Monday, 7 March 2022

Sketchbook: The Early Flowers (and their stories)

We're already into the third month of the year and spring will be upon us soon, so, it's time for a quick sketchbook update following on from my previous blog post. This year I don't have time to make a sketchbook page every week, but want to keep momentum with recording plants and fungi and aim to complete one at least entry every other week. The project has now come full circle and I'm seeing the plants painted last year back in bloom, this is definitely driving me forward with the project. Sticking to native and naturalised plants makes it slightly more challenging but there is really no shortage of plant material available at this time of year, here are some of the plants and one fungi illustrated between January and early March this year, but I begin with a look through the book in this short video clip. 

Below is a little about each entry because I can never fit enough information on the sketch pages. Each subject usually has at least one fascinating fact, including medicinal uses, pollination strategies, animal plant interactions, symbolism and folklore, food sources and much more.  

 January 25th, my second entry for the year was the Wood Blewitt, Lepista nuda

Found at Keele woods, which is on the site of the University where my daughter is a student.  I've made a few studies here before and there are some interesting plants and fungi which I hope to record in the future. The Wood Blewit is one of the latest mushrooms of the season which was unexpected in January,  the colour is a very attractive blue/ lilac and apparently they are a gourmet mushroom that appear through the leaf litter, this made a nice setting against the violet colour.  I'm  not overly confident in my identification skills of fungi and won't be eating these mushrooms any time soon as they are very similar to several poisonous species, such as the Cortinaruis fungi. Whilst scanning the surrounding area, as all nature artists do, I was also excited to spot a Medlar tree next to these mushrooms.  Note that I switched to using walnut ink here for the notes.....hence the top left splodge! 

 January 29th,  the third entry of the year was Ulex europaeus, the common gorse (family: Fabaceae), also known as Furze 

These very common plants were found at Barlaston Downs, which is a national Trust woodland and heath, just a couple of miles from home. Gorse is a beautiful plant with a perfume of coconut, it always reminds me of my time living in Scotland and I can recall seeing the Yellowhammers flying in and out of the bushes, which surrounded my house. 
I always like to find out about medicinal or other uses for plants and Gorse is no exception, as an important plant in identifying the rare blood type known as the Bombay or HH or Oh Phenotype, first identified in Bombay in 1952. It turns out that Ulex europea contains Lectin in the seeds, which binds to 'H' substance in red blood cells. 
Most people will never know they have this blood type unless they are unlucky enough to need a blood transfusion. Individuals with this blood type are deficient in the H antigen, this is the antigen found on all red blood cells which is the precursor to the production of all other ABO antigens. As a result those with the Bombay phenotype may appear to be type O, however they carry an extra antibody which makes then them incompatible with the O blood type because they lack the precursor antigen known as 'H'. Thus they can only receive blood from other H deficient blood types, giving them a transfusion of another blood type will cause a very severe reaction. With only 0.0004% of the population having this blood type, it's pretty rare, so gorse has been instrumental in ensuring that those with the Bombay phenotype are identified and not given the wrong blood type. 

February 17th Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop (Family: Amaryllidaceae) 

These milk white snowdrops grow at the bottom of the lane where I live. It's not  a native plant but one that became naturalised and is thought to have arrived in Britain in the16th century. Although I try to complete pages in the equivalent of one day, this one took longer and I moved on the the next and returned to it over a week later. The idea of backgrounds is appealing but have to keep in mind that it's more time consuming.

The snowdrop is known as the plant of hope, simply because they signal the first signs of new growth in advance of spring but it also offers other hope to Alzheimer sufferers. This plant that has important medicinal uses, snowdrops contain the alkaloid galantamine, which is approved for use in the management of Alzheimers disease in over 70 countries, including the UK. The anecdotal use of the snowdrop in medicine has long been recorded and Greeks first acknowledged the effects of galantamine in Homer's Odyssey, when Odysseus used the snowdrop to clear his mind of bewitchment. In modern medicine galantamine was reportedly first extracted in the 1950 after a curious Bulgarian pharmacist witnessed the use of snowdrop leaves and bulbs being rubbed on the forehead of villagers, it was noted to be a chemical of importance in cerebral function. Galantamine was approved as a drug in Bulgaria in 1958 and in the US in 2001, it acts as a treatment for memory improvement for those with Alzheimers and mild dementia. 

February 20th, the fifth page of the year is Eranthus hyemalis or Winter Aconite (Family: Ranunculaceae)

These little plants were blown clean out of the ground during storm Dudley, which followed two other nasty UK storms. It was an opportunistic find when I saw them lying on the ground and gathered them up, they made a nice interval to painting the snowdrops. Winter aconite is another naturalised species first recorded growing wild in Britain in the 1830's although introduced in the 1590's. 
 It's a poisonous plant if consumed, although not as poisonous as Aconitum which it was at one time erroniously classified alongside because of its leaf shape, it is however in the same family, and all Ranunculaceae are poisonous to some degree. It contains some useful medicinal properties with the chemical khellin, this is a toxic chemical that acts as a vasodilator but can be converted into a harmless sodium chromoglicate used as a prophylaxis for the treatment of asthma attacks. Also amiodarone which is used for atrial fibrillation and arrhythmia treatment.

A Final Thought: Why are so many early flowers white or yellow?

you may have noticed thet many of the available UK native flowers at this time of year are white or yellow and quite small, which makes them challenging to paint, the inclusion of backgrounds or habitat can be useful when painting such colours because it makes them stand out. This approach is not completely unrelated to the existence of these pale coloured flowers in nature.  
In fact one of the reasons commonly cited in the prevalence of white and yellow flowers is related to the generalist pollinators, which tend to be small flies early in the year, these flies have an innate preference for white and yellow and with their dichromatic vision it's easier for them to spot the flowers against the dark background of foliage or the soil beneath them, so pollinator preference is believed to have driven the evolution of early white and yellow flowers. 
There are of course many other reasons why pollinators prefer certain plants and it's a pretty huge subject to delve into, so I won't go any further with it for now but will no doubt touch on pollinators and flower preferences in the future. 

My next sketchbook subject is also a yellow flower and another from the Ranunculaceae family, it's Lesser Celandine, Ficaria verna, which is just coming into flower. This plant is known as pilewort, for medicinal reasons which you can no doubt guess! 

This sketchbook project is a continuation of the botanicalsketchdates project which began in February 2021 with my friend from the US, Debbie Crawford.


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