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Stinking Hellebore

Helleborus foetidus

Mostly green Stinking Hellebore flowers with pink-purple lining visible on the sepals

The green flowers of the Stinking Hellebore can be a pleasant surprise amidst a dusting of snow.

You might think Stinking Hellebore is a garden escapee, but this is not the case! Although populations may have become obscured by such varieties, the Stinking Hellebore is a native through and through.

Scientific illustration of the Stinking Hellebore with detail on flowers and leaves, as well as faint, illegible measurements

How to spot it

Stinking Hellebore is evergreen. It has dark green leaves sprouting from a thick stem. The flowers are green also but a lighter, yellowish shade, and they are a drooping cup-like shape. The five sepals have a distinctive purple fringe.

Given the popularity of this plant in gardens it is often hard to distinguish the native population from horticultural escapees.

Where to spot it

Stinking Hellebore can be found in woodland, walls and roadside verges. It is particularly fond of limestone-based soils.

Best time to see

Stinking Hellebore traditionally blooms between February and April.

Things you might not know

  • Be cautious: every part of this wild flower is poisonous and will induce vomiting and delirium if ingested, if not death.
  • In the past, Stinking Hellebore was used as a hazardous remedy for worms. The 18th century naturalist Gilbert White said this about this “cure”: “Where it killed not the patient, it would certainly kill the worms; but the worst of it is, it will sometimes kill both”.
  • The name “Stinking” Hellebore could be considered undeserved. Sniffing the flowers won’t make you want to hold your nose, although crushing the leaves can produce an odour often described as “beefy”.

Other Species

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

Yew

Taxus baccata

Season

Colour

Habitat

Six red Yew berries alongside two younger green berries

A mature yew is compelling for its dense, dark evergreen foliage and buttressed trunk that has a colour close to mahogany.

Yew has a unique and remarkable association with churchyards where it was planted over graves to protect and purify the dead, and also for more mundane reasons such as being planted on a protected site to provide wood for long bows and to keep poisonous foliage out of reach of browsing cattle. It is also used for providing decoration for churches.

Clusters of red berried on branches of the Yew in a warm light

Where to spot it

Yew is concentrated in south-east and central England. It is primarily found in churchyards and woodland.

It is principally a species of well-drained chalk and limestone soils. In ancient woods it grows alongside ash, maple and beech.

Best time to spot it

The best time to spot Yew is over the winter, specifically in November, December and January.

Does Yew have any medicinal value?

It’s important to note that every part of the yew is poisonous except the flesh of its red berrylike fruit (the aril), although even that contains a toxic seed. The aril is slightly sweet which makes it tempting for children. Eating just a few seeds or a handful of leaves causes gastrointestinal problems, a dangerous drop in pulse rate and possible heart failure. Many victims are found dead and therefore are never able to describe their symptoms. Suicide by Yew was a way of avoiding defeat in Ceasar’s Gallic Wars.

However, Yews do contain an alkaloid named taxol which seems to be effective against ovarian, breast and lung cancers. Drug companies and research laboratories are offering to buy the foliage in bulk.

Two bright red berries on the green branches of the Yew

Things you might not know

  • Yew’s sticky red berries are popular with birds, and bird-sown seedlings can colonise open chalk downland as well.
  • In some parts of the UK you might hear Yew referred to as ‘Hampshire weed’ or ‘Snotty-gogs’ (for the berries).
  • The world’s oldest known wooden artefact is a 250,000-year-old yew-spear that was found at Clacton in Essex. The timber is so hard that it outlives iron.
  • The slow-growing yew can live two or three centuries but it is difficult to date mature trees because the dense wood does not always produce rings.
  • Yews are often pruned into formal hedges such as Hampton Court Palace’s famous 300-year-old hedge maze.

Other Species

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

Tree Lungwort

Lobaria pulmonaria

Tree Lungwort spanning entire branch of ancient tree

Tree Lungwort is a beautiful, vibrantly green, leafy lichen. It is one of the largest lichens and is an indicator of ancient woodland.

Where to spot it

Tree lungwort is found mainly in Scotland, particularly the west coast, where the wetter climate provides the moisture it requires to thrive. Because of air pollution, it is much sparser in the rest of Britain, confined to a few sites in wilder areas, such as the Lake District and parts of Wales.

It can be found growing on trees and old wood in areas of low air pollution.

Tree Lungwort growing on tree trunk, protected by artificial green mesh

Best time to spot it

Tree Lungwort can be spotted all throughout the year.

Things you might not know

  • Its lobes look a bit like the billowing shape of human lungs, which is where its name comes from.
  • In medieval times, medics would use Tree Lungwort to treat lung disorders because of its resemblance to human lungs.
  • Though Tree Lungwort can be found at multiple sites across the UK, in some of these sites its reproduction is limited.

Other Species

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

Reindeer Moss

Cladonia rangiferina

Small patch of jagged, white Reindeer Moss amongst bright green plants

Despite its name, reindeer moss is actually a lichen (in fact it is also known as ‘reindeer lichen’).

Composed of many light and dainty branches, it grows in cushion-like tufts. When dry it can be quite brittle but once wet it becomes somewhat sponge-like.

Where it grows

Reindeer moss is usually found on moors and heathland, often growing in pockets of soil attached to rocky outcrops.

Bright white Reindeer Moss surrounding green plants

Best time to see Reindeer Moss

Reindeer Moss can be spotted all throughout the year.

Something you might not know

The only naturalised reindeer in the UK are found in the Scottish Highlands where they live for much of the year on reindeer moss.

Other Species

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

Snowdrop

Galanthus nivalis

Months

Season

Habitat

The bobbing white blooms of snowdrops fluttering on the road verge or carpeting the woodland floor put a spring in the step of us all during the bitter winter months.

Their early appearance after a dark winter make them a firm favourite with nature lovers and wildflower watchers across the country. A sign that spring is on its way!

How to spot it

Its slim green leaves and bobbing white petals are quite iconic at a time of year when little else flowers.

Snowdrops are able to survive the cold winter months and flower so early, because they grow from bulbs.

Where it grows

Areas with damp soil, such as moist woodland and riverbanks.

Best time to see snowdrops

Your best chance at seeing snowdrops is from January to March. However, you might spot it in flower as early as October!

The species has long been associated with our cold winter months – the Latin name, Galanthus nivalis, translates as ‘milk flower of the snow.’

Are snowdrops a native species?

Although considered a native species, snowdrops are recent arrivals. Its first known cultivation as a garden plant was in 1597, and was then first recorded in the wild in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire in 1778.

What do snowdrops symbolise?

In the Language of Flowers snowdrops symbolise chastity, consolation, death, friendship in adversity, hope and purity.

Discover the ingenious ways Snowdrops have adapted to deal with harsh winters as Adam Shaw speaks to Plantlife Senior Ecologist Sarah Shuttleworth.

Things you might not know

  • Did you know pollinators love snowdrops too? Snowdrops produce seeds which are spread by early emerging queen bumblebees on warm, dry days.
  • Christians dedicate this wildflower to the Virgin Mary. On Candlemas Day, 2 February, snowdrops were once scattered in place of her image on the altar.
  • Regional names include Candlemass Bells, Mary’s Taper, Snow Piercer, February Fairmaids and Dingle-dangle, which point to the snowdrops’ appearance in the depths of winter.
  • In traditional medicine, snowdrops were used to treat headaches and as a painkiller. In modern medicine, a naturally occurring substance within the plant, called galantamine, is used to help treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. However, the bulbs themselves are poisonous to humans and can cause nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting if eaten. This perhaps led to the superstition that a single Snowdrop bloom in a house can bring death.

Other Species

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

Mistletoe

Viscum album

From kissing traditions at Christmas to ancient fertility rites, mistletoe has long been regarded as a magical plant.

Mistletoe colonies are vital for six species of insect that live nowhere else. It is the County flower of Herefordshire and is often harvested as a winter crop from their cider and perry orchards.

Distribution

Found across the UK, however its heartland is in the English / Welsh border counties and Somerset. Despite this, all is not well. The loss of traditional apple orchards has hit mistletoe hard and the work of birds such as the Mistle Thrush in smearing seeds on new branches may not be enough to counteract this decline.

Habitat

It can be found hanging in broadleaf trees, orchard trees and others, especially lime and poplar.

Best time to see

February to April when it flowers or winter when its berries appear.

Did you know?

The scientific name of this white berry can translate as “white goo”. Local names include Churchman’s Greeting, Kiss-and-go, Masslin, Misle and Mislin-Bush.

It is said to overcome epilepsy and this is not altogether fanciful since it has an active principle which is antispasmodic and reduces blood pressure.

It is often associated with the ancient Druids, whose reverence of the plant during the winter solstice was described by Pliny and Caesar. Perhaps it was the sight of its pearly white berries growing apparently rootless, high above the ground, in the largely dead months of winter. Like holly and ivy – also revered – mistletoe appears to be in its prime when other wild flowers have gone.

Other Species

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

Oak Moss Lichen

Evernia prunastri

with little tiny branches almost like a a lot of green tiny deer antlers
  • Grows in short tufts (to 10 cm) of flattened branches with forked tips, often with a net-like pattern of ridges visible on the surface.
  • Pale grey-green to pale yellow-green on the upper side and whitish underneath. This can be harder to see if the lichen has spent some time on the ground or in older specimens. This colour difference is due to Evernia technically being a foliose lichen, as its internal structure means it just has a single layer of algal cells beneath the upper cortex.
  • Patches of grainy soredia may be present on the edges of branches and ridges, becoming more extensive over time. Apothecia (fruiting bodies) are very rare.

Habitat

It prefers well-lit conditions, so is often present in the canopy and on lower branches in well-lit situations.

Similar species

Could be confused with Ramalina farinacea (below) which has narrower, more straggly branches, and lacks the pale underside. E. prunastri  also lacks the oval soralia on the edges of the lobes, which is a distinctive feature of R. farinacea.

Other lichens with strap-like branches that are likely to be encountered in the rainforest, such as Ramalina calicaris, R. fastigiata, and R. fraxinea, commonly have rounded apothecia on their branches which are extremely rare in E. prunastri.

Distribution 

Widespread and common across the whole British Isles

Other Species

Oak Moss Lichen
with little tiny branches almost like a a lot of green tiny deer antlers

Oak Moss Lichen

Evernia prunastri

Fanfare of Trumpets Lichen

Fanfare of Trumpets Lichen

Ramalina fastigiata 

Shaggy Strap Lichen
Shaggy Strap Lichen

Shaggy Strap Lichen

Ramalina farinacea

Fanfare of Trumpets Lichen

Ramalina fastigiata 

A very common fruticose lichen on trees, which is easy for beginners to recognise.

  • Grey-green irregularly shaped and flattened branches, often wrinkled. 
  • Branches end with round and flattened fruits (apothecia). 

As its evocative English name suggests, this lichen is relatively easy to spot once you have seen its ‘trumpets’. These are the apothecia (fruiting bodies) that stand out at the tips of many of the branches. They vary in size, but collectively make a visual impact. 

Distribution

Widespread and common across the British Isles with concentrations in southern England and coastal areas. 

Other Species

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

Shaggy Strap Lichen

Ramalina farinacea

Shaggy Strap Lichen
  • Grows in pale grey-green to yellow-green tufts, with flattened, straggly and forked branches (up to 10cm).  
  • Soredia in discrete oval soralia along branch margins. This is clear with a hand lens, but possible to see without. Apothecia (fruiting bodies) are rare. 
  • Both sides of the branches have the same colouring (and it does not have a white underside). 

Habitat

One of the most common fruticose species on trees with acidic bark such as alder, birch and oak. It is fairly pollution tolerant.

Similar species

Could be confused with Evernia prunastri but that lacks the oval soralia on the edges of the branches and has distinctly paler undersides to the branches.  When first becoming familiar with lichens you may also confuse R. fastigiata for an Usnea species as first glance, but if you look carefully you will notice that R. farinacea has flattened branches rather than cylindrical branches.  

Similar to other Ramalina species such as R. calicaris, R. fastigiata, and R. fraxinea, but they have rounded apothecia (fruiting bodies) and they lack the oval soralia. 

Distribution

Widespread and common across the whole British Isles. 

Other Species

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

String-of-sausages Lichen

Usnea articulata 

  • Grey-green tassels of up to 1 m hanging down or draped across the substrate but rarely anchored to it.  
  • Main stems have inflated sections which are pinched at intervals, and so resemble a string of sausages. This is a key feature to look for as there are other pendulous Usnea species but none have this characteristic.

Habitat

It is most common in the south west’s temperate rainforest zone. 

Favouring well-lit conditions and dry, open situations, it is most often found in tree canopies or on lower branches where trees are well-lit, in woodland or on scattered trees in open moorland. You can also find it on the ground after stormy weather. 

Similar species

Other large, bearded lichens include Usnea ceratina, Usnea dasopoga and Usnea hirta but these lack the sausage-like lobes. 

Did you know

  • It is a Section 41 species which means that it is considered of “principal importance for the conservation of biodiversity in England” under Section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (2006).
  • A clean air indicator, rare outside of south-west England’s rainforest zone. Highly sensitive to sulphur dioxide pollution, it was once much more widespread in Britain but now appears to be making a comeback, perhaps due to improved air quality and a warming climate. 

Distribution 

Largely restricted to south-western parts of the UK with most records in south-west England. 

Other Species

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum