Monday 13 January 2020

Green and buzzing!

Some of our earliest Spring flowers don't have colourful blooms to attract clouds of pollinators but perhaps their exceptionally early opening is enough of a draw in itself.

Stinking Hellebore with its cup shape flowers typically with a slight red tinge on the edge. This helps to distinguish it from Green Hellebore which also has much more open flowers. 

This seems to be the case with the Stinking Hellebore Helleborus foetidus which grows in woodlands on lime-rich rocks. Its discreetly nodding green cup-flowers smell slightly unpleasant to humans. However the odour clearly pulls in the bees as shown by the photos I snapped during a few minutes of observation.
Queen Bumble bee visiting the Stinking Hellebore flowers

A very early Solitary bee species looking for nectar on the Hellebores

Over the centuries, gardeners have selected strains of Stinking Hellebore with slightly more red-tinged petals for planting in gardens but the well known Christmas rose is actually a garden cultivar of Helleborus niger - a species of central Europe. It is quite likely that Stinking Hellebore was originally cultivated in gardens for its wide range of uses in herbal medicines. Even as far back as the first century AD, Pliny the Elder's Natural History records that it was used as a ''purgative for mania'' whilst Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy" (1621) cites

" borage and hellebore fill two scenes,
Sovereign plants to purge the veins
of melancholy and cheer the heart
of those black fumes which make it smart"

The plant is poisonous so it is definitely not recommended to try this in the era of modern medicine! However merely looking at the Queen bumble bees feasting on them after their long hibernation is a cheery sight and might help with the winter blues!

You may well find Stinking Hellebore growing near Spurge Laurel (Daphne laureola) which also bears green flowers and can sometimes be scented. Correctly this plant is neither a Spurge nor a Laurel and is most closely related to its more perfumed pink-flowered cousin Daphne merezeon which is often planted in gardens by doorways. Spurge Laurel was usually confined to the shrubbery, or at least this is where Gilbert White records planting it in his famous book ''The Natural History of Selbourne'' (1789) It was also often used as evergreen cover in pheasant shoots.

Spurge Laurel is much more toxic than Helleborus foetidus and in the United States where it is classed as an invasive plant, people are recommended to wear gloves whilst pulling it up.

Spurge laurel in flower

Curiously, a 1978 film featuring Laurence Olivier was named  "Daphne laureola" . The film depicts the joys and pains of young love and borrows from Greek myth where the naiad Daphne was transformed into a laurel to escape from Apollo's attentions!

Paying attention to these understated blooms will almost certainly show how important they are for the early spring pollinators. They may also support precocious insects which might have been lured forth unseasonably early by climate change and so could provide a link to supply continuous food for such insects in woodlands.