It is no secret that Spring is well underway, and the natural world seems to be transforming at a startling pace. It is undoubtedly one of the most delightful times to be outdoors, witnessing the new emergence of leaf, bud and blossom, and relishing the fresh, life-affirming scents that fill the cool spring air. Derwent Reservoir, the second largest reservoir in the North East, boasts a spectacular assemblage of plants across a diverse range of habitats surrounding its banks. With lockdown restrictions preventing many of us from expanding our repertoire of spring experiences beyond our local area, here is a little taste of nature from Derwent Reservoir. And as the saying goes: ‘if the mountain can’t go to Muhammad; then Muhammad must go to the mountain’. So grab a cup of coffee, sit back and take a short tour of some of the more unusual and slightly mystical plants which will soon reawaken to grace the grassland habitats of the reservoir in the coming weeks and months.
The botanical world is filled with inventive and surprising names. Many of these were ascribed long ago through the Doctrine of Signatures. This is an ancient concept where by the shape or colour of a plant, resembling part of the human body where the plant was thought to bring healing, is reflected in the common name. A classic example of this is eyebright.
The delicate white flowers are mottled with yellow and purple markings resembling, at least in theory, a bruised eye. As a result, many tinctures and compresses were infused with the tiny eyebright flowers and prescribed for any number of eye disorders or injuries.
Arguably, one of the best named plants around Derwent Reservoir is Adder’s tongue; a plant which is every bit as mysterious and unusual as the name itself.
This small, inconspicuous fern signifies the ancient and unimproved nature of the grassland where it grows, and is often accompanied by a rich diversity of more brightly coloured plants, such as Devil’s bit scabious and common-spotted orchid. Like its names-sake, Adder’s tongue is an uncommon sight. The narrow spore-bearing spike is thought to resemble the tongue of an adder; perhaps due to this resemblance it was once heralded as the natural cure for snake bites.
Another curiosity, emerging on the south facing banks along the Northern shore of the reservoir, are the broomrapes.
At first glance their appearance is that of a withered orchid, lacking the lush green colour we associate with living plants. Broomrapes don’t possess any chlorophyll – the green pigments necessary for photosynthesis – so are neither green nor do they produce their own food. Rather, they are parasitic, diverting water and nutrients from their host plants; not something we often associate with plants in the UK.
A more common find throughout the site (and widespread through a number of grassland habitats including garden lawns) is yarrow.
While appearing delicate in both leaf and flower, folklore would testify this little plant packs a powerful punch. Yarrow has a heritage steeped in powerful divination rituals and has, throughout history, been a token of good fortune and used to keep ill health away.
And so, while we may not be able to visit some of our favourite viewpoints around the reservoir, or make our regular trips to explore the seasonal changes in the landscape, it is a comfort to know that these plants, which have so long been a part of our natural environment, will be continuing with ‘business as usual’ around the Derwent Reservoir. And from all at Durham Wildlife Trust, may your lawn be well graced with yarrow – for good health and fine fortune of course!