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.

Photographs by Marianne Majerus Garden Images

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:


guide to the wildflowers of britainCorncockle
Agrostemma githago
Once a common cornfield weed, this tall annual with magenta flowers survives in modern garden-meadow mixtures



guide to the wildflowers of britain

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



guide to the wildflowers of britainPyramidal 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



guide to the wildflowers of britain

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



guide to the wildflowers of britainCow parsley
Anthriscus sylvestris
Shady hedgerows in May foam with the green and white of this familiar umbellifer, now a show-garden must-have



guide to the wildflowers of britainColumbine
Aquilegia vulgaris
A woodland plant on limestone, the flowers of this garden ancestor symbolised a flight of doves to the medieval mind



guide to the wildflowers of britainThrift
Armeria maritima
Overlooking the sea on ledges, this neat green mat with its pink pincushion flowers is tougher than it looks



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



guide to the wildflowers of britainKingcup
Caltha palustris
Tread carefully to admire this brilliant-yellow flower, which lights up the marsh and woodland stream in early spring



guide to the wildflowers of britainHarebell
Campanula rotundifolia
Powder-blue bells on the slightest of frameworks flickering in the summer breeze on heathy turf: the bluebell of Scotland



guide to the wildflowers of britainCuckoo flower
Cardamine pratensis
Or lady’s smock, or milkmaids: a film of pastel hue across a damp meadow or grassy verge in late spring



guide to the wildflowers of britainCornflower
Centaurea cyanus
Famously bright blue and surprisingly tall, this is another cornfield exile more commonly seen nowadays as a garden annual



guide to the wildflowers of britainChicory
Cichorium intybus
The tall, solitary, slender plant by a dusty roadside in late summer with a brilliant blue daisy flower on top



guide to the wildflowers of britainLily of the valley
Convallaria majalis
This traditional favourite among scented flowers can be sought out among the limestone pavements of the Pennines



guide to the wildflowers of britainSea kale
Crambe maritima
A shallow dome of blue-green, waxy leaves on a shingle foreshore, with richly scented off-white flowers on top



guide to the wildflowers of britainWild carrot
Daucus carota
An easy umbellifer to recognise because of its distinctively concave, off-white flowerhead on verges and coastal walks everywhere



guide to the wildflowers of britainFoxglove
Digitalis purpurea
Tall and pink, and sometimes white, lighting up woodland and bracken slopes in early summer and irresistible to bees



guide to the wildflowers of britainTeasel
Dipsacus fullonum
An opportunist in cleared ground, producing its water-filled leaves and softly tactile, lilac-ringed, egg-shaped blooms in late summer



guide to the wildflowers of britainSea holly
Eryngium maritimum
A special treasure to find among the dunes and marram grass, with its silvery foliage and blue flowers



guide to the wildflowers of britainLady’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



0131718.jpgMeadow cranesbill
Geranium pratense
Big blue flowers on a handsome plant, one of the signatures of midsummer in limestone grassland and verges



guide to the wildflowers of britainWater avens
Geum rivale
Among the marshes and riversides, look out for this quietly elegant plant with its hanging bells of maroon and yellow



guide to the wildflowers of britainBluebell
Hyacinthoides non-scripta
England’s glory in May, forming massed displays in ancient woods. The pendulous flowers hang distinctively on one side



guide to the wildflowers of britainField scabious
Knautia arvensis
On a tall herbaceous perennial, these familiar shallow pincushions of violet-blue swing about on verges in late summer



guide to the wildflowers of britainHoneysuckle
Lonicera periclymenum
The drifting scent of this hedgerow climber on a May evening is an abiding memory of the English countryside



guide to the wildflowers of britainBird’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



guide to the wildflowers of britainRagged robin
Lychnis flos-cuculi
Look for the delicate pink flowers of this tall perennial in marshes and by watercourses in early summer



guide to the wildflowers of britainMusk mallow
Malva moschata
On grassy banks in summer, the big, shiny, pink or white flowers above delicate foliage look like a garden escape



guide to the wildflowers of britainWelsh poppy
Meconopsis cambrica
The pleated yellow flowers of this doubtful native are often found in old garden rockeries, where they seed abundantly



guide to the wildflowers of britainWood 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



guide to the wildflowers of britainWild daffodil
Narcissus pseudonarcissus
Locally abundant in damp meadows and thin woodland, where its distinctive pale-yellow flowers are admired each Easter



guide to the wildflowers of britainBee orchid
Ophrys apifera
A special treat for the observant eye: in limestone grassland, where its arrestingly convincing flowers are backed with a pink triangle



guide to the wildflowers of britainEarly purple orchid
Orchis mascula
The richly hued blooms above spotted leaves are often seen each May among banks of cowslips and primroses



guide to the wildflowers of britainField poppy
Papaver rhoeas
The scarlet opportunist, an annual that turns up wherever soil is disturbed, its seeds lying dormant until the day comes



guide to the wildflowers of britainCowslip
Primula veris
Nowadays, a favourite sight in sheets on motorway verges, where its butter-yellow bunches thrive on an annual mowing regime



guide to the wildflowers of britainPrimrose
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



guide to the wildflowers of britainBulbous buttercup
Ranunculus bulbosus
A medium-height buttercup of compacted grassland, readily identifiable from its reflexed sepals under each shining bloom



guide to the wildflowers of britainDog rose
Rosa canina
One of several species of wild rose, whose pink flowers decorate the hedgerows through which its thorny shoots have scrambled



guide to the wildflowers of britainGoat’s beard
Tragopogon pratensis
A roadside-verge novelty whose elegantly upright buds open to yellow dandelion flowers exclusively on sunny summer mornings



guide to the wildflowers of britainSweet 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



guide to the wildflowers of britainCommon 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



guide to the wildflowers of britainScarlet 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