by Ian Brand

Wharfedale Naturalists

SORRY, I am going to ask you to get down on your hands and knees in a damp woodland to fully appreciate this month’s plant: Moschatel (Adoxa moschatellina). Kneeling is an occupational hazard for us botanists. Perhaps, like young curates and carpet fitters, we should have an extra layer of material sewn into the knees of our trousers!

Everyone looks forward to the emergence and flowering of those large drifts of well-known woodland spring flowers: Lesser Celandines, Ramsons, Wood Anemones and finally Bluebells, but Moschatel often goes unnoticed.

This is reflected in its name. Adoxa comes from Greek and means inglorious, from ‘a-’ without and ‘-doxa’ praise, a reference to the inconspicuous nature of this most delicate and overlooked plant. The specific epithet moschatellina comes from Italian moscao, meaning musk, and refers to the musky smell, particularly noticeable on a warm spring day.

Never has the saying “The more you know, the more you see, and the more you see, the more you enjoy” been appropriate. Moschatel is like no other British wild flower. Standing only 15cm tall, the fern-like leaves emerge in February/March, followed late March through to May by the pale green flowers, the likes of which once seen cannot be mistaken for any other flowering plant. Four small flowers face outwards at right angles from the top of the flowering stem, hence its appropriate alternative name of “Town Hall Clock” (see photo). The flower head or inflorescence is complete with a fifth flower facing directly upwards, looking skywards. To complicate this unusual morphology further, the fifth flower has a different number of petals and stamens to its four lateral neighbours.

The main means of propagation is vegetative, by underground rhizomes. Pollination however does occasionally occur when a number of small flies visit the bowl-shaped flowers for their nectar, but the resulting seed set, is low, hence the need for vegetative reproduction.

Rather unusually, the few seeds produced are dispersed by slugs and snails, passing through the digestive system and remaining viable after being excreted. Moschatel has cleverly adapted for dispersal in this manner. During ripening of the fruit, the stalk ‘corkscrews’ down to the ground, effecting better access for both slugs and snails.

So now each spring I wait in eager anticipation for the emergence of this truly beautiful and unique woodland flower, even if the trousers always need to go in the laundry basket on returning home.