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The last few weeks have seen a confusion of spring sunshine and night-time frost, potentially delaying the appearance of some tree buds.
Underneath the still bare branches though, you may find forests of stars, as wood anemones take advantage of the clear line of sight to the sky.
A friend thought they were called ‘wooden enemies’ as a child. The misnomer is the opposite of their true origins. A perennial herb of the buttercup family, they thrive in woodland, preferring the dappled shade tree cover gives. That said, there are none to be found in the wood behind our house. Where they can be seen, however, is in amongst the winter grass on a slope in next door’s garden.
In the recent cold mornings, the flower heads have been bent low on their thin stalks, petals held close against the frost. The green lobes of their leaves fan out below them, coated in a fine filigree of ice crystals that melt at a hint of heat in the air.
By mid-morning, the small flowers have opened their white faces to the warmth of the sun. Each petal is diaphanous as a butterfly wing, bright veined in sunlight, revealing a starburst of gold anthers at their centre.
Also known as the windflower, ironically they have no need of wind to proliferate. Like bracken, their growth is underground. Their rhizomes – stems that side-shoot below the earth – grow at a rate of six feet every 100 years.
According to the conservation charity Plantlife, this slow growth makes their presence a good indicator of ancient woodland. This small garden patch is only a few feet across, growing in the shade of a pampas grass and self-seeding fir trees, but it might have grown from some scrap of stem, left in soil that once held the roots of much older trees.
The wind of the flower’s name comes from Greek mythology: the wind god Anemos sent anemones as heralds of his coming in the spring. Their spring appearance, however, is another nod to their woodland origins. They have evolved to catch the direct sunlight that makes it to the understory before the leaf-canopy becomes too dense.
The reason for their success here though, and not on the wood-covered bank further up the hill, probably lies in the fence that protects the garden from browsing animals. One study showed wood anemone to be vulnerable to roe deer grazing. These diminutive deer are another species which can thrive in deciduous woodland and their bark can often be heard on the wind.
In a month or so, when the leaves are out, there’s a chance we’ll see new twin fawns light-footing through the trees. So, for now at least, this cluster of wood anemone will stay in the garden.