Primula vulgaris

Spring in a British woodland

Spring in Britain has a slow, sweet delicacy that I find so different from spring in Virginia, where I used to live. Spring in Virginia is stunning, with blooming redbuds and dogwood harmonizing with blue mountains and the first green leaves. But despite its beauty, spring never seems to last very long and most years you can feel summer breathing down its neck with a heat that causes the earliest blossoms to prematurely surrender.

Not so in Britain, where spring takes its sweet time, stretching out with weeks of flowers that follow in well-paced succession. The snowdrops kick things off, along with the first few buds of blackthorn. Then come the lesser celandine, dog’s mercury, and wood anemone, right around the time the primroses light up the forest floors. Then cowslips take up the torch from the fading primroses. Lady’s smock, wild garlic, and the dog violet cover the ground while the wild cherries and sloes haze the the fields with white. Ancient pears and apples come online in abandoned orchards. Then bloom bluebells and the first orchids, just before the hawthorns and cow parsley froth the countryside into a white wonderland. The whole process lasts a good few months and is so stunning that when the last of the cow parsley fades I always feel a major let down.

There is an old coppice near the farm where I live in Kent, and I frequently walk through it on my evening rambles. The other week I was stunned to find the entire forest floor carpeted with yellow wild primroses, Primula vulgaris. I had never seen so many in my life, and the effect in the low evening sun was fascinating. Tucked amongst them were dog violets (Viola riviniana), early bluebells, and even a tiny barren strawberry, Potentilla sterilis.

Primroses do particularly well in old coppices and woodlands, which allow light in during spring. This increases the amount of seed produced and also encourages seeds to germinate. But then as the trees leaf out and the canopy closes, it creates a moist and shady environment that woodland plants need to thrive. With the decline in coppicing, there has been a decline in the spread of wild primroses.

I found a secret population of wild early purple orchids (Orchis mascula) last year, and was happy to find that this year they seem to have spread. This is just one clump on a bank full of orchids, which will begin blooming next month.

The first of the bluebells are just starting to bloom. I even found a white bluebell, which, if it is actually a native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and not a hybrid or introduced garden-escapee Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), is rare indeed.

Wood anemone, Anemone nemorosa, flowering along a streambank, surrounded by wild garlic, Allium ursinum. I’ve already enjoyed a spring tonic of wild garden and nettle soup this year.

One of my favorite British wildflowers, lady’s smock or cuckooflower, Cardamine pratensis, growing with the first feathery leaves of cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris.

Although I have devoted my life to gardening and had the opportunity to visit some of the finest gardens in the world, it is remarkable to me that the British woodland in spring is about as perfect a garden as one will ever see. Elegant in its simplicity, engaging in how plants naturally find their own “right place,” and long-blooming with perfectly timed succession, it provides a template for what gardens can and should be.

Mud season

It's that time of year again when the post-holiday reality of winter has set in and the ostensibly lengthening daylight seems to take one step forward and two steps back. In this part of the world sun is in short supply, and every week seems to bring gales and downpours. When it's not storming it's just miserably mizzling, hiding the sun for days on end. 

It's a real struggle to keep the faith, especially when the ground is too sodden to spend much time working in my own garden. Last weekend I tiptoed around slicing newly germinated weed seedlings from the clay mud. I might as well have been making bricks. 

One antidote I turn to every year is a long walk with the purposeful intention to hunt for beauty and emerging signs of spring. Yesterday I rambled (well, squelchily slid) a few miles around a nearby forest. Aptly named Moor Wood, it is a little patch of clearly acidic soil hosting many of the plants I so strongly associate with Scotland. Bracken and brambles, heather and rhododendrons, ferns and lichens galore. I suspect these patches had been planted as game cover for a large estate many years ago. As if on cue, I flushed a woodcock from the undergrowth. 

Nearer the villages were more definitive signs of spring, such as this day-glo patch of tiny Cyclamen coum growing along the (muddy) path. 

Snowdrops are beginning to bloom, narcissus are budded up, and I saw the year's first blooming native primrose, Primula vulgaris. 

So despite the mucky days of late winter there is hope to be found. And even if I don't love the mud, I did come across someone who seemed perfectly happy, ankle-deep and loving it.