Country diary: defiant flowers raise a stink on woodland floor

Panorama of a city business district with office buildings and skyscrapers and superimposed data, charts and diagrams related to stock market, currency exchange and global finance. Blue line graphs with numbers and exchange rates, candlestick charts and financial figures fill the image with a glowing light. Sunset light.

At the far end of the quarry, workers in spindleberry hi-vis use a pile-driving rig to hammer a yellow-headed nail into the ground, then conceal it under a traffic cone. The surrounding woods mind their own business. Trees turn inwards from what sunlight is left, but other greens are alive on the woodland floor and strange flowers mind stranger business.

In the wood below the limestone quarry is a loose cluster of plants of stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus. The evergreen leaves are unique, with digitate leaflets, blue-green, saw-edged; the lower ones, each with three to nine segments, rise from two arches on the tip of the leaf stalks like elongated versions of the comb-like antennae of cockchafers. The uppermost leaves thicken into a tufty yellowy-green cluster protecting pale flower buds and, in defiance of the season, will open soon into cup bells with maroon lips.

Like the red-, white- and purple-flowered garden species and varieties, these are Christmas or Lenten roses, which bloom from January to April. However, H foetidus is native to Welsh and southern English woods on limestone or chalk. “Hellebore” is derived from the Greek, “to injure food” and all parts of the plant are toxic, with glucocides causing delirium, vomiting and even death. Ancient Greek folklore speaks of the seer Melampus healing the princess of Argos with Helleborus nigra, which has now been discovered to have neurological properties effective in the treatment of mental disorders. The foetidus part means stinking, but it doesn’t pong, like the stinking iris (Iris foetidissima) also found in woods. Its crushed leaves are supposed to smell a bit meaty, but since Covid robbed me of my sense of smell I can’t tell anyway.

Something about the upper leaves and flower buds is attracting insects, not poisoning them: there are clusters of aphids and small flies feeding on what the plant exudes. And this may be connected to colonising yeasts that evaporate organic compounds, raising the temperature of its flowers to attract pollinators. There is a community of life on the hellebore, a reminder of the microcosms that make a wood. Drink with the aphids to a (not so) stinking new year.

o This is for our esteemed country diary editor Anne-Marie Conway, leaving today, with thanks for making us legible, and we wish her health, happiness and good fortune.


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