by Ian Brand

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

THE sky is blue and the temperature just above zero; it’s a perfect winter’s day. So seizing the opportunity I go out for a walk. “Never waste a day of sunshine! Walk, cycle, run, garden, or just sit and take in the view; the countryside is nature’s anti-depressant!”

Not expecting to see anything particularly botanical, I am delighted when I stumble across a patch of Winter Aconites (Eranthis hyemalis). Like snowdrops it is a reminder that spring, at least meteorologically speaking (1st March) is not too far away. They flower early, making the most of the winter daylight before spring arrives and the tree canopy closes off the light reaching the woodland floor.

The collar of three, leaf-like green bracts beneath the flower always reminds me of a choirboy’s ruff (see photo). This immediately takes me back 50 years to my days as a chorister at the local church. Friday - choir practice, Saturday - singing at the occasional wedding for 4 shillings (20p) and Sunday - Eucharist and Evensong. Add in Monday Scouts, frequent cycling adventures up into the local Chiltern hills, camping and youth hostelling with friends and you have the makings of a blissful childhood.

The Winter Aconite is not part of our native flora, having been first introduced into gardens from Southern Europe in 1596. It then hopped over the garden wall and was first recorded in the wild in 1838. Since then, it has become naturalised throughout the countryside.

This harbinger of spring has a few surprises. The yellow petal-like structures are not petals, but sepals. In most flowers sepals are normally found covering and protecting the flower bud. Then once the flower has opened, they disappear from view, lying beneath the petals, looking green and insignificant.

What has happened to the petals? The petals have evolved into miniature vase-like structures that form a ring between the sepals and the numerous stamens. These tubular structures are nectaries, secreting and collecting nectar, to attract and reward the few pollinators likely to be on the wing so early in the year.

If you don’t have Winter Aconites in your garden or local wood, take a look at its family sibling and big brother, the Hellebore. They are just the same with sepals acting as petals, and the petals reduced to vase-like nectaries.

Next sunny day, why not take a walk around your garden or local wood? The countryside is gradually awakening…