Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

If celandines are the Cinderellas of spring flowers (see Monday 5 March), then surely butterburs must be the Ugly Sisters.

Around here the big, sickly-green flower spikes erupt like alien acne in shady, wet places from late February. There are several patches of them in the horse fields north of the village, clustered under the low, bare branches of the willow clumps that punctuate the riverbank. They remind me of underripe pineapples.

Of course no plant is really ugly - you just have to work harder with some than others. Take a closer look at a new spike of butterbur and you will find that it's actually made up of bunches of smaller, star-like flowers, pale pink and delicate, nestled within the larger, yellowy-green sepals. As it grows the flowerhead will turn from that slightly sclerotic green to a rich pinky-purple, and the flowers will spread and separate to form a tall, strong spike.

Butterburs have the distinction of being one of the few native plants that are dioecious - that is to say the flowers are either male or female. Apparently most of the plants that we see are male, and spread vegetatively through rhizomes. We do get a few female plants in Scotland, but not further south. Indeed botanists think many male butterburs may have originally been planted to provide an early pollen supply by beekeepers. Only the sterile flowers - of which the males have most - provide nectar.

And that's the true beauty of the butterbur. Bees love it. The patches that I found today in the field were hooching with bees, getting their strength up for the long season ahead. And not just bees. There were flies, beetles, gnats. The place was literally humming with life, while the rest of the field still had some of that winter silence about it.

So I take it all back - butterburs aren't the Ugly Sisters, they're just another kind of Cinderella, this time in disguise.

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