Natural Variation

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Spring is a great time to be interested in botany. It’s a pleasure to walk in the woods in April and May when the first flush of wild flowers is at its best. One of my favourites is the Wood Anemone, which is common in dappled shade in deciduous woodland. The botanical name Anemone nemerosa has Greek and Latin roots. Anemos was the Greek God of the wind in which the flowers bob charmingly, while nemorosa describes the plant’s habitat and comes from the Latin nemorosus meaning wooded.

Anemone nemerosa flowering in woodland near the highland village of Strontian (May 2010)

Although they are generally regarded with affection in the British Isles, the Wood Anemone is not universally popular. It is associated with death in certain Chinese cultures and with misfortune in some European countries. It was an emblem of ill health in ancient Egypt. This may be because although the plant is poisonous, herbalists used it to treat complaints such as gout and rheumatism.

Energy stored in underground rhizomes allows the Wood Anemone to produce its leaves and flowers in the first weeks of spring before the shade from trees becomes too dense. The single star-shaped flower has between five and eight white tepals (a sort of mixture of petals and sepals). The leaves are deeply cut and resemble other members of the buttercup family.

Wood Anemone's in typical habitat in the mossy bowl of a tree. The tepals fold over the stamens at night and in inclement weather. Legend has it they provide shelter for woodland spirits.

Walking in the woods last week I was particularly struck by the natural variability of the plants. There were significant differences in the number and shape of the tepals and a few aberrant plants with deep purple flowers. With all this natural variability it is easy to see why the Wood Anemone has become a popular garden plant. But it looks best with Primroses, Cuckoo Flower, Wood Sorrel and Lesser Celandine in its native woodland habitat.

An unusual purple form of the Wood Anemone, one of many variations seen along half a mile of track in the Sunart oakwoods.
Wood Anemone collected by Lydia Becker on 23rd April 1864 at Whalley woods, Lancaster.
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