Dylan’s Flower of the Month

December – Cyclamen

This dainty flower can be a reminder of warm sunny days during the colder winter period. Most cyclamen species originate from the Mediterranean where summers are hot and dry and winters are cool and wet. For this family of plants there are so many varieties that there is always a species in flower at any point of the year.

Each flower is on a stem coming from a growing point on the tuber. This causes the appearance of clumps of cyclamen to form. In all the species, the stem is bent between 150-180°C so that the flower is pointing downwards. The only exception is Cyclamen hederifolium which is known as the “stargazer” as its flower points up. All the other flowers have 5 petals with 5 sepals behind the cup. Leaves sprout from the growing point at the base of the stem. Growing to a dainty maximum height of 15cm, if you aren’t observant the flower can be easily missed.

Tuberous plants, like Cyclamen, use their tuber to store energy over the winter when the plant cannot photosynthesis. The storage organ of the cyclamen has no papery covering and in some species the roots actually grow out of these organs. Cyclamen persicum and Cyclamen coum root from the bottom of the tuber whilst Cyclamen hederifolium roots from the top and sides. Depending on the size, the tuber may be nearly spherical or more flattened.

Cultivation of Cyclamen is not difficult and they can easily be grown in your garden. They prefer sites that are not overly dry or sunny. Beware though, if they are planted too deep they may not flower. To allow them to establish quickly, plant tubers when they are in the root growth stage.

In ecologist’s eyes, the cyclamen is seen as a flower that is in serious decline. It has many natural predators such as the caterpillars of The Gothic moth. In addition many areas have seen cyclamen populations severely depleted by people collecting samples illegally. This has led to some species becoming endangered. Plant conservation charities have been trying to educate local people to control the harvest of the flower so that they can be sustainable.

November – Teasel

Hopefully the bees have started to hibernate by now as the cold weather moves in. Any flowers out now tend to be pollinated by the wind rather than by insects as their numbers begin to diminish at this time of year. This month, I will be talking about the rather small family of only 15 members known as Teasel (Dipsacus).

Teasel is a tall plant that can easily reach the height of a person. Growing up to a maximum height of 2.5 metres and having spiny leaves in the form of bracts on the end of their stems makes teasel stand out. They have prickly stems and leaves. The leaves are lanceolate shape that are around 20 cm long. When this plant blooms between July and Autumn, it starts off with all the flowers in the middle opening and then as the season progresses. They are a familiar site in all kinds of habitats, from grassland to waste ground.

One notable feature of the plants is that is has sessile leaves. These are leaves without stalks and merge at the stem. Rain water collects inside these make-shift cup and scientists believe that they perform the function of stopping sap sucking aphids from climbing the stem. Recently, an experiment was carried out that has shown that adding dead insects into the cups formed by the sessile leaves increases the rate at which seeds are produced. Thus, implying that it is a partially carnivores plant.

A few species of teasel such as Cut-leaved teasel (Dipsacus laciniatus) is both used for their cultivation whilst Fuller’s teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) is known for its use in the textile industry before the industrial revolution. The dried teasel flower heads were used to raise the nap on cloth. Dipsacus saponin C is a chemical found in teasel plants that has the medically properties so that it acts as a procoagulant. This means that blood can clot much more easily, which makes it interesting when looking at the future of medicine.

The seeds are an important winter food resource for bird species such as European Goldfinch and House Sparrow. They can be seen to “tease” the seeds from the plant.  Many people grow this plant in their garden to encourage birds to visit during the colder months. When the plant is blooming, they are also a valuable source of nectar for our bees.

October – Himalayan Balsam

September has seen some hot days scattered in between cooler ones, with the remnants of summer still lingering. You have probably noticed most of the flowers are starting to die off and everywhere you look is becoming slightly less colourful. I’ve chosen to do Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) this month due to studying it recently in Biology.

This is a plant that if you know what you are looking for it is actually a lot more common than you would have previously thought. It grows to a size of around 1 to 3 metres so is quite hard to miss. The stem can vary from a soft green to slightly red-tinged. Botanists describe the leaves as “lanceolate” which refers to its shape being like a lance. The flowers are pink with a hooded shape and are around 3 to 4 cm tall. If you were to pull some leaves off the plant and crush them up, then you would smell a strong musty smell which to the trained nose is instantly recognisable. Below the leaf stems the plant has glands that produce a stick, sweet smelling and you can sometimes see bees flying about around the leaves.

Like any flower, there isn’t just one name for Impatiens glandulifera. Common names include Policeman’s Helmet, Bobby Tops and Gnome’s Hatstand which all originate from the flowers being hat-shaped. An unusual name of Kiss-me-on-the-mountain comes from the fact that the plant originates in the Himalayan mountain range. The scientific names comes from impatiens meaning “impatient”, referring to how the seeds are disperse, and glándula meaning “small gland” and ferre “to bear”.

It is quite a controversial plant, due to its rapid establishment across the globe, it is seen as an invasive weed species. The species was introduced into the country in 1839, at the same time as Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogweed. Its method of seed dispersal involves seed pods exploding and being that the plant can reach up 3 metres, its seeds can spread up to 5 metres away. You will commonly see it on river banks. These two combined can lead to mass spread of seeds and there have been cases where plants on the edge of rivers can spread their seeds for the entire length of the river system as the seeds can survive for up to 2 years in water. It can severely compete against native species and scientists think that it may exhibit allelopathy (the excretion of toxins that negatively affect neighbouring plants).

Whether you like it or not there is always a benefit to this plant – you eat it! The green seed pods, seeds and young leaves are all edible whilst the flowers can be turned into a jam.  Writing about this plant has been quite helpful as it has helped me realise there is actually one in the college grounds right outside my classroom. Many people would recommend digging it up because of the label of “Invasive species” but personally I would leave it alone as it is great source of nectar for our bees.

September – Rosebay Willowherb

I was a bit stuck for a flower this month as the recent hot weather has caused lots of plants to start wilting and I reckon that during some of the hottest days some of them even stopped producing nectar for our bees. Something that I have seen whilst walking though is the Rosebay Willowherb (Chamaenerion angustifolium).

For those of you that are uncommon with this plant, it stands around one and a half metres tall. The flowers consist of deep pinkish-purple tall spikes. Between June and September, you will catch this plant flowering. The stalk tends to be a light brown colour and the flowers branch off of it laterally. Being a herbaceous perennial means that they have stems that die at the end of the growing season but parts of the plant survive either close to or under the ground. After ripening the seed pods split open to reveal fluffy seeds that you may sometimes see floating in the wind. It is estimated that each capsule holds 300-500 seeds and for the average plant there are around 80,000 separate seeds.

Rosebay Willowherb is most commonly found in areas of disuse such as railway banks, wasteland, and disturbed woodland. It is not recommended to grow this in your garden because of its rapid spread due to the fact that the long protruding roots spread and give rise to new leafy shoots producing large weed patches. It is viewed as an invasive species in many people’s eyes. On the Isle of Wight, it suddenly appeared in abundance on an area of woodland destroyed by fire in 1909. Its colonisation can be a result of coppicing as it likes the disturbance in the soil whilst not being restricted by the canopy. It is suspected by some botanists that the sudden spread of rosebay willowherb was due to the introduction of the North American form that has 72 chromosomes while the native form has 36. Seed germination occurs more successful in a moist atmosphere and thus it is much more suited to the United Kingdom’s climate than native America.

The scientific name angustifolium is constructed from angustus meaning ‘narrow’ and folium meaning ‘leaved’ or ‘leaf’. The common name of “Rosebay Willowherb” goes back all the way to 1597 in the book Gerard’s Herbal. It says that it is because it resembles the wild rose and the leaves look like that of bay. Another name that it is referred as is “fireweed” which derives from the species abundance as a coloniser on burnt sites after forest fires.

August – Lavender

The first thing you notice about Lavender (Lavandula angustifola) is the aromatic smell that wafts through the air. In the Lavender family, sometimes referred to as Genus, there are 47 different species. The Genus includes annual (short lived) herbaceous perennial plants as well as shrub like perennials. In most species of lavender the leaf shape is simple whilst a select few species have toothed or pinnate (feather shaped) leaves. This variety is relative to the location where the plant natively grew and evolved to adapt to its surroundings.

Flowers form in whorls. This botany term means that the flowers radiate from a single point and then wrap around the stem. A whorl consists of at least 3 elements. The flowers can be blue, violet, lilac or blackish purple. Different varieties of lavender grow to different heights but they can be anywhere between small flowers to larger shrubs.

Bees absolutely love Lavender. A recent study that the University of Sussex recently undertook shows that Lavender is one of the top 5 flowers that bees like to visit. In particular bumblebees seemed particularly attracted to varieties of lavender including Grosso, Hidcote Giant and Gros blue.

It’s not just bees that use lavender, mankind have been using it for centuries. Ancient Egyptians used it in the mummification process as well as for a perfume. When Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened in 1922, the smell of lavender could still be faintly recognised, even after nearly 3000 years. Both the Greeks and the Romans exploited the flower for its antiseptic qualities but the Arabs were the first civilisation to actively farm it.

Another example of humans using lavender for health benefits is during the Black Plague in 17th Century England. Supposedly, the fresh smelling lavender could ward off the plague- but we now know this to be completely false.

The English world lavender is generally thought to have derived from the old French word “lavandre” which ultimately came from the Latin “larve” which means to wash. On the other hand, a few Latin specialists believe that is may be derived from the Latin “livere” meaning blueish. Different varieties of lavender also refer to different species like so:

  • English Lavender refers to L.angustifolia
  • Spanish Lavender may be used for L.stoechas , L.dentata or L.lanta
  • French Lavender is used for either L.stoechas or L.dentata

May – Comfrey

This is a plant that I am not too familiar with so have had to do my research. However, that is one of the best parts about this article, you learn something new each time.

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) can be found on river banks, near ponds and in other damp grassy places. They belong to the same family as Borage and Forget-me-nots. Just like these other flowers from its family, it has hairy stalks and long rough leaves. Between May and June, the flowers from drooping clusters of cream or blue-purple. The petals from a small but crisp shape of a bugle. You are most likely to find small plants around 5 to 15 centimetres (2-6 inches) high but it can grow into massive plants up to 1.5 metres (5 feet). There are quite a lot of different species of Comfrey including White, creeping and tuberous Comfrey.

Comfrey was introduced into England as a medicinal plant by Knights returning from the Crusades. Because of its wound healing properties, monks began to grow it for their apothecaries.  The Latin officinale means “of the apothecary” and the “Symphytum” means growing together. There is actually science behind these ideas. Comfrey has been found to contain the alkaloid allantoin, which repairs and replaces cell of damaged connective tissue such as cartilage in bones and blood. It is also the only land plant to contain the vitamin B12 which means it is a useful food source for vegans.

With the Queen laying at maximum capacity this month to get the population increased in time for the honey flow in July, this flower blooms just at the correct time to help boost honey production. However, you may know that the flowers are too long for the shorter-tonged honey bees. One of the first bumblebees to wake up from hibernation, Bombus pratorum, bites into the base from the outside of the plant. Honeybees find these holes left in Comfrey flowers and exploit the damage by collecting the nectar.

April – Crocus

The Crocus (Crocus) can be seen all over the place currently. In the past few weeks, they have been pushing through the soil and springing out of the ground in large groups. It is one of the first group of flowers that always seem to be ready for the bees as they begin the pollen collecting season.

In total there are 75 different species of the Crocus family. The most common being (Crocus vernus). Their distinctive purple petals with the bright orange stamen. Unlike some familiar plants, Crocus have 3 stamen and only one style.

For those of you unaware, the style is the tube that connects the plants ovaries with the Stigma which receives the pollen.  The Stamen are made up of the Anther, which contains male reproductive cells, and the Filament, which supports the Anther. They have medium sized petals that encircle the inner parts of the flower. These petals can come in many different colors including, purple, yellow and white. Most Crocuses have between 3 to 5 petals. Large patches of land are covered in them as they like to grow close together. Sometimes they grow densely, and a carpet of purple can be seen.

With every flower there is history behind how it got its name, but the Crocus truly is quite strange. In Ancient Greece, over 2000 years ago, there was a boy called Krokus. He was very unhappy with his love affair with his fiancée Smilax. The Gods of the time weren’t very happy with this so they “justly” decided to turn him into a plant bearing the same name.

As for the bees, they seem to love Crocuses. I recently went to Sir Harold Hiller’s Arboretum and they had lots of Crocuses out. Not only were they nice looking but they were covered with bees. There were plenty of honey bees out but also quite a few bumblebees. In particular, I spotted a Queen Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) which can be identified by the orange hairs on the end of her abdomen.

Overall, Crocuses are a pleasant flower to have in your gardens or apiaries. Let’s just hope they stay around for a while longer.

March -Daffodil

I don’t think I could go much longer without mentioning the daffodils. As they are the flower of March I think it’s time we shed some spring sunlight onto them. These have been springing up from the ground and flowering over the last month or so. Now we are in March they are in full bloom and their addition of colour to the ever greening hedgerows is unmissable. One of the amazing thigs with daffodils is that the time they flower is very temperature based. This gives a locality effect where you merely have to walk 1000 metres or so for there to be a change in whether they are in bloom or still in bud.

Their flowers can vary in colour from the lightest of yellows and even whites to dark orange. They have green leafless stems which are usually between 6-20 inches tall (15-50 cm). The petals form a trumpet shape. For those of you interested, the proper name for all the petals of a flower is called a corolla. Inside them, especially with daffodils, you will find the corona. This is like a second flower inside the first. It is commonly known that you can plant daffodils from bulbs but what some people don’t realise (including myself until I did some research) was that you can actually grow daffodils from seeds. My favourite sort of daffodils are the white ones with the orange centres.

Some daffodil fun facts:

  • The leaves and bulb contain a toxin called Lycorine which keeps predators away.
  • Due to the toxic sap they should not be kept in the vase with other plants as this can harm them.
  • Florists can develop allergic reaction on the skin called “daffodil itch” after preparing floral arrangements made of daffodils.
  • Ancient Romans cultivated daffodils and believed that sap extracted from the flowers possesses healing properties.
  • It is the national flower of Wales and is worn on St David’s Day every 1st March

Now you may be wondering why I am talking about Daffodils as honey bees don’t tend to like them. Well, native species of bumblebees adore the wide open flower heads and will happily collect pollen from them. It is important not to just care for our own honey bees but also the wild ones. Without them it would be a much less colourful world.