There are thousands of different wild flowers growing in the UK. We are all familiar with at least some of them, even if they are the ones we call weeds or the ones we have tamed and grow in our gardens. What grows naturally in an area depends on the type of soil there. You get different wildflowers on the fast-draining chalk Downs of southern England from those you find on the warm sandy soils of East Anglia or the damp shady woodlands of the Forest of Dean.
To find out more about what you can see in any particular area of the UK, contact your local Wildlife Trust. They run local nature reserves where native wild flowers and animals are protected from development or other damage to their habitat. Visit the Wildlife Trusts website to find out more about your local Trust.
Farmers throughout the EU are allowing wild plants and animals to return to the edges of their fields under the Set-Aside scheme. As well as increasing the safe havens for wildlife, these areas also benefit the farmers and, in turn, the rest of us. More plants means more insects, more insects means more pollinators, more pollinators means more fruit.
Because they grow here naturally, our native wildflowers fit in with the rest of our native wildlife. Our trees produce leaves just when our native birds want to hide their nests from their predators. Our native insects wake after hibernating through our cold winters and produce their own young, providing food for the new baby birds. Butterflies that have survived the winter in cocoons hatch just in time to pollinate the flowers. Caterpillars of native butterflies and moths feed on our native plants. There's more about British Butterflies here. In the autumn, their seeds provide food to help small mammals fatten up for their winter sleep.
Almost everyone is familiar with the most common wildflowers - Poppy, Foxglove, Primrose, Violet and so on. To help identify other wildflowers you come across, a book is helpful. They vary in size from huge to small. One of the easiest to carry around is The Mitchell Beazley Pocket Guide to Wild Flowers. It's only 7.5" x 3.5", so it does fit in your pocket. Other sources which might be useful include:
- The Concise British Flora in Colour by W. Keble Martin ~ ISBN 978-0718114176
- Collins Pocket Guide to Wild Flowers by David McClintock & R.S.R. Fitter ~ ISBN 978-0002121880
- The Mitchell Beazley Pocket Guide to Wild Flowers by Peter D. Moore ~ ISBN 978-0-85533-268-6
- British Wild Flowers
- Flora Locale
- The Wild Flower Society
- Wild About Britain
To help children learn more about our wildflowers, we have designed a set of cards with pictures and brief details of 48 British wildflowers. There are four pages of flower photos and four pages of information to go on the back of them. All you need to do is print the pages direct from the website, cut them into individual cards and laminate them. The cards are small enough to carry in their pocket or bag when they're out and about, and laminating them will make them ideal for use 'in the field'. There are full details on the Wildflower Identification Cards page.
Growing Wildflowers from Seed
Growing naturally in the UK usually means our native plants do nothing in the cold winter. New shoots start to grow or seeds start to germinate when the soil warms up in spring, and they shed their seeds in the autumn when it becomes too cold for our native insects to fly and pollinate them. When I tried to grow native wildflowers, I found that batches of seeds sown in summer, or autumn, or winter all germinated together in the spring, when those in the wild would naturally germinate. Sometimes, the seeds I sowed didn't germinate, but I found self-sown seedlings elsewhere. So the lesson, more than for any other type of seed, is wait for nature.
These days, most of the big seed suppliers sell at least a few types of wildflowers, including Poppy, Foxglove, Primrose and Cowslip. There are many specialist suppliers of wildflower seeds, who sell packets of individual species as well. Some suppliers are:
- Chiltern Seeds - Seeds of over 150 species of wildflower.
- Emorsgate Seeds - Mixtures for particular soils, in large or small quantities, plus dozens of individual species.
- Nicky's Seeds - Seeds of over 150 wildflowers, plus mixtures in large or small quantities.
- Wildflower Shop - Packets of seed of individual species, mixtures for various soil types, and wildflower plug plants.
Wildflowers and the Law
Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, it is illegal to dig up any wildflowers anywhere in the UK. We can still pick a flower or collect a few seeds or take a small cutting of common wildflowers, but only if there are plenty of plants there. There are details of the law on the The Wild Flower Society website, and they also have a Code of Conduct which complies with the law.
Plants as Medicines
Before doctors and chemists were around to prescribe patent mixtures, people turned to herbalists and monks to provide cures based on their local plants. Sometimes, the name of the plant tells us that it has been used as a healing herb: officinalis in the Latin name (e.g. Symphytum officinalis) indicates a plant that was used by apothecaries to prepare medicines, vulgaris indicates a plant that was known to everyone, wort in the common name (e.g St. John's Wort) is from the Old English for a herb, and some have Herb as part of their common name. In many cases, when scientists have examined these plants, they have found that the plants do have the effect the traditional herbalists prescribed them for. The problem with using plants, however, is that the amount of the active chemical can vary between plants depending on the soil they grow in, or the weather at the time, or how fresh they are, making it difficult to know exactly how much of the chemical you have in the medicine produced. While this might not matter much if it was a case of how much mashed up herb you put on your bruise, it might make a big difference if you drank too much poppy juice or ate too much ground-up Foxglove leaf.
Herbal medicine provided cures for all the ailments we suffer from today, plus other problems we don't look to medicine to cure, such as warding off the evil eye or protecting from lightning. Herbal medicines are still used today, although most people buy the finished product or consult a qualified Herbalist. The following sources provide information about the uses of herbs and how they are prepared, although they all warn that preparing medicines is best left to experienced experts:
Index to Wildflowers
The Plant Profiles section has details of 50 British Wildflowers, which includes a photograph of the plant, description, botanical classification, and photos of the seedpod, seed, and seedling. There are also brief details of 50 more wildflowers in the Weeds section. To make it easier to find the wildflower you're looking for, there's a picture index for each section, which is a page of small photos of the flowers included in that section in order of colour - from white, through yellow, orange, red, pink, purple and blue to green. The Index pages are here:
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