With the hills off limits to many of us at the moment and local, daily exercise encouraged, now’s the perfect time to explore from your front door, to seek out those green spaces where you can exercise both body and mind – in accordance with local regulations and government guidelines of course! Despite living in suburbia we’re fortunate to live within walking distance of a variety of parkland, pockets of ancient woodland and extensive tracts of farmland and have been spending time reacquainting ourselves with all of them. In particular, we’ve been enjoying the emergence of spring wild flowers over the recent sunny spell. Since these flowers will be common to many parts of the country and many different habitats, I thought I’d list a few here to aid with identification on your travels.
BLUEBELL – needs little introduction and a bluebell wood in full bloom is a sight to behold. Our native flowers show a distinctive ‘droop’ and are sweetly scented. The narrow bell-shaped flowers with rolled back tips show a cream coloured pollen. If not all of these characteristics are present, you may be looking at the invasive Spanish bluebell or a hybrid.
CUCKOO PINT / LORDS & LADIES – also known as snakeshead, adder’s root, arum lily, devils and angels, cows and bulls, soldiers diddies, priest’s pintle, Adam and Eve, bobbins, naked girls, naked boys, starch-root, wake robin, friar’s cowl, sonsie-give-us-your-hand, jack in the pulpit and cheese and toast! This unusual plant of shady woodland floors goes by many names, many of them alluding to the flowering structure’s perceived likeness to male & female genitalia. The flower gives way in autumn to a spike of poisonous orange berries.
FORGET-ME-NOT – a common garden flower but not many people realise the forget-me-not is a native, wild species. Or rather several species. Wood forget-me-not and field forget-me-not are probably the most likely to be noticed, their names giving a clue to their favoured habitats.
DOG VIOLET – a common and widespread woodland flower, with characteristic violet purple flowers and dark green, heart-shaped leaves. The unscented flowers were considered inferior to the similar but pleasantly perfumed sweet violet and were therefore considered only fit for dogs, hence the name.
SPEEDWELL – a large family of flowers found across a wide variety of habitats. Identification between species can often be tricky but most share a distinctive flower shape, in various shades of blue or mauve. The pictured flower is a WOOD SPEEDWELL, indicated by the stalked leaves, flower colour and hairy stem.
RAMSONS / WILD GARLIC – often found covering large areas of moist, shady woodland floor, the smell will probably first alert you to the presence of wild garlic. With a milder taste than cultivated garlic, the leaves are perfect for use in risottos or chopped up finely and mixed with butter, then spread on crusty bread. Throw in a few flower heads for garnish!
WOOD SORREL – another plant of moist, shady woodland, the vivid green clover-like leaves and delicately pink-veined white flowers often carpet large areas. The leaves are edible and taste of green apple skin, but should be consumed in moderation as they contain oxalic acid.
DOGS MERCURY – a poisonous plant that can quickly cover the floor of its favoured woodland habitat, shading out other species. Bears clusters of small, round, greenish flowers in the spring.
HERB ROBERT – a member of the crane’s bill family and common flower of woods, hedgerows, and unkempt gardens. The stems and deeply lobed leaves are often tinged with red. Has a slightly unpleasant smell, which is said to work as an insect repellent.
WHITE DEAD-NETTLE – while superficially resembling stinging nettles, the dead-nettles do not sting. The white dead-nettle is a common plant of disturbed ground and roadside verges. The similar YELLOW ARCHANGEL (with, unsurprisingly, yellow flowers) is a common plant of established woodland.
GARLIC MUSTARD / JACK-BY-THE-HEDGE – a common wayside and woodland plant that forms prominent stands, topped with little white flowers. The leaves are edible, tasting mildly of garlic with a sharp, mustardy aftertaste and can be added to salads or chucked on your sandwiches when out on a walk.
CUCKOO FLOWER / LADY’S SMOCK – a plant of damp meadows and grasslands (and in the case of this example, a golf course!) The opening of the delicate pink flowers is said to coincide with the arrival of the first cuckoos of spring.
GREEN ALKANET – this robust plant was introduced to UK gardens from its native SW Europe sometime during the 17th Century. It quickly escaped into the wild and is now widespread. Alkanet often still appears in gardens, but as an unwelcome weed which can be difficult to get rid of.
LESSER CELANDINE – a real harbinger of spring, the bright yellow flowers and glossy, deep green leaves often brighten up the woodland floor before anything else is in flower. A member of the buttercup family. The unrelated greater celandine is a member of the poppy family and is much taller, its flowers only having four petals.
PRIMROSE – another early spring bloom, often found in woodland clearings and hedgerows. The flowers are an important source of nectar for butterflies. Primroses in folklore represent eternal love and a clump in your doorway would protect your home from fairies!
OPPOSITE-LEAVED GOLDEN SAXIFRAGE – not a true saxifrage. A lover of moist woodland floors and shady riverbanks. The leaves are thin and crisp and used to be eaten as a vegetable. In medieval times the leaves were believed to resemble the spleen in shape and were therefore used to treat ailments in that area.
GROUND IVY – despite the name, ground ivy is a member of the dead-nettle family. It is a creeping plant of woodland and hedgerow. The funnel-shaped violet flowers appear in whorls of 2-4 around the upright stems and smell strongly of blackcurrant or tom-cats!
WOOD ANEMONE – a member of the buttercup family, the delicate, nodding flowers of the wood anemone can carpet the floor of ancient woodlands during early spring. Their slow spread (roughly 2m every 100 years) can provide a good indicator to the age of the woodland.
GREATER STITCHWORT – a relatively common flower of woodland, hedgerow and roadside verges. Also known as Star of Bethlehem and Wedding Cakes! The flowers are 2-3cm across with characteristic deeply notched petals. Listen for the ‘popping’ of the explosive seed pods during late spring.
GORSE – a familiar, large shrub with dense, sharp spines and vivid yellow flowers, gorse is an important food plant for insects and provides nesting cover for birds. There are two common varieties in the UK: Common gorse, which mainly flowers from Jan-June and western gorse which flowers during the second half of the year. The flowers of common gorse smell strongly of coconut.
RED CAMPION – a tall, hairy plant of woods, hedgerows and roadside verges. The pink-red flowers have five deeply notched petals and are a good source of food for bees, moths and butterflies. WHITE CAMPION is similar, but with white flowers.
EARLY PURPLE ORCHID – the first orchid to appear in spring and found in a variety of non-acidic habitats, from woods, grasslands to verges. The purple flowers and spotted leaves are distinctive. Found throughout the UK but less common in central England and parts of Scotland.