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

Marsh-marigold

Caltha palustris

Ten bright yellow Marsh-marigold flowers

Also known as ‘kingcups’, Marsh-marigold could be one of our most ancient plants. It is thought that it was growing here before the last Ice Age!

Marsh-marigold is a member of the buttercup family, a large, almost luxuriant version of its smaller cousin with bright yellow flowers and dark, shiny leaves. The latter are kidney shaped and quite waxy to touch – although doing so too often is best avoided: like all buttercups the marsh-marigold is poisonous and can irritate the skin.

Where to spot it

Marsh-marigold is widespread throughout Britain. It can be found in wet meadows, marshes and wet woodlands and grows well in shade.

How’s it doing?

Marsh-marigold is a common native species, whose distribution remains relatively stable in Britain. It is, however, locally threatened by drainage and agricultural improvement of its wet grassland habitat. Loss of habitat through drainage and abandonment is therefore one of the key threats to Marsh-marigold.

Did you know?

Marsh-marigold is also known as Mayflower – the name of the ship that carried the Pilgrim fathers to America. In Lancashire it is known as ‘the publican’ – maybe a reflection of its sturdy nature!

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 single white-purple lady orchid flower spike on a blurred background

The Lady Orchid is a tall, elegant herbaceous plant belonging to the Orchidaceae plant family.

How to spot it

Lady Orchid can reach 30–100 centimetres with the fleshy, bright green leaves being up to 15 cm long. The leaves are broad and oblong, forming a rosette about the base of the plant and surrounding the flower spike. These flower spikes can contain up to 200 individual flowers to which the stem upwardly points. Some of the flowers have the look of women in crinoline ball gowns. In terms of colour they are usually pale pink or rose, with a deeper purple ‘head’.

Close-up of bright pink-purple lady orchid flowers

Where to spot it

The Lady Orchid can be found in most parts of Europe (specifically Kent, England), Northern Africa, Turkey and the Caucasus.

Lady orchids usually grow in woodlands, oak forests, slopes and meadows, and can occasionally occur on savanna. They prefer to grow in limestone or chalk soil, in shady or sunny places. The Lady Orchid occurs in short grassland, on woodland edges and sometimes in open woodland. However, it is now very rarely found in the UK.

Best time to spot it

Lady Orchid’s flowering occurs in late April to June.

Did you know?

The sepals and upper petals are known to be purple, hence the Lady Orchid adopting the latin name purpurea.

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

Twinflower

Linnaea borealis

Single twinflower on blurred background of foliage

The beautiful Twinflower has two pink bell-like flowers on a slender stem, and a thicker stem below which creeps along the ground, forming small mats of the plant. It is one of our smallest and most delicate native flowers.

Did you know?

Twinflower is the County Flower of Inverness-shire.

Several twinflowers amongst leaves

Where to spot it

Twinflower is confined to Scotland. It grows mainly in the native, open, pine woods, particularly in the Cairngorms, and is an Arctic-Alpine plant that is a relic of the Ice Age.

How did it get there?

The clearance of native woodlands before the 1930s resulted in severe losses of this little flower. Continued habitat destruction and changes in woodland management have now reduced this plant to a handful of about 50 unrelated sites.

One of the two heads of a twinflower in bloom and in focus, with the other remaining closed

What are Twinflower’s key threats?

The isolation of the remaining sites of Twinflower leads to poor seed production and thus contributes to its continued decline. Other threats are overgrazing by deer or sheep, mechanical harvesting of timber, and the deliberate thickening of forests leading to excess shade.

What we’re doing about it

One of Plantlife’s most exciting projects has been research into how the historical management of ancient pine plantation may have benefited Twinflower. A study of how timber was grown and extracted in the 18th and 19th centuries has led to a proposal to test whether these methods could boost Twinflower populations today.

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

Early Dog-violet

Viola reichenbachiana

Months

Season

Colour

Five-petalled Early Dog-violet flower on a background of blurred leaves, with a second budding flower out of focus

Early by name, early by nature: the Early Dog-violet is the first of the violets to bloom.

While its cousin, the Common Dog-violet, traditionally flowers in April, the Early Dog-violet pops up in March, or earlier if the local climate has been unseasonably mild. The unscented flowers of both violets are similar but the Early Dog-violet has a darker purple spur behind the petals.

Single Early Dog-violet flower amongst grass

Where to spot it

The Early Dog-violet is found across central, eastern and southern England growing on hedge banks and in chalk woodlands. It is an indicator species for ancient woodland.

How’s it doing?

Early Dog-violet is categorised as least concern, so there is a good chance that you will be able to spot it if you look for it in the right places!

Early Dog-violet flower with five petalled, some of which have a slightly white mottled pattern on the purple petals

Things you might not know

  • Both Early Dog-violets and Common Dog-violets respond rampantly when light is allowed into the wood. A forty-fold increase in the number of violet flowers was once recorded in Cambridgeshire after coppicing.
  • Another name you might hear for the Early Dog-violet is the Woodland Violet.
  • The Early Dog-violet used to be called the Pale Wood Violet as its flowers do tend to be lighter than the Common variety.
  • It is a key food source for five of Britain’s most threatened butterflies: pearl-bordered fritillary, small pearl-bordered fritillary, high brown fritillary, silver-washed fritillary and dark green fritillary.

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

Daffodil (wild)

Narcissus pseudonarcissus ssp pseudonarcissus

One Daffodil flower with pale petals and a bright yellow tube

Our native Daffodil is smaller than many garden varieties but is still a striking sight in early spring.

The Daffodil is also known as the ‘Lent lily’ or ‘Easter lily’ since it often blooms and fades within the Lenten period. The wild Daffodil is smaller than horticultural varieties, with paler petals and a deep yellow trumpet-like tube. The leaves are grey-green, thin, long and flattened. It grows in groups so can be quite an impressive sight.

Two Daffodils in the evening sunshine

Where to spot it

The native Daffodil is found in damp woods, fields, grassland and orchards.

It is a rare plant but can be abundant in some areas. The ‘golden triangle’ around the Gloucestershire villages of Newent and Dymock is famous for its wild woodland Daffodils.

A 10-mile footpath known as ‘The Daffodil Way’ runs through woods, orchards and meadows, in which the wild Daffodil is rarely out of sight. These colonies have built up over hundreds of years. It currently survives in patchy populations, often scattered across the western side of Britain.

Three Daffodils in a large Daffodil meadow on the edge of a woodland

Best time to spot it

Wild Daffodils are best spotted in the spring months of March and April.

How’s it doing?

Once one of the most common wild flowers to be found in the English and Welsh countryside, the wild Daffodil declined mysteriously in the mid-nineteenth century. Picking by passers-by doesn’t seem to have been the cause – Daffodils are relatively resistant to this practice. A more likely culprit was the simultaneous fall in cash-crops grown by locals hoping to capitalising on the flower’s popularity, combined with agricultural intensification and mismanagement of its habitat.

There is a risk that wild Daffodils will hybridise with the cultivated varieties.

Things you might not know

  • ‘Daffodil’ in Welsh is ‘Cenhinen Pedr’ – which literally translates as Pedr’s (or Peter’s) leek. The true Welsh Daffodil is the Tenby Daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus ssp. obvallaris, a sub-species of the wild variety. Although it is likely that this was originally a cultivated flower, it now grows wild across south-west Wales.
  • Daffodil bulbs are used by pharmacists as a source of a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
  • As well as a national symbol of Wales, the wild Daffodil is also the county flower of Gloucestershire.
  • In the Language of Flowers it represents hope, folly and unrequited love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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