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Overlooked dog's mercury adds colour and variety; nature watch.

If you have been down to the woods recently you will have noticed the flush of spring flowers.

Yellow lesser celandine, white stitchwort and purple violets, amongst others, are taking advantage of the light which will be denied them once the trees come into leaf.

Bluebells too are just appearing, but you may also have come across a plant with downy leaves and tiny green flowers which carpets the ground, especially on neutral or alkaline soils. Typically therefore it will be found beneath ash, hazel, rowan and maples and less often in more acid oak woodlands.

The plant is dog's mercury, a type of spurge, and one of my favourite woodland plants. Like bluebells, dog's mercury is an indicator of ancient woodland.

In both cases this is because the seeds of the plants do not move very far.

It takes a long time for the plant to spread, and in the case of dog's mercury it does so mainly by sending out underground shoots, or rhizomes, from which the stems arise. They are about 40cms high, and bear pairs of pointed oval leaves and flower stalks bearing the petal-less green flowers. Where dog's mercury occurs in hedgerows it is almost certain that the place was once woodland.

Dog's mercury's ability to spread seeds is further limited by the fact that there are separate male and female plants, and they tend to grow apart from each other. Another factor is that it cannot compete very well with other plants in open conditions. It is very much a plant of shady places.

The plant is poisonous, something which could be inferred from the name 'mercury'. Like many plants though which are basically poisonous dog's mercury has had a place in herbal medicine. The name is traditionally said to have been given because the god Mercury discovered its herbal powers.

Why 'dog's'? Usually this word indicates some inferior quality in comparison with related species.

Thus dog violet and dog rose are probably so called because they do not have the fine scent of other violets and roses. This somewhat insignificant plant is overlooked for most of the year, but just now it is adding to the colour and variety of our woods and hedgerows.

Peter Shirley


Woodland bluebells
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 17, 2009
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