A simple guide to the wildflowers of Britain

From deciduous woods yet to fill out with leaf, to windswept hilltop shingle beach and riverbank, our flora can give so much pleasure.

British flora is modest by international standards, but full of pleasures for those prepared to look closer. Woodland flowers come early in the spring, before the canopy closes overhead, then the lanes and verges are full of creamy beauty. The foreshore and saltmarsh are always special places for rarities and the crumbling stonework of ancient walls is often festooned with minor treasures, readily presented to the observant eye. Wetlands and watercourses are home to a rich variety of flowers that float on the surface or sit on tufts, defying the close approach. In late summer, the heaths and moors are chequered with visual interest and scent on the breeze.

The very act of breaking the ground brings out the pretty annuals and the most unpromising banks of a new bypass will unexpectedly sprout orchids and cowslips for us to rush past.

Each plant has its unique method of attracting pollinators or distributing its seed. Many still jog the memory with some special attribute lingering from an ancient past when all flowers conveyed a message. From the long list of favourites, we present a selection of seasonal beauties, each a reminder of Nature’s ingeniously varied plan.

A simple guide to the wildflowers of Britain

common corncockle (Agrostemma githago), blooming, Germany

Corncockle
Agrostemma githago

Once a common cornfield weed, this tall annual with magenta flowers survives in modern garden-meadow mixtures


Wild Garlic, Allium ursinum, flowers, UK

Ramsons
Allium ursinum

The floor of a limestone wood in spring is often pungently perfumed with this abundant relative of garlic


Pyramidal Orchid Anacamptis pyramidalis in flowery meadow Dordogne France

Pyramidal orchid
Anacamptis pyramidalis

By no means always isosceles in shape, this midsummer orchid’s flower spike favours milder parts of Britain, especially on alkaline grassland


 Wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) flowering in spring forest

Wood anemone
Anemone nemorosa

A flush of sunshine through the canopy of an ancient wood will open the white flowers of this early flowering lowly beauty


cow parsley, anthriscus sylvestris subsp. sylvestris

Cow parsley
Anthriscus sylvestris

Shady hedgerows in May foam with the green and white of this familiar umbellifer, now a show-garden must-have


Common Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) Picos de Europa, Spain, Europe

Columbine
Aquilegia vulgaris

A woodland plant on limestone, the flowers of this garden ancestor symbolised a flight of doves to the medieval mind


Armeria maritima ('Sea Pink' or 'Thrift') growing on cliffs in South Devon

Thrift
Armeria maritima

Overlooking the sea on ledges, this neat green mat with its pink pincushion flowers is tougher than it looks


Daisy
Bellis perennis

From compacted pastures to suburban lawns, the Anglo-Saxon ‘Day’s Eye’ is a familiar image of retiring modesty


Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Sandbanks Provincial Park, Ontario

Kingcup
Caltha palustris

Tread carefully to admire this brilliant-yellow flower, which lights up the marsh and woodland stream in early spring


harebell Campanula rotundifoliaat Pewsey Downs National Nature Reserve, Wiltshire

Harebell
Campanula rotundifolia

Powder-blue bells on the slightest of frameworks flickering in the summer breeze on heathy turf: the bluebell of Scotland


Cuckoo-flower (Cardamine pratensis)

Cuckoo flower
Cardamine pratensis

Or lady’s smock, or milkmaids: a film of pastel hue across a damp meadow or grassy verge in late spring


Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) growing in a traditional hay meadow at College Lake nature reserve, Buckinghamshire. june.

Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) growing in a traditional hay meadow at College Lake nature reserve, Buckinghamshire.

Cornflower
Centaurea cyanus

Famously bright blue and surprisingly tall, this is another cornfield exile more commonly seen nowadays as a garden annual


Chicory, blue daisy, blue dandelion, coffeeweed, horseweed, succory, wild endive, Wegwarte, Zichorie, Cichorium intybus

Chicory
Cichorium intybus

The tall, solitary, slender plant by a dusty roadside in late summer with a brilliant blue daisy flower on top


Lily of the Valley / lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) in flower

Lily of the valley
Convallaria majalis

This traditional favourite among scented flowers can be sought out among the limestone pavements of the Pennines


Sea kale / seakale / crambe (Crambe maritima) in flower on pebble beach along the North Sea coast

Sea kale
Crambe maritima

A shallow dome of blue-green, waxy leaves on a shingle foreshore, with richly scented off-white flowers on top


Sea Carrot (Daucus carota) flowers

Wild carrot
Daucus carota

An easy umbellifer to recognise because of its distinctively concave, off-white flowerhead on verges and coastal walks everywhere


Foxgloves, Digitalis purpurea growing amongst ferns in shaded area with trees.

Foxglove
Digitalis purpurea

Tall and pink, and sometimes white, lighting up woodland and bracken slopes in early summer and irresistible to bees


Teasel
Dipsacus fullonum

An opportunist in cleared ground, producing its water-filled leaves and softly tactile, lilac-ringed, egg-shaped blooms in late summer


sea-holly, seaside coyote-thistle (Eryngium maritimum), inflorescence

Sea holly
Eryngium maritimum

A special treasure to find among the dunes and marram grass, with its silvery foliage and blue flowers


Lady's Bedstraw / Yellow Bedstraw (Galium verum) in flower

Lady’s bedstraw
Galium verum

One of the minor pleasures among the undisturbed grassland is this delicate, yellow-flowered creature, which, when dried, has the scent of new-mown hay


Double flowered form of the meadow cranesbill, Geranium pratense 'Summer Skies'

Meadow cranesbill
Geranium pratense

Big blue flowers on a handsome plant, one of the signatures of midsummer in limestone grassland and verges


Geum rivale. Image shot 07/2009. Exact date unknown.

Water avens
Geum rivale

Among the marshes and riversides, look out for this quietly elegant plant with its hanging bells of maroon and yellow


A close up of an English Bluebell flower growing in woodland

Bluebell
Hyacinthoides non-scripta

England’s glory in May, forming massed displays in ancient woods. The pendulous flowers hang distinctively on one side


Knautia arvensis (Field Scabious)

Field scabious
Knautia arvensis

On a tall herbaceous perennial, these familiar shallow pincushions of violet-blue swing about on verges in late summer


Honeysuckle flowers Lonicera periclymenum

Honeysuckle
Lonicera periclymenum

The drifting scent of this hedgerow climber on a May evening is an abiding memory of the English countryside


COMMON BIRD?S-FOOT-TREFOIL Lotus corniculatus (Fabaceae)

Bird’s foot trefoil
Lotus corniculatus

The little clumps of bacon-and-eggs in rough limestone pasture are a sign that other floral beauties are nearby


Ragged Robin Lychnis flos-cuculi in flower growing in a wildflower meadow in summer. England UK Britain

Ragged robin
Lychnis flos-cuculi

Look for the delicate pink flowers of this tall perennial in marshes and by watercourses in early summer


musk mallow, malva moschata

Musk mallow
Malva moschata

On grassy banks in summer, the big, shiny, pink or white flowers above delicate foliage look like a garden escape


Welsh Poppy (Meconopsis cambrica)

Welsh poppy
Meconopsis cambrica

The pleated yellow flowers of this doubtful native are often found in old garden rockeries, where they seed abundantly


Forest forget-me-not, Myosotis sylvatica, Murnau, Bavaria, Germany

Wood forget-me-not
Myosotis sylvatica

Flowering shyly by the woodland edge, this familiar plant’s little stars of blue and pink are known to every dog-walker


LENTON LILY Narcissus pseudonarcissus PLANTS IN FLOWER AT WOODLAND EDGE

Wild daffodil
Narcissus pseudonarcissus

Locally abundant in damp meadows and thin woodland, where its distinctive pale-yellow flowers are admired each Easter


Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) photographed in June

Bee orchid
Ophrys apifera

A special treat for the observant eye: in limestone grassland, where its arrestingly convincing flowers are backed with a pink triangle


Early purple orchid Orchis mascula, flowering, Noar Hill, Hampshire in May.

Early purple orchid
Orchis mascula

The richly hued blooms above spotted leaves are often seen each May among banks of cowslips and primroses


ommon Poppy - papaver rhoeas

Field poppy
Papaver rhoeas

The scarlet opportunist, an annual that turns up wherever soil is disturbed, its seeds lying dormant until the day comes


Cowslips Primula veris

Cowslip
Primula veris

Nowadays, a favourite sight in sheets on motorway verges, where its butter-yellow bunches thrive on an annual mowing regime


Primula vulgaris in the garden. A clump of primroses.

Primrose
Primula vulgaris

A favourite woodland flower, adorning banks and Cornish hedges each spring, each plant is seen to be either male or female to the close observer


Bulbous buttercup flowers on grassland. Hurst Meadows, West Molesey, Surrey, England.

Bulbous buttercup
Ranunculus bulbosus

A medium-height buttercup of compacted grassland, readily identifiable from its reflexed sepals under each shining bloom


Rosa andegavensis (Rosa andegavensis, Rosa canina var. andegavensis), blooming, Germany

Dog rose
Rosa canina

One of several species of wild rose, whose pink flowers decorate the hedgerows through which its thorny shoots have scrambled


Goat s beard Tragopogon pratensis ssp orientalis eastern form Romania

Goat’s beard
Tragopogon pratensis

A roadside-verge novelty whose elegantly upright buds open to yellow dandelion flowers exclusively on sunny summer mornings


Sweet violet
Viola odorata  

A woodland-edge beauty of early spring in blue, purple or white, with a memorable scent for those who are prepared to grovel


Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Common yarrow
Achillea millefolium

With soft, feathery leaves and pungent scent, this flower of pasture and wayside attracts butterflies and has sired numerous colourful garden cultivars


Tiny single flower of the UK native Scarlet Pimpernel, Anagallis arvensis

Scarlet pimpernel
Anagallis arvensis

They seek him here, they seek him there—this pimpernel is a bright, but tiny annual on floppy stems, the flowers closing up in inclement weather