Backwoodsman has his eyes on the ground this week. We travelled to Bishopbriggs in late February 2022 and walked east along the Forth and Clyde Canal. The walk took us past Cadder Parish Church and an unexpected and spectacular display of Snowdrops in the churchyard.

We returned last Sunday, full of anticipation. I had seen Snowdrops coming through in my mother’s garden while I was shifting the autumn leaves, and we had both seen them on the banks of the Kelvin, so we were confident that Cadder would have a good show ready for us. We weren’t disappointed, and I set to work to try and take some nice photographs while the church was readied for the service at half-past ten. I made a recording of a Robin singing, backed by some distant Jackdaws, and the church pianist playing the hymn tune Laudate dominum by C. H. H. Parry.

“Pavillioned in splendour” indeed. I was extremely careful where I put my feet, scrutinising the ground before taking each step in case there were shoots still coming through the churchyard moss.

Nicola Chester writing in the RSPB Magazine (Winter/Spring 2023, page 14) introduced me to a new word – vernalisation. I autodefined this as a process of becoming springlike, based on the definition of vernal – of, in, or appropriate to spring. Well, there’s a bit more to it. The John Innes Centre put me right and I enjoyed two videos by Professor Dame Caroline Dean (a six minute version, and a longer lecture given at the Royal Institution). The process by which plants use a prolonged cold period – winter – to promote flowering is known as vernalisation. I won’t attempt to paraphrase the JIC’s lucid web page, or Dean’s excellent material but I will highlight the role of epigenetics in the response of plants to temperature. Dean spends some time explaining the meaning and importance of this relatively new field – it has important implications for human health too.

I had my usual poke around in the literature which deals with plants and cold weather; I suppose it’s a bit like gently turning over leaves at this time of year to see the spring bulbs and hellebores coming through, having survived the hard weather. I was prompted to investigate by the idea of antifreeze proteins which had cropped up in the RSPB article and in the JIC material.

I found this idea strongly contra-intuitive. The antifreeze that we used to add to the radiator water in a car is ethylene glycol, a very small molecule, by which I mean it has few atoms. It is highly soluble in water and disrupts the formation of the extended lattice structures upon which freezing depends by displacing water molecules from the networks of O-H…O hydrogen bonds, so that the water doesn’t freeze at its usual temperature. This depression of freezing point is known as a “colligative property”. I attempted to read a primary publication in this area by Marangoni et al., and a recent review by Kumar and co-workers and both are chastening reminders of the very specialised nature of modern science. Antifreeze proteins (AFPs) are enormous in comparison with water molecules and they function in a highly sophisticated and non-colligative way, offering sites upon which tiny developing ice crystals can sit, blocking their growth and suppressing the formation of bulk ice. I started worrying about the relative amounts of AFPs and water molecules in any plant cell and I’m still worried – I’d better read the pdfs again.

Though there are very authoritative descriptions of its three-dimensional structure from crystallographic studies, ice turns out to be trickier stuff than we thought. In the last few days, a collaboration between Cambridge and UCL has announced the discovery of a type of ice so novel that it may change the way we look at water itself.

It is only early February but the vernal aspect of the current days is hard to ignore with the snowdrops, the catkins beginning to open and birds asserting their territories. I’m hoping that the content of my post doesn’t bring a return of really cold weather. Our visit to Cadder Church coincided with the Snowdrop Spectacular Weeked at Newark Park in Gloucestershire, spectacular being the only way to describe the blooms at this NT property. It’s a few years since I was taken there but it was unforgettable. Snowdrops individually and in close up are exquisite but their appeal to me lies en masse and those are the images I leave you with.

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