Good time to learn flower-spotting

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As I write, the weather is absolutely perfect and there’s so much happening in the countryside just now it’s hard to know where to begin.

Birds are starting to gather nesting material, chiffchaffs are in full voice, woodpeckers are drumming, frogs and toads are spawning and the first small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies are on the wing.

If you are contemplating making 2012 the year you learn more about how to identify our wild flowers, this is the best time to start.

The grass is just starting to grow and things are not yet too dense to conceal interesting blooms. Best of all, there are not too many species in flower, so you won’t become overwhelmed by the volume of flowering plants as you would in late spring and early summer.

Some plants at this time of year make life even easier for would-be botanists by coming into bloom before their leaves appear. The yellow dandelion-like flower of the coltsfoot is a good example – it can be found on rough, bare ground, usually by stream sides.

Another, with a similar habitat, is the butterbur. Its flower is big, pink and brush-like and pokes through the ground before the huge rhubarb-like leaves put in an appearance. Its name comes not from any colour similarity to butter, like the buttercup, but from the old practice of using its large leaves to wrap butter.

Blackthorn blossom is another example of flowers appearing before leaves. The idea is probably to catch any early pollinating insects before the competition gets too great.

Other plants to look out for in more woodland settings include moschatel, which is like a miniature clock tower, with a flower facing in each direction, wood anemone, which only opens fully when the sun is on it and of course the familiar lesser celandine with its shiny, yellow petals.

I am fortunate on my home patch to have a large colony of delicate white sweet violets, which smell like the Parma violet sweets we used to get when I was a kid.

They were in full bloom at the weekend and one hazard to watch out for, as I discovered when taking this picture, was the emerging nettle leaves, which pack quite a sting if you kneel on them!