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02/19/2003 Archived Entry: "Wood Anemones"
When I was a very small boy enjoying walks in the woods near my moorland home, the floor of one area of woodland was covered with small white flowers around this time of year. In my very youthful mind, I thought their name was 'wooden enemy' and often pondered the reason for this. As this was during the World War II, the word 'enemy' was not all that unusual and I thought there must be some kind of link between the war and that flower. Eventually, of course, I learned to read and spotted them in a reference book where their name was 'wood anemone'.
Youngsters often make such mistakes - in the wartime years I recall the term propaganda which, as a country lad who was brought up with livestock in the surrounding fields, I thought was proper gander, a sort of genuine goose. And then there was the Hail Mary, a prayer which includes the phrase "blessed art thou amongst women" which some children interpreted as "blessed art thou a monk swimming." Later, there was the wonderful one in which Sir Anthony Eden was brought down by the Sewage Crisis. I am sure there were, and still are, lots more similar joys.
But back to the wood anemone. This is one of the most delightful plants of the new spring and it seems to favour deciduous woodlands where it flourishes among the fallen leaves of the past autumn. It is a relation of the buttercup but produces tall flowers with white petals which can vary between five and nine in number. It can grow up to a foot in height but is usually six or seven inches (15-18cm) although it can rise to only a couple of inches or so. Half way up the stem, there is a ring of three leaves, each with three toothed leaflets. The single flower rises from the centre of those leaves and the entire plant has a somewhat delicate appearance. In spite of its rather fragile appearance, however, it is a tough plant which is well able to withstand the rigours of late winter or early spring, but if you pick one of these flowers, it will wilt and die very quickly. The wood anemone loves sunshine and on a fine day, the flowers will open on firm stems where they will cheerfully nod in the breeze to present a very attractive sight.
But the moment night falls or the day becomes dull, the flowers will close and their heads will droop in what can only be described as a very graceful manner. This will reveal a slight pink tinge to the undersides of the petals. Not surprisingly, the Greek writer Pliny called them windflowers, but he believed they only bloomed when the winds rose. Perhaps they do in Greece, but in England it is the sunshine, which opens these delightful flowers; without it, they hang their heads in sorrow.
If you walk in woodland that is rich with these anemones, however, you will notice a rather unpleasant smell. This comes from the flowers and it is not without reason that some country folk refer to them as smell foxes or smell smocks! Pheasants like to eat the leaves and at one time, a sort of vinegar was produced from them but the juice in the roots is very bitter and said to be poisonous.
Like so many wild flowers, the wood anemone has lots of local names such as granny's nightcap, fairies' windflower, Moll o' the woods, moon flower, shame-faced maiden, silver bells, Easter flower, evening twilight, snakes' eyes, shoes and slippers, lady's petticoat, lady's purse, Star of Bethlehem, soldiers' buttons, wild jessamine or even granny-thread-the-needle. But not wooden enemy!