Early Spring Plants

As the days begin to lengthen and Christmas becomes a distant memory, the emergence of the first spring plants begins in the month of January for the hardiest souls, gaining pace throughout February.

The month of February is very much one of transition where the harshest winter conditions can take hold one day, followed by distinctly spring-like days filled with birdsong the next.

These harbingers of spring abundance are rooted in our nation’s psyche, their presence long celebrated in history and art. The medicinal properties that most spring plants offer us share a theme of having systemic cleansing properties. They often act to clear the congestive conditions we may have succumbed to during the winter months.


Most species flower in winter, before the vernal equinox (20 or 21 March in the Northern Hemisphere), but some flower in early spring and late autumn.

There can be nothing much more delightful than the sighting of the first snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis with her beautiful bell shaped white flowers gracefully nodding atop green succulent stems.

The ancient Greek name galvanus refers to her milky white flower and nivalis from Latin translates to ‘resembling snow’. The snowdrop first gained her Latin names in 1753 from the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, father of the two naming system for organisms known as ‘binomial nomenclature’.

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Appropriately snowdrops are associated with hope and rebirth, emerging from wintered ground when little else has arisen. A member of the amaryllis family Amaryllidaceae, snowdrop is not native to Britain having first been introduced in the 16th century.

Over twenty species can be found in damp soil along riverbeds and in broadleaved woodland from mid-January through to February. Snowdrops eventually colonise space, forming large clumps by bulb division.

Legend tells how snowdrops were created in the garden of Eden, in an attempt to comfort Eve an angel reputedly breathed upon a snowflake which fell to the ground taking its place in the earth as the snowdrop.

Hope and rebirth became associated with the flower, due to her welcome appearance signifying winter will end and new growth has begun.

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Victorians were somewhat fearful of the snowdrop and attributed to her negative outcomes ranging from souring milk to signifying impending death. They avoided bringing snowdrops into their homes, the most likely explanation for these darker associations probably is due to the toxicity of the bulbs which have a high alkaloid content.

One such alkaloid identified in snowdrop is  Galantamine now produced synthetically as a drug to reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Modern scientific understanding can make the most of these strong chemicals but one can only imagine that some distant ancestor ate the bulb and so began the reputation.


. Traditionally it was used as fodder for cattle, being made palatable either by bruising (crushing) with hand-held mallets or grinding to a moss-like consistency with hand- or water-driven mills or being finely chopped and mixed with straw chaff

Having a country walk in late winter across the washed out meadows and moor, there is often one particular shrub that stands out resplendently glistening in the winter sunshine. Not strictly a spring shrub as the ever hopeful European Gorse has actually been producing yellow flowers since late autumn. 

As spring approaches there are many more flowers, more vibrancy as gorse reaches a crescendo of yellow and gold brightness, exuding exotic, coconut perfume. This beacon of hope shining amidst winter’s somber hue has a relentless flowering habit.

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Gorse is a thorny evergreen shrub found in open, dry country where it can be bathed and illuminated in the sunlight. A very tough member of the pea family fabaceae, it is not entirely infallible, it can survive fire and drought but burns really well and can fall victim to harsh frost.

Gorse is very important for wildlife and some rare species rely on it as a dense protective habitat when there is seldom anything else about.

Historically, gorse has been used as a dye, livestock feed and as fuel. As a fuel gorse burns exceptionally well and traditionally ovens were run on it. Gorse has limited medicinal use and not much has been documented of its benefits,certainly not in modern herbalism. Gorse is included in the 38 Bach Flower Remedies and is indicated for those lacking optimism.

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If the flowers are collected (which is some feat as gorse is painfully prickly) it is usually for culinary purposes as the flower makes a striking edible flower garnish. Gorse has been used in the making of country beverages such as wine and mead. The glorious yellow flowers make a super flower syrup for adding to cocktails such as champagne. Both champagne and Gorse Flower Kir Royale are a very pleasant buttercup yellow.

Winter Aconite

Winter Aconite
As a spring ephemeral plant, its life cycle exploits the deciduous woodland canopy, flowering at the time of maximum sunlight reaching the forest floor, then completely dying back to its underground tuber after flowering.

Eranthis hyemalis or Winter Aconite is native to the woodlands of Europe with small bright yellow flowers appearing as early as January. This early flowering habit enables it to make the most of the woodland sunlight before the trees develop their canopy.

This little plant is very toxic to humans if ingested containing cardiac glycosides which if taken in large enough amounts will damage the heart irreparably. It does contribute to forming the prettiest floral carpet though, mixing with other spring beauties such as snowdrops and violets.

Wood Anemone

wood anemone
The plants start blooming in spring, March to May in the UK  soon after the foliage emerges from the ground. The flowers are solitary, held above the foliage on short stems, with a whorl of three palmate or palmately-lobed leaf like bracts beneath.

Another beautiful early spring flower to look for is the exquisite and delicate Anemone nemorosa or Wood Anemone. She is an early flower taking advantage of increased light in the late winter broadleaf woodlands.

Displaying the loveliest white,star shaped flowers tinged with pink, the presence of anemones indicates you are in the embrace of an ancient woodland. Anemone is a fairly reliable way to gauge longevity of woodland as she is very slow growing and can take many years to become established.

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Yet again history treats anemone in a contradictory fashion, she is valued as a roman charm but the ancient Greeks saw her as symbolising early death, this association is attributed to her short flowering season.

The myth of the origins of the anemone, tells of her being sprung from the tears of Aphrodite whilst weeping for Adonis, or perhaps an embodiment of the nymph Anemone.

Anemone features in the older herbals of Gerard and Culpepper as an external application for headaches and rheumatism, seemingly she has fallen out of favour with modern herbalists, this is due to wariness over the alkaloids contained in the roots.


The common name comes from the leaf’s supposed resemblance in shape to a colt’s foot. It is a 16th century translation of the medieval Latin name pes pulli, meaning “foal’s foot”

Tussilago farfara is an abundant perennial plant with fluffy yellow flowers which resemble dandelions. These jolly flowers appear well before the large hoof shaped leaves which lend the plant its name.

Coltsfoot begins flowering in March on wasteland, banks and in damp fields. The humble coltsfoot is one of the less glamorous early spring flowers, being less delicate and quite common. It is a robust soul, often found by roadsides having an ability to tolerate the poorest soil.

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Despite Coltfoot’s homely appearance, this plant is afforded a little mystique being attributed with having visionary abilities by country healers. Bestowed with some power, coltsfoot was  burned in rituals and kept also as a charm to bring love and good fortune.

Having a reputation for being a beneficial lung herb, coltsfoot was dried and smoked as a tobacco substitute during the Second World War. Many ancient herbalists recommended it be smoked for health benefits, an idea that may have lost a little support more recently.

Due to a high mucilaginous content the leaves are used for their demulcent or moisturising properties and indicated for coughs as the plant exerts an expectorant action, aiding the  removal of mucus from the lungs.

This reputation as a cough remedy is long standing and recorded in all old herbal texts, tussilago relates to this action meaning ‘cough dispeller’.

Lesser Celandine

Lesser celandine
Lesser celandine is a hairless perennial plant to about 25 cm high, growing in clumps of 4-10 short stems, on which the leaves are spirally-arranged or all basal

A pretty member of the buttercup family, Ranunculus fiscaria favours moist habitats by water, in damp field corners and will also occupy drier, shady spots beneath trees. Star shaped blooms appear from mid-February, preferring to open in sunlight and closing before darkness descends.

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Celandines were named Grian by the Celts which means ‘the sun’, they do resemble sun rays with their distinct petal formation.

The bright flowers are designed purposely to attract insects toward their pollen sacs, but akin to violet, their early appearance means fertilisation seldom occurs.

Celandines were reputedly favourites of the great poet Wordsworth, carvings of them decorate his tomb. He devoted an entire poem to these flowers so beloved by him-  ‘The Lesser Celandine’-

“There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine

That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;

And, the first moment that the sun may shine,

Bright as the sun himself, ‘tis out again!”

The old English name of the Lesser Celandine is pilewort which gives us a clue as to one its medicinal uses as a cure for piles. The herbalists Gerard and Culpepper had great faith in this diminutive plant; the whole herb can be used as a specific hemorrhoid remedy which would be applied externally as either a poultice or ointment. Celandine is also indicated for sore throats and as a blood purifier like so many early spring plants.


In appropriate conditions, the plant can cover the ground in open woods and shaded hedgerows. It is found mainly by streams, under bushes, in orchards and clear, moist deciduous forests

Abundant perennial of woodland, hedgerow and pasture Primula vulgaris flowers emerge in late winter in more sheltered spots.The name primrose suggests this early flowering habit as it derives from the Latin primus meaning first .Much like the wood anemone, the presence of primrose is indicative of ancient woodland.

Primroses represent eternal love and are the sacred flower of Freya, the goddess of love.

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It is used medicinally as an antispasmodic, vermifuge (to expel worms), emetic (vomit inducing) and astringent. In early medicine primrose was thought to be an important remedy for rheumatic conditions. The sedating properties of primrose have led to its popularity in America for treating insomnia. Gerard recognised its value as a calming herb suggesting it be prescribed for hysteria. Culpepper used it externally as a wound healing salve.


The color periwinkle is also called lavender blue and light blue violet. The color periwinkle may be considered a pale tint of purple or blue, or a “pastel purple”.

Two members of the Vinca genus are English natives, Lesser and Greater Periwinkle Vinca minor and Vinca major. Found flowering from early spring in woodland, orchards and hedgerows,  this creeping plant with shiny green leaves has the prettiest pale blue flowers.

Vinca major is also known as ‘Sorcerer’s Violet’ reputed to offer protection from the devil.

The Greater Periwinkle has been traditionally used in herbal medicine as an astringent, a tonic used for hemorrhage, and as an ointment for skin inflammation. The Madagascan relative of our native Periwinkle is Catharanthus roseus.

This exotic cousin is a very important medicinal plant providing us with two important chemotherapeutic agents vinblastine and vincristine. The latter has increased survival rates from childhood leukemia from 10-90%.

Ground Ivy

Ground Ivy
It is commonly known as ground-ivy, gill-over-the-ground, creeping charlie, alehoof, tunhoof, catsfoot, field balm, and run-away-robin. It is also sometimes known as creeping jenny

Ground Ivy or Glechoma hederacea is a ubiquitous native plant of wastelands and hedgerows. Often overlooked, this tiny plant warrants closer inspection as it displays the most beautiful miniature orchid-like flowers. It has creeping foliage that covers ground quickly, sending out roots as it journeys through the undergrowth.

The leaves of Ground Ivy are quite fragrant and a once popular flavouring of beer used widely by the Saxons hence the folk name ‘alehoof’. This was common practice until hops replaced Ground Ivy as the flavour of choice.

To this day Ground Ivy is a useful medicinal herb benefiting urinary, respiratory and digestive systems. It is an excellent detoxifier and is recommended for the treatment of catarrh.

Tracking the emergence of early spring flowers in our countryside is a joyful pastime guaranteed to banish any winter blues. From late winter onwards they emerge tentatively to begin with, then build orchestral-like, towards a crescendo of diverse colour and form as spring progresses.

Do go outside and witness the transformation of the countryside and join these spring pioneers, who just like us, love to bathe their faces in the increasingly abundant sunlight.