How to spot British wildflowers

    3 July 2019

    Wild flowers have got a bit of a bad rep. For one thing, few British people seem to know what they are, pointing to plants which are only ‘wild’ in the prairies of America or South African veldt. For another, they sound a bit like the sort of thing a whimsical child who loves the Flower Fairies would find interesting. And to many gardeners, they’re just weeds which should be pulled up in any setting, even if they’re not causing any trouble at all.

    To me, though, they’re entrepreneurial, often devious examples of quite how clever nature can be in order to survive. There are plants that go in disguise, plants that attract and then slowly kill their prey, and plants that just look ridiculously proud of themselves.

    Over the past few years, I’ve developed an obsession with our clever native plants that garden themselves, often entirely uninvited. They’re everywhere: on street corners, industrial estates, and busy cities, as well as nature reserves and lovely meadows. And most people walk straight past them, totally unaware of the fascinating treasure at their feet.

    If you do fancy going on a wild flower hunt this summer, there are some fabulous flowers out at the moment which might change your mind about our native flora. Here are just five you should keep an eye out for.

    1. Bee Orchid, Ophrys apifera

    Bee orchid (Credit: Isabel Hardman)

    This is a magnificently cunning plant, having evolved to look, smell and feel like a sexy virgin female insect. The Ophrys genus of orchids all do this to attract different species of lustful male wasps and bees, which land on the flower, try to have sex with it, and then fly off with its pollen on their frustrated bodies. Flowering in June, it’s the kind of plant you’d expect to find in Soho, and it does hang out in some pretty unusual places, popping up on industrial estates as well as in meadows. Other members of the group native to Britain include the Fly Orchid, pictured with a hopeful male in situ, and Early and Late Spider Orchids.

    There are around 50 different species of orchids that grow wild in Britain and Ireland, and another one that’s pretty easy to find is the Broad-Leaved Helleborine, Epipactis Helleborine, which particularly loves growing on the streets of Glasgow. It is found in greater numbers there than anywhere else in the country, and has beautiful flowers ranging from pale green-white to rich wine purple. This orchid flowers a little later, from July until August.

    2. Grass of Parnassus, Parnassia palustris

    Grass of Parnassus (Credit: Isabel Hardman)

    The name alone suggests that this marsh flower is pretty special. It looks like someone sewed it together using lace and glass beads. Its ivory petals are streaked with translucent green veins. Growing in damp grassland, this flower isn’t actually a grass but a member of a completely different plant family. It has declined in numbers because much of that damp grassland has been drained for agriculture and so on, and so you’re most likely to find it in the north of England or in Scotland, though there are also good sites on the Norfolk Broads and on Anglesey.

    3. Perennial Sow-Thistle, Sonchus arvensis

    Sow Thistle

    Sow Thistle (Credit: Isabel Hardman)

    The Big Ben of Dandelions, this plant grows to more than a metre tall and looks so very proud of itself. You’ll see it all along road verges and in meadows, and it’s hard not to pull the car over just to spend a little longer admiring its regal height. Take a closer look, and you’ll see that the flower buds and stems are covered in golden hairs. You might find another member of the daisy family growing near it, called Goatsbeard. This looks like a couture version of a dandelion, with stylish long bracts and an outlandish seed clock. Goatsbeard, or Tragopogon pratensis, is also known as Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon because it shuts its flowers very promptly at midday. It’s therefore not a plant for lazy slug-a-bed botanists.

    4. Rosebay Willowherb, Chamaenerion angustifolium

    Large field of vibrant and blooming rosebay willowherb

    Large field of vibrant and blooming rosebay willowherb

    When the foxgloves have faded, a new city of pink spires pops up. This willowherb used to be a pretty uncommon woodland plant, but it had a change of fortunes in the Second World War. It colonised bomb sites, turning the shells of homes destroyed in the Blitz bright pink. This is why it’s known as ‘Bombweed’. It might look rather dainty with its pink flower spikes, but that only covers up its true character as a flagrant opportunist: in other countries it can be the first plant to turn up after a volcanic eruption. Like the Perennial Sow-Thistle, Rosebay Willowherb also takes it upon itself to brighten up car journeys, colonising motorway verges and reservations for miles on end.

    5. Round-leaved Sundew, Drosera rotundifolia

    Common sundew, Drosera rotundifolia, wasp as prey

    Common sundew, Drosera rotundifolia, wasp as prey

    Most of us had – and killed – a Venus Fly Trap plant as a child. But few of us know that Britain has its own group of native carnivorous plants which do very well without humans fussing around them. The Sundew embroiders damp heaths and fells in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the South West and North West of England with its red, sparkling leaves. The soils where it grows are so poor that it has evolved to get much of its food from insects. The plant invites them round for supper with the promise of sweet, sticky dew on its leaves, and then rewards its guests by slowly digesting them. Not perfect table manners, it’s true, but a beautiful and crafty plant.