Country diary: ground flora race to bloom before the tree canopy fills in

Egglestone, Teesdale: Wood sorrel may appear vulnerable, but it is a tenacious little plant with a smart survival strategy

I had come to this woodland on the steep banks of the River Tees, downstream from Abbey Bridge, in search of an unusual form of wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) that I last found here four years ago.

The typical flowers of this demure woodlander are outwardly pure white, with yellow spots inside at their base and delicate lilac veins radiating towards their edges. This mutant’s petals were a startling shade of purple.

A typical wood sorrel flower
A typical wood sorrel flower. Photograph: Phil Gates

It takes just a few minutes’ walk through this wooded gorge to realise why new tree plantations can never mitigate loss of ancient woodland. The ground flora here has the kind of complexity that takes centuries to develop. There are vast swathes of overlapping tongue-shaped leaves of ramsons and snow-white drifts of wood anemones, with their filigree leaves as intricately interlaced as a William Morris wallpaper pattern. Among these, cuckoo-pint, sweet woodruff and dog-violet, shield fern, bluebell and red campion; fresh new foliage covering what was until a few weeks ago a deep layer of last autumn’s fallen oak and sycamore leaves.

Miraculously, in this springtime race to bloom, attract a pollinator and set seed before the tree canopy casts deep shadow, the little purple patch of wood sorrel, with its shamrock-shaped leaves that fold down like a triangular tent during rain or when darkness falls, had persisted.

Wood sorrel flowers attract few pollinating insects, and the purple-flowered plant seemed to be no exception. But for all its apparent vulnerability, this tenacious species has a trick for reducing the need for them: additional cleistogamous flowers, which remain as closed buds, self-pollinating and setting seeds unaided.

Purple-flowered wood sorrel
‘This mutant’s petals were a startling shade of purple.’ A rare purple-flowered wood sorrel. Photograph: Phil Gates

It has another important survival strategy, linked to the decay of surrounding mature trees in old woodlands. Its slender rhizomes creep under the blankets of moss that cover fallen dead trunks and branches, as they slowly moulder into the soil. The purple wood sorrel has taken advantage of one such platform, raising it above the surrounding carpet of woodland plants that threaten to smother it.

I imagine it will survive here until its decaying log finally crumbles into the soil, and it drowns under ramsons foliage, unless another dead branch falls within reach of its rhizomes, and rescues it.


Phil Gates

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Country diary: a jewel-eyed destroyer infests the knapweed
Romaldkirk, Teesdale: One common name for this plant is hardheads and thanks to picture-winged fly larvae some heads are harder than others

Phil Gates

02, Mar, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: this lofty tree is a pandemic survivor
Crook, County Durham: Once as quintessentially English as a Constable painting, wych elms have been laid low by disease

Phil Gates

15, Apr, 2020 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: my heart dances with the daffodils
Letah Wood, Northumberland: Sunlight slants through the beeches and the hillside is fresh and green with wild garlic

Susie White

02, Apr, 2020 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: bog bean adventures
New Forest: Janet Elizabeth Case braved treacherous sink holes and snagging briars to see these enchanting flowers 80 years ago

Graham Long

14, May, 2018 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: spring pilgrimage to an uncanny bluebell wood
Wrekin Forest, Shropshire: Blue still shimmers across Black Hayes’ secret valley slopes, but few areas are as lush as usual

Paul Evans

02, May, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: this spring belongs to the red dead-nettle
Claxton, Norfolk: The unexpected super-abundance of one particular plant at this time of year is always a welcome surprise

Mark Cocker

16, Apr, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: swelling buds await spring's starting gun
Durham City: Sycamore and red-berried elder are among the first trees to flower here

Phil Gates

20, Mar, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: quarry spoil is dingy skipper heaven
Hawthorn Dene, Durham: Only bird’s-foot trefoil flourishes here – but that suits these picky butterflies and the green tiger beetle that preys on them

Phil Gates

15, May, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: Tawny owls are on the prowl
Comins Coch, Ceredigion Spring has returned to the woodland after the drab shades of winter, but, with predators in the skies, one inexperienced young inhabitant must learn fast if it is to survive the season

John Gilbey

12, May, 2022 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: this landscape has little to offer a shy fieldfare
Crook, County Durham: starving birds lose their inhibitions if apples are available in gardens

Phil Gates

15, Mar, 2018 @5:30 AM