The weather is getting better, and signs of growth can be seen outside. Lots of flowers will be growing during spring in the hope of being pollinated and producing seed. Tulips and daffodils are well-known spring flowers, but what about others? Here are four flowers to look out for now and over the next few months.
Snowdrops (Galanthus species)
Snowdrops – an early sign of spring in Britain.
Snowdrops, often found in large groups known as drifts and flowering between January and March, are one of the first signs that spring is on its way. Like daffodils and tulips, snowdrops grow from bulbs which provide a source of energy for the growing plant.
This explains why they can flower so early in the year. Flowering early allows snowdrops to take advantage of the lack of competition from other plants just after winter – the trees they grow under will have shed their leaves so the plants will not be in shade.
Interestingly, although snowdrops are thought of as a native British plant, they were first recorded in the wild in the 18th Century, having been introduced to Britain as ornamentals in the early 16th century at around the same time as tulips.
Heartsease (Viola tricolor)
Hearsease is an ancestor of the modern pansy. Photo: Jörg Hempel/Wikimedia Commons.
The ancestor of the modern pansy, heartsease grows in short grassland on farms or wasteland and can be seen flowering between April and September. It produces purple, blue, yellow or white blooms, and often three different colours can be seen on the same flower.
Heartsease has long been used in many traditional remedies for multiple ailments, including respiratory problems. Extracts from the plant have been found to have antimicrobial properties, and also have anti-inflammatory effects.
This may be due to the presence of compounds in the plant known as cyclotides – small cyclic proteins that are interesting candidates for drug development. In fact, several cyclotides from heartsease have been found to have anti-cancer activities, so may be developed into anti-cancer drugs. Not just a pretty flower but a producer of important compounds too!
Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa)
The wood anemone blooms between March and May.
The wood anemone is found in ancient woodlands across the UK as well as graveyards, parks and gardens. Its white flowers bloom between March and May, before the tree canopy becomes too dense.
Despite having a lovely flower much visited by pollinators (especially hoverflies) most of the seeds it produces are infertile and the wood anemone mainly spreads through thick roots known as rhizomes. Rhizomes are amazing – if they are separated into different pieces, each piece can form a new plant.
Knowing this, it is easy to see how the wood anemone can spread to form dense carpets in woodland. Rhubarb and asparagus also grow from rhizomes, and the rhizomes of some plants, such as ginger, galangal and turmeric, are used in cooking.
Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis)
The lily of the valley, although beautiful, contains highly toxic compounds. Photo: Lusi/RGB Stock
Lily of the valley flowers late in spring, from May onwards. Its clusters of small flowers are very sweet-smelling.
But don’t be deceived; all parts of the plant are highly toxic, including the red berries it produces after flowering. Even if ingested in small amounts, the plant can cause abdominal pain, vomiting and a reduced heart rate.
This is due to the presence of at least 38 different cardiac glycosides – sugar-containing compounds that disrupt heart function. Plants have evolved to make these compounds as secondary metabolites to keep herbivorous animals at bay (no one likes being eaten!).
Cardiac glycosides from some plant species are now being used for the treatment of several heart conditions – another example of medicine finding a use for plant metabolites.
Claire is a PhD student at the John Innes Centre. She tweets as @ClaireDrurey.