for others not seen this time. We had a great day, in reasonable weather, that augers well for the warmer months to come. Thank you to Heather for joining us again and for kindly offering car-share.

Click here for a full species list – new finds shown in red, species missed shown in light grey.

If you are interested in seeing and learning more about the wildflowers of all types that can be found within the Durham Wildflife Trust area, and beyond, this is the group for you. There is a regular programme of field visits, training and surveys over the coming months to suit people of all abilities – it doesn’t matter if you are an absolute beginner or seasoned expert. For more details email botany@durhamwt.co.uk and look for events posted on the DWT website.