Skip to main content

Wood Anemone

Anemone nemorosa

One of the first flowers of spring, Wood Anemones bloom like a galaxy of stars across the forest floor.

As a species it’s surprisingly slow to spread (six feet in a hundred years!), relying on the growth of its root structure rather than the spread of its seed. As such, it is a good indicator of ancient woodland.

How to spot it

Wood Anemone has solitary star-like white flowers with 5-8 petals, often pinkish underneath. Long-stalked stem leaves divided into three lobes, with each lobe divided.

Colonies of Wood Anemones with purple or purple-streaked petals are frequent in Norfolk, but the sky-blue type (var. caerulea) is much rarer or possibly lost. It was a favourite of William Robinson, the 19th century pioneer of ‘wild gardening’ who carefully distinguished it from the occasionally naturalised European blue anemone.

Where to spot it

You can find Wood Anemone in deciduous woodlands, particularly ancient ones. It can also be found in hedges and shaded banks. In the Yorkshire dales it is frequently found in limestone pavements. In many places the colonies could be relics of previous woodland cover, but its liking for light (it only opens fully in sunshine and does not grow in deep shade) suggests that it may not have purely woodland origins.

Best time to spot it

Wood Anemone flowers from March to April

Did you know?

  • Wood Anemone has a sharp, musky smell. This is hinted at in some old local names like ‘smell foxes’.
  • Hoverflies are particularly fond of the Wood Anemone and help pollinate it. Other animals, however, will only eat it if nothing else is available, because of its acrid taste. It is poisonous to humans.
  • The Chinese call it “the Flower of Death” because of its pale, ghostly appearance.
  • Vernacular names include Windflower, Grandmother’s nightcap and Moggie nightgown. The latter is used in parts of Derbyshire where ‘moggie’ can mean mouse, not cat. Richard Mabey also reports on the delightful children’s mis-hearing, ‘wooden enemies’.
  • Anemone and windflower are names originating in the famous Anemone coronaria of Greek legend.
  • When the suburbs of London swept over the old county of Middlesex, some of its woods were bypassed and preserved. The Wood Anemone still blooms there to this day.
  • It is the County Flower of Middlesex.
  • In the Language of Flowers it symbolises brevity, expectation and forlornness.
  • Some local names are not very innocent with the plant being linked to girls and their smocks and chemises, and with the wanton habits of cuckoos and with snakes (cf. the Cuckooflower).

Other Species

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

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

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

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

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

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

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

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

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

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

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

Colt’s-foot

Tussilago farfara

Colt's-foot flower with yellow petals, each with orange markings at the tip

Colt’s-foot is a bright, yellow daisy and is one of the first wild flowers to emerge in Spring.

The single flowers are held on scaly, crimson stems. As these start to die back, flat-fans of dark green leaves appear. These leaves are silver-white on their undersides.

Three orange-yellow Colt's-foot flowers

Where to spot it

Colt’s-foot grows in a range of habitats with open or disturbed ground, including arable land, waste land, shingle and scree, and even landslips. It grows particularly well in waste, rough and cultivated places where there is poor drainage.

Best time to spot it

Colt’s-foot is one of the early arrivals of spring. The best time to see it is throughout March and April.

Several Colt's-foot flowers, some fully in bloom and others closed or wilted

Things you might not know

  • Historically, Colt’s-foot has been used as a remedy for coughs and colds and Colt’s-foot preparations have long been used to soothe sore throats. In fact, it is sometimes called ‘Coughwort’.
  • Other vernacular names for Colt’s-foot include Disherlagie, Dishylaggie, Tushies and Cleats. The Scottish ‘Tushylucky’ and its variants come from the Latin tussilago, related to tussis, a cough.
  • Colt’s-foot also goes by another common name: Baccy plant. This is because it is considered a good substitute for tobacco!
  • The dry felt on the leaves of Colt’s-foot smoulder well and so it has also been used as tinder.

Other Species

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

Butterbur

Petasites hybridus

Butterbur on background of rocks and dirt

Fond of moist ground, Butterbur is a pink, tassled wildflower can often be found carpeting riversides and damp ditches.

With so many small flowers packed densely together, Butterbur is very popular with bees. It is a great source of nectar early in the year, when wildflowers are still rather sparse.

How to spot it

Flower spikes appear before the leaves and have tiny pale pink flowers arranged down stems which are 10-40cm tall. The leaves are very large, sometimes almost 1 meter wide and are downy-grey underneath.

Bright pink-purple Butterbur in focus on blurred background

Where to spot it

Butterbur is found throughout the UK, but is rarer in central and northern Scotland. It inhabits wet meadows, streamsides, roadside ditches and copses.

Best time to spot it

The best time to see Butterbur is in spring, throughout March, April and May.

Things you might not know

  • Butterbur’s common name derives from its large, heart-shaped leaves that were used to wrap butter in the past.
  • Its scientific name is derived from the Greek petasos, meaning a ‘broad-brimmed felt hat’ which also refers to the enormous leaves.
  • Butterbur spreads by rhizomes and large colonies of male or female plants are common.

Other Species

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

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

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

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum