Churchyard Nature Note with Andrew Tompsett

December 2017


Most of nature is resting, but some plants are on the move


Even as Christmas celebrations are in full swing it can be an interesting time to stroll through the churchyard. In mid-winter, while most plants and animals are resting, amazingly you may see some wild flowers as they begin to grow, pointing to the approaching spring some way ahead.

Snowdrops and celandines will not appear yet but we have already seen the first dwarf primrose flower on a sunny bank and you cannot escape noticing how fresh new leaves of Red Campion are pushing up and occasional flowers still exist in advance of the glorious display in May. Green honeysuckle shoots also appear very early but are vulnerable to frost.

Less showy, but remarkable for its early growth in many churchyards or here in Illogan mainly along our roadsides, is the Winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) with kidney-shaped leaves which appear in November and pale pink, sweetly scented male flowers following in December. Young leaves are attractive and slightly hairy and in the past when violets were a popular commercial flower in Cornwall, small bunches were made surrounded by winter heliotrope leaves rather than violet leaves. It was often planted near beehives to augment their nutrition when few other flowers were available. Did you know that the flowers and leaves of this heliotropic plant gradually follow the sun from east to west and during the night turn back to the east to greet the dawn?

One would not recommend the planting of this Petasites in the garden other than in a large bath or trough, such as one might do for mint. It is very invasive, blanketing all around and spreading rapidly by root cuttings not seed, as female plants are unknown in the UK to date.

Incidentally, although it is sometimes known as Sweet-scented coltsfoot it should not be confused with the true native Colt’s-foot (Tussilago farfara) which has a yellow, dandelion-like flower appearing in advance of hoof-shaped leaves, found along cliffs, waste-ground and sand-dunes.

Mention here may be made of another non-native plant known as the Three-cornered leek (Allium triquetrum) which produces early leaves but flowers at bluebell time. It is sometimes mistaken for white bluebells. Despite being attractive and incidentally edible, this is another introduced species causing concern because of the freedom with which it produces small easily-spread bulbs and crowds out our native bluebells.

If your walk takes you further along the Manningham path you may well discover, on the Platt, the small white scented flowers of a dwarf shrub called Sweet Box.(Sarcococca). Nearby is a larger shrub which is a dogwood (Cornus mas) grown for its small yellow flowers in January and February. By this time the rooks will be busy with nest building above your head.

So, there is a lot to look forward to, winter may be a resting time but Spring is exciting and not that far away.


Andrew Tompsett