Usually May is a quiet and reliable month which gradually leads us into summer with longer days, warmer temperatures and blossom. The early leaves have sprung on most trees, butterflies are on the wing and if you look carefully, you will find wildflowers blooming in many unexpected places.
A wildflower is generally described as a plant growing without intentional human assistance, particularly those blooming in spring and summer in woodlands, pastures, heathland and mountains. These are the unsung heroes of nature as they often provide early nectar and pollen for insects coming out of winter hibernation; they are incredibly successful often growing in extreme conditions and in past times they were frequently gathered for medicinal purposes. They deserve a closer look.
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinalis), for example, are often dismissed as weeds and many of us can’t wait to get out the lawnmower and ‘chop their heads off’ yet these flowers are one of the earliest sources of food for hungry bees who have been surviving on their depleted winter food supply. Bees become active when the temperature reaches 10 degrees Celsius and a lawn full of dandelions means they can collect a lot of food within in a very small area – ideal when you don’t have much energy to start with. If you do leave them to flower for the bees, you must remember to dead head them before the seeds set into their puffball seed head or ‘pappus’ as the wind-borne seeds can travel up to 8 kilometres/5 miles.
Dandelions have been in existence for 30 million years, a testament to their successful lifecycle, and are one of the pioneer plants that colonise bare ground first. Their long, penetrating taproot breaks up compacted soil but when dried, roasted and ground up, can be used as a coffee substitute. The young leaves can be eaten in a salad and are rich in vitamins A, C, and K, and the minerals calcium, potassium, iron, and manganese. Our ancestors, who made wine and beer from the flowers, would have used the flowers medicinally to treat warts, clear their skin complexion and heal blisters and, surprisingly, the leaves can be used to create a purple dye.
The parts of the dandelion apparently represent the celestial bodies: the yellow flower head is the sun, the white seed head is the moon, and the seeds are the stars as they spread all over the galaxy – or in our case, the lawn. And talking of lawns, if you mow dandelions, they’ll grow shorter stalks to spite you!
Another wildflower that pops up everywhere is the Forget-me-not. Myosotis sylvatica has a tiny bright-blue flower with a yellow-rimmed centre which forms a rich blue carpet when it flowers in spring. The tiny blooms are great for bees, butterflies, moths and other pollinators as they are a valuable source of nectar and pollen and it is a caterpillar food plant.
The English name is first recorded being used in 1398, so, again, another very successful plant, but how? The tiny flower is fertilised, and an even tinier seed develops in a tulip-shaped seed pod which is very bristly on the outside. As the plant withers, it begins to crumble and the spiky seed pods adhere to anything brushing past the dry plants, or they fall to the ground ready to regrow when suitable conditions arise.
You will often find a crop of forget-me-not plants growing on newly disturbed garden soil and the seeds can be years old, having lain there waiting to be exposed. This little blue flower is the national flower of Sweden and Alaska and in Germany it performs the same role as our red poppy being worn to remember the war dead.
The Primrose is a native plant and its Sunday name, Primula vulgaris describes the first, early flowering, common appearance of the plant. The plant likes to grow in woodland settings, in hummus rich soil with some shade from the strong midday sun and the flowers are popular with pollinating insects and butterflies. The leaves and flowers are edible and in past days, primrose wine was a common drink though it must have taken some time to gather enough flowers to fill a gallon bucket!
Cup of Primrose Tea anyone?
In Victorian times a cup of primrose tea might have helped alleviate insomnia or migraine and in the language of flowers the primrose means ‘I can’t live without you!’ So, if you have been missing someone special during the lockdown, then perhaps it is time to send them primroses, but you’ll have to be quick as they won’t be flowering for much longer and tradition says that you have to include 13 flowers in a bunch as any fewer is unlucky.
The Dog-violet, Viola riviniana is the most common wild violet you will see. This widespread plant thrives in a variety of habitats, including woodland, grassland, hedgerows and old pasture, and occasionally appears on damp lawns. It flowers from April to June, but its flowers have no perfume. The leaves are heart-shaped, and the flowers are like miniature lavender pansies. If you are in a bright woodland and spot a fast flying butterfly it could be one of the stunningly beautiful, rare fritillary species. Look to the woodland floor for a splash of purple and if you’re lucky, you may see the butterflies feeding or laying their eggs as the plant is an essential food plant for their caterpillars.
Another common wildflower in the May woodland is Wood Sorrel or Oxalis acetosella and this often grows beside the Dog-Violet (see photo above.) Both of these flowers are indicator species which means that their presence in a woodland tend to indicate that the area has been a woodland for a long time and could even be ancient woodland. Our native wood sorrel has three-part, lime-green, heart-shaped leaves and white, bell shaped flowers with five petals often with purple veins.
Common names for plants and flowers can be misleading as the same plant can have different names in different countries. Sometimes this can be dangerous. If you asked for Wood Sorrel in America, you would be shown a plant with yellow flowers – Oxalis stricta – which is relatively safe to eat whilst our white-flowered variety is best avoided owing to the high content of oxalic acid. Just to add to the confusion, the sorrel that we eat in salads or make into soup is actually a plant called Rumex acetosa and is related to the dock leaf.
The best way to be sure you are considering the correct plant is to use the Latin name for identification as that is a universal naming system. The Latin name has been carefully constructed to describe certain features of the plant e.g.
- Its size – Hydrangea macrophylla (big leaf hydrangea)
- Its country of origin – Pieris japonica
- The habitat where it might be found – Myosotis sylvatica (Myosotis of the woodland)
However, this is a topic for another day!
If you want to know more about wildflowers have a look at this website https://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk.
Challenge on your Daily Walk
When you are out and about on your daily walk have a closer look and see how many flowers you can spot on your travels. You might look at them differently now you know them a bit better and make sure you catch the bluebells which are at their best right now.
Blog by Margaret in the gardening team.