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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

Groundsel

Senecio vulgaris

Large Groundsel growing amongst rocks and waste ground

Groundsel is a common annual weed of rough and cultivated ground. You can find its clusters of small yellow flowers appearing on road verges, in gardens and on waste ground all throughout the year.

How to spot it

The leaves of Groundsel are bright shiny green, long and raggedly lobed. The small yellow flower heads are in cluster at the ends of the stems appearing to emerge from little tubes.

Bright yellow Groundsel flowers growing on a roadside

Best time to see

You can find Groundsel in flower throughout the year.

Where it grows

Groundsel is an annual weed of cultivated or disturbed ground, cropping up along field edges, roadside verges and on waste grounds.

Are Groundsel threatened?

Groundsel continues to be widespread throughout the British Isles, although there appears to have been a decline in the Scottish Highlands, possibly due to abandoning of marginal cultivations.

Things you might not know

  • Both birds and rabbits enjoy the leaves and seeds of Groundsel, and it is widely used as food for caged birds.
  • Its name comes from an Old English word grundeswilige meaning ‘ground swallower’, reflecting its tendency to grow profusely wherever it gets a chance.
  • Groundsel is a good food source for caterpillars of butterflies and moths and is one of only two plant species that provide food for cinnabar moth caterpillars.

Other Species

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum

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

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

Gorse

Ulex sp.

A spiny evergreen shrub with yellow flowers.

Few plants make such an impact on the landscape as flowering gorse, through both its colour and scent. The latter is a distinctive coconut and vanilla smell, said to be quite pungent to some individuals, but weak to others.

The cracking of the seed-pods in hot sunshine is said to sound similar to the clacking calls of Stonechats which perch on its sprigs.

Habitat

Banks, heaths and sea-cliffs. Also a signature plant of rough open space and commonland.

Best time to see

Folklore says you should only kiss your beloved when gorse is in flower. The good news is that either common gorse or the closely related western gorse is pretty much in bloom whatever the time of year! In fact, a few yellow flowers can generally be seen even in harsh winter months.

Its peak time, however, is April and May when almost all the plant is covered in bright yellow blossom.

Did you know?

It was voted the County Flower of Belfast.

Before the Industrial Revolution, gorse was valued as a fuel for fires and kilns, as well as baker’s ovens. After crushing the spines (e.g. in cider mills), gorse also made valuable feeding for stock including cattle and horses in wintertime.

Straight stems of gorse make excellent walking-sticks and the flowers can be used to make a Gorse wine. It also makes a convenient anchor for washing, acts as a chimney brush and, when in flower, as a source of colour for Easter eggs. Gorse and heather have been bound together to make besom brooms. Gardeners have been known to lay chopped gorse over emerging peas to deter pigeons and mice.

In order to prevent over-exploitation, there have historically been a wide range of conditions on harvesting, such as in Oxfordshire where people were only allowed as much as they could carry on their backs. In Hertfordshire there were regulations prohibiting cutting outside a certain parish and digging-up entire bushes. In some places even the type and size of cutting implements have been specified.

Three species of Gorse that exist in the UK are Ulex europaeus, Ulex gallii and Ulex minor:

  • Ulex europaeus is also known as Western gorse, Furse, and Whin (originally thought to be a Scandinavian word). Other names for this type of Gorse are Fingers-and-thumbs, French-fuzz and Honey-bottle.
  • Ulex galii, commonly known as Dwarf furze, is also called Bed-furze, Cat-whin and Cornish fuzz. This species belong more to the west and to Ireland and will not tolerate lime in the soil.
  • Ulex minor belongs more to the south-eastern counties, East Anglia and the home counties.

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

Shepherd’s Purse

Capsella bursa-pastoris

The seedpods of this common wildflower resemble little drawstring pouches worn by medieval peasants, spilling out tiny copper-coloured seeds when broken apart

A member of the Cabbage family, this annual plant produces flowers throughout the year, and is able to yield hundreds of seeds.

How to identify Shepherd’s Purse

With a leafy rosette at the base, it grows to about 40cm. The leaves are larger and pinnately lobed at the bottom, and then arrow-shaped with wavy edges along the stem. It has tiny white scentless flowers arranged in a loose raceme, which are replaced by its highly recognisable seedpods.

Where to find Shepherd’s Purse

It is widespread throughout Britain, particularly in waste grounds and cultivated fields.

Did you know?

  • Also known as ‘Mother’s Heart’, this refers to an ancient game played in both England and Germany in which one child asks another to pick one of the seedpods. Upon breaking it, the child is then told they have broken their mother’s heart.
  • Local names include Bad Man’s Oatmeal (Durham); Blindweed (Yorkshire), Lady’s Purses (East Anglia), Poor Man’s Purse (Somerset).
  • It has been used in homeopathy to treat gall bladder and kidney problems.
  • It is considered an antiscorbutic, meaning it prevents scurvy.
  • In China, the leaves are eaten, taste similar to cabbage but with a spicy, peppery flavour.
  • It can be used as a herbal tea and is known for its anti-bleeding properties.

Other Species

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

Bastard Balm

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum