The secret of the winter flowers

It’s January 1st and the floor of the wood is covered with fresh new leaves, growing in dense patches. The first flowers are starting to open. Within a week, the air is scented with a sweet fragrance. This is the winter heliotrope, which is just as much at home in Nowhere as it is in its native North Africa.

The winter heliotrope was probably brought to Britain by Victorian gardeners.


We have a large Victorian estate called Tyntesfield down the road, so originally it could easily have come from there. The plant has a big secret: its flowers are just for show!

The winter heliotrope is unusual because it has separate male and female plants. As far as we know, the Victorian gardeners only imported male plants into Britain, because they liked the showy flowers and its rich scent. So, although the flowers make good pollen, there are no female flowers available to receive it. These plants cannot make seeds.

How do the plants reproduce, if they  cannot make seeds?

What is its big secret?





Below the soil the plant has a special underground stem, called a rhizome. During the year the rhizome stores food ready for the wintertime. Then, early in the new year, it grows new leaves and flowers.

During the summer the rhizomes grow so large, that they eventually break off and become new plants. This is a different way of reproducing, called vegetative reproduction. The plants are all clones, they have the same genetic information, which means that they all flower at more or less the same time.

So good is the winter heliotrope at growing in this way, that the plant is seen by some gardeners as an uwanted pest. It seems to grow well in Nowhere Wood, where it grows undisturbed.

1. What do you think are the advantages of being able to reproduce vegetatively, without making seeds?

2. Are there any disadvantages to having plants that all have the same genetic information. Is variation needed for the survival of plants?

Early risers!

Every year, the snowdrop is the first plant to flower in Nowhere Wood. It is a symbol of the birth of Spring, bringing good cheer and hope at the end of a long winter. This is one reason why people plant snowdrops in their gardens.

Snowdrops are tougher than they look: they can grow through ice and snow. Their leaves have hardened edges that act as snowploughs and their cells contain a snowdrop antifreeze that stops ice crystals forming. The real secret of the snowdrop’s success is found below the ground, in the frozen soil. There, in the darkness, is a bulb, full of food made in last Spring’s photosynthesis. Like a battery, it is an energy store, so that the plant can start to grow in the weak winter sunshine.

This means that the plant can make leaves to grow in the warming Sun. The leaves make food to store in its bulbs ready for next year. Snowdrops do all of this before the leaves of the big trees open to steal the light, so that the floor of the wood becomes shaded. By then, the work of the snowdrop is over and it can wait for the next winter.

1. How have people helped the snowdrop to survive for so many years?

2. What advantages do snowdrops have by storing their food in underground bulbs. Can you think of any possible disadvantages?

Snowdrops have many more secrets that help them in their adventures in time and in space. We may tell more stories about snowdrops in the coming days! Come back to read them.

Time travellers to Nowhere (1)