As old and strong as London itself, colonies of spring-flowering wood anemones still mark the ancient woodlands that once fringed London. This is a plant that is quick to greet the spring but slow to spread, with its roots advancing no more than a single metre in 50 years. If you find a large, wild patch of these flowers you can be sure they have been there a long time.
During April, the wood anemones’ star-shaped white flowers create radiant displays across woodland floors, basking in the sunshine that slips through the leafless branches above. The small flowers unfurl each morning and track the sun as it moves across the sky, just as sunflowers turn to face the sun. In the evening the flowers curl up again, and on cloudy days they may be reluctant to open at all, as few insects will visit to gather their pollen.
The name “anemone” is derived from anemoi, Ancient Greek wind gods, and relates to the flowers’ emergence at a time of early spring breezes, giving them another common name: windflower. Other names are lady’s nightcap, moggie nightgown and a modern mash-up, “wooden enemy”.
In past centuries, bunches of wood anemones were carried to ward off diseases and bad luck. Back then London’s forests were an important economic resource, providing charcoal and timber. Some woods provided hunting grounds for the rich, others provided grazing for Londoners’ livestock — pigs that would snuffle and snort in search of crunchy acorns and crisp hazelnuts.
Beautiful examples of ancient woodland can still be found across London, such as Selsdon Wood, Oak Hill Woods in Barnet and Epping Forest. Head for such woods this weekend to enjoy fresh, healthy air, a peace broken only by bird song, and if you are lucky, ancient beds of windflowers still turning with the sun, as they have done for countless centuries past.
The London Wildlife Trust campaigns to protect the capital's wildlife and wild spaces. It is backed by Sir David Attenborough, President Emeritus of The Wildlife Trusts.