Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Common Whitlowgrass

Here's a very early spring flower which you would be forgiven for not noticing. This is because it is only a few cm high and easily overlooked.

Common Whitlowgrass (Erophila verna) is not a 'grass' at all but a member of the Cabbage Family (Brassicaceae); I'm not sure what it has to do with 'whitlows' - it was probably used to cure them at one time.

It is a plant of old walls and rocky places. I look for it every year in a rather unusual site - on the river bank, adjacent to Chorlton Ees, about 1/4 of a mile east of where Chorlton Brook flows into the Mersey. Here there is a small weir in the river and the banks on either side are strengthened with concrete 'rafts'. Each raft is like a small rock garden with Mosses, Stonecrops, Geraniums, Vetches and other plants including the Whitlowgrass.

The plant consists of a rosette of leaves with the flower bearing stalks emerging from the centre of the rosette. Plants with rosettes like this are often adapted for dry conditions (it is a common form adopted by Alpine species). No doubt the Whitlowgrass has to endure drought conditions but, ironically, it is also periodically inundated when the river is high! The flowers have four, deeply notched, petals which are not easy to see in the photograph above (they appear to need bright sunlight in order to fully open - and there hasn't been a lot of that lately - at least when I've been trying to take photographs of E. verna!).
Dave Bishop, March 2009

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