Along paths and under trees, the yellow stars of Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna) blink out from masses of dark green heart-shaped leaves. Celandine is one of the first woodland flowers of the year, blooming at the end of February and heralding the arrival of spring. Its name comes from the Greek word chelidon meaning ‘swallow’, whose arrival is another sure sign of spring (although swallows generally start to arrive in London in April).
The tiny white flowers of the annual Common Chickweed (Stellaria media) blend into the masses of bright green foliage covering the ground. The stems of inconspicuous and very common plant grow to a length of 35 centimetres, with the pairs of small oval leaves folding closed every evening for protection. Chickweed sprouts masses of flowers, each lasting only a day or two, but producing about ten seeds each – this means that each plant may produce about 2500 seeds! These are much loved by chaffinches, other birds, and ground beetles.
You can find both Purple and White Dead-Nettle on the Common. The leaves of these plants look very similar to nettles, but they don’t sting, hence the name. But if you look at their flowers, you can see that they’re not related to nettles, belonging to the Lamiaceae family together with lavender, sage and mint. Growing in meadows and alongside roads, these early spring flowers are a good source of nectar and pollen for insects with long tongues, like the red mason bee. White Dead-Nettle (Lamium album) grows to about 80 centimetres tall, while Purple Dead-Nettle (Lamium purpureum) is less than half that size, although at this time of year both are only about 15 centimetres tall yet.
The Common Primrose (Primula vulgaris) may look familiar, since its cultivars (cultivated varieties) in various bright colours are widely used in horticultural arrangements in gardens and parks. The wild primrose is slightly smaller than its ornamental cousins, growing in woodland clearings and under hedgerows. Its pale, five-petalled flowers provide an important nectar source for butterflies. While some may be garden escapes, primroses are indicators of ancient woodlands.
Another yellow spring flower, the Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) flourishes in wet places: meadows, ditches and woodlands, growing well in shade. In Ancient Greek, kálathos means goblet, while palustris is Latin for ‘of the marsh’, referring to the flower’s shape and habitat. It’s a larger member of the buttercup family, about 50 centimetres tall, with large, kidney-shaped leaves growing on long stems in a rosette. Its long flowering stems carry several yellow flowers each. This plant is mildly toxic and can cause skin irritation if handled excessively.
Several species of willows have started flowering on the Common. The Weeping Willow (such as the one by Beverley Brook, Salix x sepulcralis ‘Chrysocoma’, Golden Weeping Willow), is easy to identify by its drooping branches. This large tree often grows on riverbanks, its branches drooping into the water and sheltering wildlife.
The Crack Willow (Salix fragilis) got its name from its habit of often splitting with loud cracks. Its leaves are long and oval, similar to the Weeping Willow, but the habit of this tree is upright. Its male catkins are long,thin and yellow, while the females are green.
Unlike its larger relatives, the Goat Willow (Salix caprea) only grows to a height of up to 10 metres. This tree has oval leaves with a pointed tip that curves to one side. Its soft grey male catkins resemble a cat’s paw, hence its other name, pussy willow. As they develop in spring, the grey oval catkins elongate and become yellow with pollen. All three of these willows are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are found on separate trees.