One February morning some years
ago my brother and I set out from Cromer to look for stinking hellebore
foetidus. In February the nose is too cold to smell much in the field,
and it wasn't the stinking aspect that interested us. It was those strange
green flowers with their burgundy-dipped edges, and the dark green shining
leaves. There's something seductive about them, and something sinister
- they seem untouched by insects, spared the attention and the corrosions
of leaf miners, biters, chewers and scrapers.
Spring doesn't start in February,
but the year is awakening. This trip felt like a botanical reawakening.
You know what I mean: you get out your boots and your favourite field guide
and awake from the slide-show slumber of winter and you shake out the cobwebs
and go botanising again.
The hellebore likes woods on chalk.
There isn't that much chalk at the surface in Norfolk, so where to look?
I like to find plants by my own devices, but I also like to leaf through
Floras, choosing plants and places, and then going looking for them. The
Flora we had was Petch and Swann's Flora of Norfolk, a companion on many
rewarding plant hunts.
Petch and Swann had the hellebore
at the Bath Hills, Ditchingham, South Norfolk! A long way from home. But
it was a clear day, with a bright and cold February sun shining from a
faultless sky ...
I like plants and I like to find
them. And I also like to ask them why they are there. Why, for example,
is that discreet little white crucifer flowering on that grassy bank in
March? Perhaps it gets its flowering completed and seed set before the
grass closes over it?
Perhaps. But equally importantly,
and we all ask this of the little crucifer on a bank at the start of the
year: what the heck are you? Let's face it, we all go a bit rusty during
the close season. Most of us have to learn those little plants, and those
awkward grasses, again each year.
No such problem with the hellebore,
of course: it's unmistakable. This didn't help us at all as we ambled through
the woods on the Bath Hills. We found gladdon, tilting its head back lasciviously
to show off its berries, an intense primary red against the quiet and sombre
browns and greys of the winter leaves. The winter light, brittle and sharp,
sought out the berries.
This is what I like about woods in
spring: no leaves. The light comes through to the floor. And while it does
so, the classic spring flowers rush to use it: wood sorrel, wood anemone,
ramsons, bluebell: all of them surging to flower and fruit before the trees
awaken too and the soft green night closes above.
In Norfolk we have a few woods that
are home in that spring light to one of the most beautiful of our spring
flowers - the wild daffodil, the Lent lily. Lit by sun, seven inches tall,
pale yellow and rich golden yellow, fragile and bold, it swarms on the
woodland floors, a marvellous flower. It is another tactician of the wood:
growing from its underground stores up to a bare, competition-free floor,
flowering and photosynthesising while the light lasts, then lying low for
the rest of the year.
Economical and elegant, it is the
perfect daffodil. Forgive me, you modern gardeners, but those brassy, brash,
cheap show-offs you favour for your borders are much too loud, far too
One of my best-ever botanical moments
was on a spring day in a daffodil wood in north Norfolk. From a high point
I looked down on a sea of daffodils, all nodding and shaking in a faint
breeze just warmed by April sun. Then among them a darker yellow caught
my eye and I knew I had found what I was hunting.
An engraving on the front of a rare
local flora. An empty dot in the Atlas of the British Flora. Tulipa
sylvestris, the wood tulip, the wild tulip. A botanical treasure in
every way, slender and snakelike, scented. And, best of all, I'd refound
No such luck with the hellebore.
We'd quartered the woods and found nothing. The day was closing. A little
snow blew in from a heavier sky. A flake settled on the green flower of
dog's mercury, and stayed there. A sparrowhawk shot short-winged through
the darkening space between the bare twigs to the dusk.
And there was the hellebore. Plant
after plant along a bank by the lane. I'd swear we'd walked along there
an hour or so before. Like all the best plants it had surprised us, it
was suddenly there, like magic.
Why does it grow just here, at the
edge of the wood, in the dappled light that remains? For the same reason
as the other spring-lovers, I suppose, helping itself to the short-lived
spring sun beneath the trees, and welcoming the first flies of the year
into those strange pale green caves.
I wonder if there's another reason
too. The colony can be followed back along the lane to a little cottage.
Could it have escaped from the garden? Was it there for decoration, or
did it have a herbal use? If so, it must have made strong magic.
The hellebore: no matter why it was
there, we'd found it, or it had found us. Now all that mattered was to
hurry home through the dark, to thaw our frozen hands and toes, and to
talk about the next plant hunt, which would surely come soon.