Sunday, 15 February 2009

Welcome Hellebore

A walk around the Downs south of Banstead this morning showed what twelve inches of snow does to the vegetation. Although most of the trees and scrub had sprung back after losing their load of snow, the grass and other herbaceous plants have a sorry, flattened, grey-brown appearance. The bright green shoots of recovery are not yet showing and the local rabbits seem to be having a hard time, as you walk past they carrying on browsing when normally they disappear the minute you appear.

This almost total greyness was only interrupted by the welcome presence of Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus). This plant never fails to please at this time of year with its bright green buds and flowers standing out like a beacon amongst the gloom. There is a small colony here and the plants all show the flattening effect of the recent snow and damage to the foliage. The flowers are not quite open yet but when they do they show a rim of red to the petals (the picture on the left was taken a few years ago). The flowers produce a considerable amount of nectar and must prove a valuable source of food for the early emerging bees and other insects.

This species normally starts to flower at this time or even earlier and is fairly common along the North Downs and elsewhere in Britain on chalk and limestone. It is one of two Helleborus species native to Britain, the other being Green Hellebore (H.viridis) that usually flowers a month or so later. Green Hellebore is much less common on the Downs, the nearest colony to here I know of is near Dorking and where it does occur it is usually much less conspicuous. Although a less showy plant, it can form large colonies such as shown in the lower photo of plants growing on the banks of the River Wye near Symond's Yat.

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