Periwinkle - April 2021
Vinca major and Vinca minor
Spring is well underway now, and in the dense ground foliage of woodlands, the wildflowers greater periwinkle (Vinca major) and the lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor) can be seen poking through all that green.
Both species of periwinkle have similar flowers. These have five petals which each have four distinct edges to them. They are violet-purple and three centimetres long. Flowers can be seen from early spring all the way until mid-summer. Solitary axillary means that the flower arises from the axil of the leaf or stem rather than branching off laterally. Leaves are opposite which means that two leaves arise from the stem at the same level on opposite sides. The leaves are a glossy dark green and have a leathery texture to the touch. V.major is slightly larger in proportions to V.minor, and this is the main way to tell them apart.
It gets its name from medieval Latin pervincula per which means ‘throughout’ and vinco ‘bind’. This is because it binds itself to the ground by putting out roots from notes on trailing stems. It is thought to hold magical powers and is said that if you carry a flower head on you at all times, the devil will not be able to take hold of you. In Italy it is seen as the flower of death, fiore di morte, as heretics were led to the stake wearing periwinkle garlands.
In regard to pollination, bee flies, bumbles and honeybees all prefer V.minor whilst long-tonged bumble bees and butterflies are seen on V.major. In my home apiary I have lesser periwinkle which crawls out from the hedge and often covers up a lot of the grass. Before inspections it is always fascinating to look at what is foraging in the flowers.
Blackthorn - March 2021
You may know the Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) by a more common name of a Sloe bush and there is often confusion where people think they are different plants. Well, I can reassure you they are the same thing, and for the sake of clarity in this article we will be referring to it as blackthorn.
Walking through a wooded area look for a spiny shrubby tree with black-purple twigs and small narrow leaves. The dark brown bark is smooth and twigs form straight shoots that develop into thorns. From experience, I can tell you that it isn’t advisable to accidently grab hold of one of the branches. White flowers will appear on shorter stalks between March and April. These either are singular or come in pairs. The white petals are longer than hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) which is often easily confused with this species. The flowers of blackthorn are hermaphrodite meaning they have both male and female parts. They have thin white filaments and bright yellow anther. Another quite noticeable feature of the flower is the sepal which if looking directly down the flower can be seen through gaps produced by the petals.
Whilst this plant is great for most pollinators at this time of year, giving them a boost in spring, it does have other uses. One of my favourites is that you can make sloe gin from the fruit that appears in autumn. Here is a link to a recipe that you can follow https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/sloe-gin. Good luck picking but mind for the thorns!
Goat Willow - February 2021
Goat willow (Salix caprea) is one of the harbingers of spring. A part of the very important group of trees in the Salix genus which provide an abundance of pollen and nectar in February and March.
Growing up to 10 metres when mature, these trees can live for over 300 years. Developing diamond shaped fissures with age, the bark is grey-brown to begin with. Catkins appear before the leaves appear on Goat Willow. If you look at individual leaves, their tips are slightly bent to one side. Like other willows, Goat Willow is dioecious which means that male and female flowers grow on separate trees. The male catkins appear stout, oval and look like cat’s paws, turning yellow when ripe with pollen whilst the female catkins are longer and green. Whilst pollen is not the male gamete, only male plants produce it so bees can only collect pollen from this sex. Both male and female plants produce nectar. After pollination, female catkins develop into woolly seeds.
In the north of the UK, willow branches are used instead of palm branches to celebrate Palm Sunday. In present times willows are associated with sadness and mourning but in biblical times they were seen as trees of celebration.
Whilst a superb plant for our bees, other bee species also collect pollen and nectar from its branches. Several species of butterfly and moth can be seen eating the leaves on warmer days. The tree has a symbiotic relationship with several mycorrhizal fungi. As the fungi cannot photosynthesis, they get their carbohydrates from the trees roots, whilst they break up valuable minerals in the soil for the tree to access far more easily.