Skip to main content

Sweet Violet

Viola odorata

Sweet Violet is a low, creeping plant with fragrant flowers, usually blue-violet or white. It has a long and rather romantic history in European and Asian folklore: the ancient Greeks first used it to make perfume and the Romans to make wine. Ancient Britons used it for cosmetics. Medieval French troubadours used it to represent constancy in their tales of chivalrous love.

How to spot it

Sweet violet’s leaves are broad and glossy and like the stems are covered with fine hairs. Both flowers and leaves grow from a central tuft.

Where to spot it

Sweet Violet is widespread throughout most of England, although it’s less widespread in the north. In Scotland and Wales its distribution is even patchier: a wildflower of woodland margins and shady hedgerows, it tends to avoid the more mountainous regions.

When to spot it

The best time to see Sweet Violet is from March to May.

Things you might not know

  • One of the key threats to Sweet Violet is loss of the habitat, particularly destruction of hedgerows.
  • Josephine threw Napolean a posy of sweet violets when they first met. After he was defeated at Waterloo he was permitted to visit her grave one last time before he was sent to St Helena. He found sweet violets growing there and picked a few. Upon his death these were found in a locket around his neck.
  • There is a legend that you can only smell violet flowers once – this is untrue, but has its basis in a quirk of evolution. Ionine, one of the chemicals that makes up the Sweet Violet’s scent, has the power to deaden the smell receptors once its been sniffed.

Other Species

Sweet Violet

Sweet Violet

Viola odorata

Marsh-marigold
Ten bright yellow Marsh-marigold flowers

Marsh-marigold

Caltha palustris

Read Dead-nettle

Read Dead-nettle

Lamium purpureum

Read Dead-nettle

Lamium purpureum

Red Dead-nettle is traditionally known as the ‘bumblebee flower’ in some British counties as bumblebees love it! Other names include ‘sweet archangel’ and ‘bad man’s posies’. Red Dead-nettle is related to the stinging nettle but has no sting – hence the ‘dead’ in ‘dead-nettle’.

How to spot it

Red Dead-nettle has whorls of pink-purple flowers clustered amongst leaves towards the top of the plant. The aromatic leaves are hairy, heart-shaped and have toothed edges. Some leaves near the top of the plant take on a purple tint. This plant can be mistaken for henbit dead-nettle which has similar flowers. They can be differentiated because Red Dead-nettle leaves have short petioles (leaf stalks).

Where to spot it

Found throughout the UK, Red Dead-nettle likes arable and waste land and can also be found in gardens, hedgerows and on roadsides.

Best time to spot it

Red dead-nettle has a long flowering season that can begin in February and last until November.

Things you might not know

  • The generic name is from the Greek lamia meaning ‘devouring monster’. This refers to the helmet shape (galeate) of the flower which has the appearance of open jaws.
  • The vernacular name ‘Archangel’ may refer to their virtue of being non-stinging.
  • It is likely that this plant was introduced to Britain with early agriculture and evidence for it has been found in Bronze Age deposits.
  • The whole plant is astringent, diaphoretic, diuretic, purgative and styptic. In terms of traditional medicinal uses, dried leaves have been used as a poultice to stem hemorrhaging whilst fresh bruised leaves have been applied to external wounds and cuts. The leaves are also made into a tea and drunk to promote perspiration and discharge from the kidneys in treating chills.

Other Species

Sweet Violet

Sweet Violet

Viola odorata

Marsh-marigold
Ten bright yellow Marsh-marigold flowers

Marsh-marigold

Caltha palustris

Read Dead-nettle

Read Dead-nettle

Lamium purpureum

Blackthorn

Prunus spinosa

Trailing cluster of white blossom of the Blackthorn

Each year, Blackthorn heralds the coming of spring as one of the first native trees to burst into blossom.

Blackthorn belongs to the rose family and its fruit are known as sloes – famously used to flavour sloe gin!

Single white blossom of the Blackthorn in bloom, surrounded by buds and bare branches

How to spot it

Blackthorn is a rather shrubby tree with dark-hued branches (hence the name “black” thorn). It produces white, five-petalled blossom in early spring. When these wither, they are replaced with sloes – dark blue-purple fruit, around a centimetre wide. Blackthorn leaves are oval-shaped, serrated and pointed at the tip.

In spring and summer, it can be confused with Hawthorn. Hawthorn blossom, however, appears amidst the leaves, whereas Blackthorn blossoms before they appear.

Where to spot it

Blackthorn is found most commonly in hedgerows but it can also be spotted in scrub and wood borders all over the UK and Ireland.

Things you might not know

  • Kernels of sloes were found in the stomach of Ötzi, the neolithic “iceman” found preserved in the Alps in 1991, suggesting he’d been eating fruit from a Blackthorn shortly before he died.
  • Blackthorn’s wood is traditionally used to make Irish shillelaghs (a type of walking stick that also doubled as a club or cudgel).
  • The Brown Hairstreak butterfly often chooses to lay its eggs on young Blackthorn shoots and it provides food for the caterpillars. The annual flailing of hedgerows (where Blackthorn can usually be found) has been blamed, in part, for the butterfly’s decline as the eggs are removed before they hatch.

Other Species

Sweet Violet

Sweet Violet

Viola odorata

Marsh-marigold
Ten bright yellow Marsh-marigold flowers

Marsh-marigold

Caltha palustris

Read Dead-nettle

Read Dead-nettle

Lamium purpureum

Ground Ivy is an aromatic creeping herb with funnel-shaped violet flowers.

This small, common evergreen perennial belongs to the mint family and spreads rapidly in a carpet-like form due to its creeping stems. Despite its name, it is not closely related to common ivy.

How to spot it

Ground Ivy has upright flowering stems bearing between two and four violet two-lipped flowers in a whorl. The lower lip has purple spots. Its leaves are scalloped in shape, which may explain why catsfoot is one of its many nicknames.

Where to spot it

It is commonly found in woodlands, meadows, hedgerows, and wasteland throughout the British Isles, although it is rarer in Scotland. It also thrives in lawns as it survives mowing.

Things you might not know

  • Known as a lung-cleansing herb, Ground Ivy has been used to treat coughs and other respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis.
  • It has been used a substitute for animal rennet to make cheese.
  • Ground Ivy is a rich source of vitamin C and can be used as a herbal tea.
  • Common names for Ground Ivy include Gill-over-the-ground, Creeping Charlie, Alehoof, Tunhoof, Field balm and Run-away Robin.
  • It was known as “Our Lady’s Vine” in Medieval times.
  • The Saxons used Ground Ivy to flavour and clarify their ale.

Lesser Celandine

Ficaria verna

A favourite of Wordsworth, Lesser Celandine is one of the first wildflowers to bloom.

In fact, the 21 February has been known as Celandine Day since 1795, when the renowned naturalist Gilbert White noted that the first celandines usually appeared in his Hampshire village of Selborne.

How to spot it

Its bright, yellow star-shaped flowers often blanket the ground. Each is about 3cm across with eight to twelve petals. It has rosettes of glossy dark green heart-shaped mottled long-stalked leaves.

Where it grows

Woodland and hedge banks, particularly damp places. Also meadows and stream-sides.

Best time to see

You can spot Lesser Celandine from late February to May.

Has Lesser Celandine been used in herbal medicine?

One of it’s local names is “Pilewort” since the herb was traditionally given for haemorrhoids. This was based on the doctrine of signatures since the knobbly tubers were thought to resemble piles!

Things you might not know

  • Its the floral equivalent of the swallow: both reappear around the same time and herald the coming of spring. In fact the word ‘celandine’ comes from the Greek word chelidon meaning ‘swallow’. Its early flowering time also gave the Lesser Celandine the nickname ‘spring messenger’.
  • Despite sharing the name, it isn’t actually related to the greater celandine. Lesser celandine is a member of the buttercup family. Greater celandine is related to the poppy.
  • Wordsworth’s favourite wild flower wasn’t the daffodil – it was lesser celandine. He wrote no less than three poems about it: The Small Celandine, To the Same Flower and To the Small Celandine.

Other Species

Sweet Violet

Sweet Violet

Viola odorata

Marsh-marigold
Ten bright yellow Marsh-marigold flowers

Marsh-marigold

Caltha palustris

Read Dead-nettle

Read Dead-nettle

Lamium purpureum

A sign that spring is on the way! Primrose’s sunny yellow flowers are a common sight across the UK.

The name derives from the Latin prima rosa meaning ‘first rose’ of the year, despite not being a member of the rose family. In different counties of England it is also referred to as Butter Rose, Early Rose, Easter Rose, Golden Rose and Lent Rose.

How to spot it

Pale yellow, green-veined, flowers, 3cm across, borne singly on stalks. Rosette of wrinkled leaves tapering gradually to stalk, each up to 15cm long.

In large populations there is a variation in the colour, texture and size of primrose flowers. Native species can produce flowers in shades ranging from pale cream to deep yellow.

Bizarre forms include an umbellate form in which flowers form a spray on top of a longer stalk similar to a Cowslip, and doubles.

Where it grows

Woodland clearings, hedgebanks, waysides, railway banks and open grassland preferring damp, clayey soils.

A group of Primrose flowers in a woodland verge

Best time to see Primrose

You can find Primrose appearing throughout Spring.

Are Primrose threatened?

Primrose is a native plant in Britain, and its distribution remains stable. Its decline in areas of East Anglia – following a series of hot, dry summers from 1970 onwards – hints at a possible threat posed by climate change.

The main threat is the loss of habitat. Inappropriate management of woodland and waysides can all contribute to a local decline.

A close up of 3 yellow Primrose flower heads

Things you might not know

  • April 19th is ‘Primrose day’. This date is the anniversary of the death of the former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and the primrose was his favourite flower. Queen Victoria supposedly sent him bunches regularly and to this day primroses are laid at his statue by Westminster Abbey on this date every year.
  • A Primrose flower will be red if you plant it upside-down according to one old superstition (we wouldn’t recommend it…).
  • It is the County Flower of Devon.

Other Species

Sweet Violet

Sweet Violet

Viola odorata

Marsh-marigold
Ten bright yellow Marsh-marigold flowers

Marsh-marigold

Caltha palustris

Read Dead-nettle

Read Dead-nettle

Lamium purpureum

Ivy

Hedera helix

A evergreen woody climbing wild plant, commonly seen on old walls and tree trunks.

Ivy is often found carpeting the ground or growing up walls and trees.

Its flowers bloom in an umbrella-like spread. In fact the term for such a bloom – an ‘umbel’ – derives from the same source as umbrella – umbra, the Latin word for shade.

It’s leaves are dark green glossy above, paler below. On flowering shoots leaves are pointed oval.

Distribution

Widespread throughout the UK.

Habitat

Woods, hedgerows, rocks and walls. Very commonly found on tree trunks.

Best time to see

Flowers September to November.

Did you know?

  • Ivy is, of course, celebrated with holly in the Christmas Carol of the same name. Its symbolism, however, predates Christianity. As evergreen species both holly and ivy were seen as especially powerful during the leafless days of winter. Sprigs were said to ward off evil spirits and inside the home kept the house goblins at bay. Of the two, ivy – shapely and curvaceous – was said to represent the feminine as compared to the spiky, angular masculinity of holly.
  • Local names include Bentwood, Bindwood, Hibbin, Ivin, Ivery and the enchanting Love-Stone used in Leicestershire.
  • In the Highlands and Islands it has been used as protection, to keep evil away from milk, butter and the animals. Circlets of ivy alone, or ivy plaited with Rowan and honeysuckle were hung over the lintels of byres and put under milk vessels.

Other Species

Sweet Violet

Sweet Violet

Viola odorata

Marsh-marigold
Ten bright yellow Marsh-marigold flowers

Marsh-marigold

Caltha palustris

Read Dead-nettle

Read Dead-nettle

Lamium purpureum

Common Knapweed

Centaurea nigra

Also known as “Hardheads” or “Black knapweed”, this wild flower is one of our toughest meadow plants.

Knapweed is a firm favourite of our pollinating insects, being a source of good quality nectar. And as well as supporting our bee, butterflies and beetles its seeds provide food for many birds.

Identification

Somewhat thistle-like, common knapweed can be identified by its slightly spherical black/brown flower head, growing alone, topped with purple, pink or (more rarely) white. The bracts are triangular in shape. Its leaves are linear to lance-like in shape with incomplete lobes.

Greater knapweed – a close relation – is similar but its flowers are more garish and opulent and its leaves are fully lobed.

Distribution

Found throughout Britain.

Habitat

Knapweed is a wild flower of meadows and other grassland habitats from lawns to cliff-tops. It can often be seen on road verges where wildlife is allowed to thrive and also in hedges.

Best time to see

In flower, June to September.

Did you know…

  • In days gone by eligible young women would play a love-divination game by pulling out the rays and putting the plucked knapweed flower in their blouse. When as-yet unopened florets began to bloom it would tell her the man of her dreams was near. This game to foretell the future of love is also played with Plantago major.
  • Most of the local names including Bachelor’s buttons, Blue bottle and Iron knobs are explained by the hard, knobby heads, the bottle-shaped involucre and the toughness of the plant.
  • Knapweed was used for ruptures and wounds, bruises, sores, scabs and sore throat, etc.

Other Species

Sweet Violet

Sweet Violet

Viola odorata

Marsh-marigold
Ten bright yellow Marsh-marigold flowers

Marsh-marigold

Caltha palustris

Read Dead-nettle

Read Dead-nettle

Lamium purpureum

Lady’s Bedstraw

Galium verum

‘O perilous fyr, that in the bedstraw bredeth’ – Chaucer, The Merchant’s Tale”

Also known as ‘yellow bedstraw’, a frothy blossom with a wonderful honey scent.

A very distinctive plant with soft clusters of bright yellow flowers that smell of hay. The leaves are narrow, dark green and in whorls. It often creeps amongst grasses, sending up tall flowering stems in summer.

It is related to the plant cleavers, or ‘Sticky Willy’ Galium aparine.

Distribution

Lady’s bedstraw can be found growing across the UK.

Habitat

Meadows, road verges, cliff tops, hedges, dunes and other grassy places.

Best time to see

In the summer months, when in bloom and producing its scent.

Did you know…

  • Before the advent of the modern mattress, lady’s bedstraw was a popular choice for bedding thanks to its soft and springy quality and pleasant scent (when dried it smells of hay). Also it has an astringent quality which may also have brought it into the bed against fleas.
  • According to one medieval legend, the Virgin Mary Herself gave birth whilst lying on a bed of lady’s bedstraw and bracken. The bracken refused to acknowledge the baby Jesus and in doing so lost its flower. Lady’s bedstraw, however, bloomed in recognition. As it did so its flowers changed from white to gold.
  • The flower also has an association with giving birth in Norse mythology. In the past Scandinavians used lady’s bedstraw as a sedative for women in labour. Frigg, the goddess of married women, was said to help women give birth. As such they called it ‘Frigg’s grass’.
  • Its flowers were also used as an alternative to renin to coagulate milk in cheese production (sadly, the exact method of how this was done have been lost). Additionally, in Gloucestershire, it was used to add colour to Double Gloucester.

Other Species

Sweet Violet

Sweet Violet

Viola odorata

Marsh-marigold
Ten bright yellow Marsh-marigold flowers

Marsh-marigold

Caltha palustris

Read Dead-nettle

Read Dead-nettle

Lamium purpureum

Wild Leek

Allium ampeloprasum

A native wild relative of the familiar garden vegetable.

Wild Leek has globe-like heads on stems that can grow to a metre tall. Its leaves are just like the common garden leek, although the stem is not quite so fat. All parts have a strong onion scent.

County flower of Cardiff/Caerdydd.

Found wild on Flat Holm island just off the Cardiff coast, what better than the wild leek for representing the nation’s capital?

Distribution

Just one locality on Ynys Mon (Anglesey) in North Wales and on a couple of islands in the Severn Estuary, two other forms of wild leek (var. bulbifera and var. babingtonii) are distributed around the coast of the British Isles.

Habitat

Sandy and rocky places near the sea, especially in old fields and hedge banks, on sheltered cliff-slopes, by paths and tracks and in drainage ditches and other disturbed places.

Best time to see

Flowers from late June to August

A wild leek flower head

Status

Wild Leek is believed to have be en introduced to Britain. It is a scarce species, naturalised in only a few areas.

Did you know…

  • The Wild Leek is the Wild crop relative of our cultivated leek but looks more like Elephant Garlic than the green and white leek you would recognise.
  • The leek is one of the two national plants of Wales – the story goes that King Cadwaladr of Gwynedd ordered his soldiers (the Cymry) to identify themselves in an ancient battle against the Saxons by wearing a leek on their helmet.
  • Wild leeks were probably introduced to Wales from the Eastern Mediterranean as early as the bronze age but are unfortunately now Classed as Vulnerable to extinction on the Welsh Red List of Plants. Plantlife supports a project to ensure that the Wild Leek is protected at its only site in Wales.

Other Species

Sweet Violet

Sweet Violet

Viola odorata

Marsh-marigold
Ten bright yellow Marsh-marigold flowers

Marsh-marigold

Caltha palustris

Read Dead-nettle

Read Dead-nettle

Lamium purpureum