Henk Beentje's Winsham botany walks
Dr Henk Beentje is an active member of our community, and an elected member of Winsham Parish Council. He has been a researcher at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew and editor of the publication series 'Flora of Tropical East Africa' for many years.
Henk also has a great interest and love for our local flora and fauna, and his knowledgeable commentary on his walks in and around Winsham, with the pictures, will, help inform our own ramblings.

Wild plants along Winsham lanes –

mid-May 2021




It is the 13th of May when I am writing this and the rain is coming down steadily. After almost four weeks without rain it finally started on the 8th, and the plants love it.

The hedges are getting leafier by the day: bright green for Hazel, Hawthorn and Blackthorn, reddish for Field maple. Brambles, Nettles and Bracken are shooting up and through but luckily there are a lot of other May plants as well. Hawthorn is coming into flower, while Oak has been flowering for a while – just not very visibly as its flowers (among the young leaves) are tiny and yellowish, the males hanging down in catkins, the females separate in small groups and more upright.

But it is the herbs that stand out most at this season – Winsham is lucky that our hedges are like small linear woodlands, and some of these hedges are full of colour. There is the blue of Bluebells (along Cow Down Road or upper Limekiln Lane, for instance), and of the much smaller Speedwell; the yellow of Yellow archangel; the white of Cow parsley, Stitchwort and Jack-by-the-hedge and, here and there, patches of Ramsons (such as N of Whatley, and SW of Purtington); the purple of Bush vetch and Ground ivy; the pink of Campion and Shining cranesbill. And so many shades of green! Dark green for Holly, Nettles, the upcoming Hogweed and Ivy, bright green for many grasses, young Dock, Cranesbill and Jack-by-the-hedge, and the curious yellow-green of the Lords-and-ladies. This last one’s leaves were everywhere a month ago, and now they have almost all gone, to be replaced by a pale hood shielding the reddish flowering stalk.

Many Dandelions have gone into fruit, and I have seen whole fields topped by Dandelion clocks; not something farmers like to see. In moist grassy fields there are stands of the lovely Cuckooflower,  also called Lady’s smock – hard to believe this is a close relative of Hairy bittercress!


 Some wild plant facts:

·       it is a good time if you are keen on garlic. Ramsons, of course, are also known as Wild garlic, and a leaf or two in your cheese sandwich spices it up nicely. But Jack-by-the-hedge, also known as Garlic mustard, can do the same, though their leaves are best before the plant flowers. The Orangetip butterfly lays its eggs on the youngest leaves just underneath the flowers.

·       Lords-and-Ladies or Cuckoo-pint has a strange flowering structure. Hidden within that pale yellow-green hood is a stalk on which the flowers stand:  females at the base, males above them, and above the males a ring of hairs that form an insect trap. The flowering stalk warms up and releases a vile smell, which attracts tiny insects that get trapped in the hairs: their only escape is through the flowers, where they get dusted with pollen before they can escape, to fly to the next trap and pollinate their host!

·       Our Bluebells are a sign of ancient woodland, and we must have had plenty of it! They provide nectar for a range of insects. Bluebell woods have a tradition in folklore of being linked to fairy magic: they were rung to call the fairies to a gathering, but hearing such a ring would bring very bad luck to humans. Whatever the truth of that – Bluebell woods are enchanting!


 Plants along Winsham lanes-early April 2021

It is definitely looking more lush than a month ago! Our hedgerows are flushing with leaf buds for Hawthorn, Sycamore, Elder, Privet and Hazel; and Blackthorn, which flowers before it gets leaves, gives us white frothy drifts. Through these shrubs the climbers are also coming into leaf: Bramble, Dog rose, HoneyMale ferncrozierssuckle. But it is in the road and lane verges that the lushness is happening: the leaves of grasses, hogweed, cleavers, nettles are shooting up with bewildering speed. Cow parsley goes as fast as any of these and more of them are coming into flower, but we are still long before the peak, when they will form almost continuous standGoat willows along some lanes! I have seen one or two Lords and ladies in flower, as well, but these are also before their prime, I think they are even more common this year than usual. Some other ‘early’ flower sightings are Campion, Vetch, Ramsons and Jack-by-the-hedge (I wish I knew some proper Somerset names for these! I am using the names as they appear in Stace’s New flora of the British Isles); Bluebells are also coming on well, with individuals in flower here and there; but well before the glorious peak. The first Bracken spears are coming up, with the other ferns such as Tongue fern and Male fern already fully more developed – except here they have been mown, when these are also sending out their young ‘croziers’, like bishop staffs.

Last month I sent in my report on early March plants on the 9th; the day after I saw my first stand of flowering Wood anemones along Leigh Lane. There are now many more stands of them, like on the Chalkway, enjoy them while you can! Butterbur is another plant that likes to appear in stands, rather than as scattered individuals, but in this case it is because they spread by rhizomes,ground ivy underground root systems. Well into flower are Stitchwort, in many a roadside; Dandelion and Daisy; Dead nettle and Ground ivy; and still our lovely Primroses and Wood violets (I saw more white ones at Sticklepath, but violet ones are now appearing here and there in Winsham as well), though Celandines are going over by now. Many a Willow is in flower too, a glorious sight!

Here are some plants that are easily overlooked. Hairy bittercress is tiny, a few inches at most, but it is very common along fields and probably in your veg patch, too. And this strange-looking thing is a young Marsh horsetail, growing in moist sites. It is not quite a fern, but not too far away from it. These kind oMarshhorsetail3f plants, the Equisetums, grew in enormous stands to a hundred feet tall when dinosaurs roamed the Earth… and just today, the 11tyh of April, I walked past the brook at Chalkway and saw Golden saxifrage in flower – tiny (less than an inch) but oh so pretty.

And finally, this year the Oak leaves seem to be well ahead of those of the Ash in development: Oak before Ash, in for a splash (rather than a soak)?




Some wild plant facts:

·       Hairy bittercress may be small, but it is very common – and edible, with a taste between cress and rocket. Raw leaves are good in salads.

·       Marsh horsetail has its leaves in whorled branches along the jointed stem; the pattern of spacing of the nodes, increasingly close towards the stem top, inspired John Napier to invent logarithms. This plant is poisonous to grazing animals.

·       The ‘flower’ of Dandelion is really an arrangement of tiny flowers, between 150 and 200 of them. Daisy ‘flowers’ are built in the same way: there are 15-30 white flowers along the edge, the rays; and the yellow middle is composed of hundreds of minute ‘disc’ florets, arranged in a Fibonacci whorl. Aren’t plants mathematical?

·       Blackthorn, now in full flower, later produces inky dark fruits: sloes. We have some nice sloe gin maturing! It has long been associated with witchcraft (blackthorn, not our sloe gin) and witches’ wands were said to be made out of the wood – as are excellent walking sticks.

·       You can eat hawthorn buds – they have a nice nutty flavour!


Earlier in the year....

March 2021-Early March plants along Winsham Lanes

It is early March, and walking the Winsham lanes the Snowdrops are going over at last. The yellows are taking over from the white: stands of Celandine and Primroses, with the occasional Dandelion. Because the hedges have been cut or flailed, more light is reaching the ground, and within the hedgerows the remaining greens such as Ivy and Holly are joined by newly emerging plants. Leaves of Lords and Ladies are everywhere; at Whatley and at Bridge I have seen stands of young Ramsons leaves; here and there on steep banks the round leaves of Pennywort are a different green from anything else. And of course ferns stand out at this season, partly because there are so many of them, partly because there most other plants are still at a young stage. Hart’s tongue fern can be seen almost anywhere: it is our only fern with undivided leaves, and those leaves are long and narrow, and leathery. Despite its name, Common polypody is less common, though you can find a stand of it in, or on, many a hedgerow or lane bank. Its leaves are dark green and leathery, and divided almost to the midrib; the undersides have spores (ferns’ version of flowers) in round dots along the leaflet midribs. The final fern we can spot is the Male fern, which has its leaves twice divided, and much less leathery than the other two. Our commonest fern of all, Bracken, is still dormant underground.

I should not forget the hazel that is in flower everywhere: the catkins that we see are clusters of male flowers, the female catkins are much smaller and not as obvious.

Something that is also not obvious to most people, but common as muck in most of our hedgerows, is Dog’s mercury. It is in flower right now with tiny greenish flowers, it produces a horrible smell when crushed, and it is pretty poisonous, too - hence its older name, Boggart posy.

Cow parsley is of course also very common, and later will fill many roadsides; at the moment it is still unfurling its leaves, and is still less than a foot high, but some of them already have some tiny flowers among their young leaves.

Other ‘earlies’ are Wild strawberries, of which a few are already coming in flower, such as near Hollowells; and Field speedwell with its blue flowers in a field near Schoolhouse. I have even seen my first Stitchwort in flower on Cow Down Lane, on the 9th of March, much earlier than it should.

I will end with a hidden gem. Wood violet (or Sweet violet) is rare, and not easy to find as it is a very low plant; but if you spot the flowers you are in for a treat, as they smell very sweet. Winsham and Thorncombe ones seem to be white, which is a much rarer form than the usual blue-violet or purple.


Some plant facts:

·       the name Dandelion comes from the French ‘dents de lion’, lion’s teeth, and the leaf margins do look like wicked teeth.

·       if Hart’s tongue fern is, as they say, an indicator of ancient woodland, then the whole of Winsham must have been covered in ancient woodland! And it was, mostly by Small-leaved lime trees – two thousand years ago.

·       Celandine provides nectar for emerging bees and other insects at a time when not much else is in flower.

·       Ramsons are allied to onions and garlic, and the leaves certainly smell like it! In late spring there are fantastic stands of it along the ravine-like roads leading up to Dinnington.

·       There is a story you can only smell Wood violets once, as they steal your sense of smell… this has a grain of truth in it, as they contain a chemical that switches off your smell receptors briefly.

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