Foxgloves

Woodland Flowers: Heralds of Spring

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At this time of year, woodland flowers are often one of the first signs of spring. They tend to be some of the earliest to flower in order to take of advantage of the extra sunlight before the trees above come into full leaf, blocking it out. After a long winter, these first splashes of colour are welcome reminders that longer days are just around the corner. So, what flowers can you expect to see when you go for a woodland wander this spring and then into early summer?

Lesser Celandine

Lesser Celandine
Lesser celandine is a member of the buttercup family

This bright yellow member of the buttercup family is one of our earliest spring flowers. With the first plants blooming in late January, it has long been heralded as a sign that spring is on its way. This low-growing plant often forms carpets on woodland floors but its preference for damper habitats means it can also be seen by streams. The flowers have between eight and twelve petals, while the leaves are glossy and heart shaped. Because it is early to flower, it is extremely important for the first insects of the year to appear, such as queen bumblebees.

Green Hellebore

Green Hellebore
Green hellebores have pale green flowers

Another early-flowering buttercup relative is the green hellebore. Appearing in February, it is most likely to be found in the southern half of England and Wales. It prefers shady areas where it has less competition from other plants. It’s green, slightly drooping flowers consist of five sepals and give the lie to the idea green flowers are boring. The leaves are toothed. It is one of our least common woodland flowers. When found, it tends to exist in small clusters. Cultivated varieties have escaped widely, though, and can often be confused for wild, native plants. Every part of the plant is toxic to humans.

Primrose

Primroses
Primroses are one of our earliest spring flowers

The primrose is one of our most looked for signs of spring, a joyful harbinger of brighter, warmer days. In fact, the name means ‘first rose’, although they aren’t actually related to roses. The pale-yellow flowers with darker centres can appear as early as December in warmer winters, but more usually bloom from late February on. As such, it is another important plant for early pollinators. Like many of the flowers on this list, it is an ancient woodland indicator, showing where woods have existed since at least 1600 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, or 1750 in Scotland. Ancient woods consist of complex ecological communities, developed over hundreds of years making them unique and important habitats.

Dog Violet

Common dog-violet
Common dog-violets bloom slightly later than early dog-violets

Both early dog-violet and the similar common dog-violet are common woodland species. As its name suggests, the early dog-violet blooms first, usually appearing in March, or February if warm enough. Its cousin, meanwhile, flowers from April on. Both plants have five petals in various shades of blue or purple with a pale centre, with the earlier bloomer being slightly smaller. Neither has any scent, which is what the dog part of the name refers to as it used to be used to signal something inferior. Both, though, are important food plants for a number of rare fritillary species, including high brown, pearl-bordered and silver-washed fritillaries. Both are also ancient woodland indicators. Early dog-violet is restricted to the southern half of the country while its relative is found as far north as Shetland.

Dog’s Mercury

Dog's mercury
Dog’s mercury often forms thick carpets

Another early bloomer, dog’s mercury isn’t as obvious as our brighter spring blooms due to its small, green flowers. These appear from February to April and the plant has long, oval leaves. Dog’s mercury is yet another ancient woodland indicator species. A hardy plant, it is quick to outcompete other species and can form thick carpets across woodland floors. This is in contrast to its relative annual mercury which is usually found just in ones and twos and prefers much more open ground. Dog’s mercury is highly toxic, with the dog part of its name here referring to this inferior quality. It also has quite a foetid smell.

Wood Spurge

Wood spurge
A garden escape variety of wood spurge is very similar to our native plants

From the same family as dog’s mercury, wood spurge has green cup-like flower clusters that bloom from March until May. Relatively tall, its dark green, leathery leaves form a rosette around the lower part of the plant. Unlike many woodland flowers, it is reasonably tolerant of shade. Confusingly, a very similar cultivated subspecies has now become established in the wild. Our native, wild plants are commonest in the south and rarer further north.

Wild Garlic

Ramsons or wild garlic
Wild garlic, or ramsons, fills our woods with a scent of garlic in spring

Also known as ramsons, wild garlic oftens fills the woods with its strong garlicy smell from April until early summer. The small, white, star-like flowers appear in clusters at the top of upright stalks, with long, pointed leaves growing from the base. Ramsons can form beautiful snowy carpets over woodland floors in spring. They are another indicator of ancient woods, and the bulbs would have once been a food source for wild boar. Popular with foragers, the leaves are edible in salads and soups, and the flowers are also edible.

Wood Sorrel

Wood sorrel
This plant’s flowers are not fully open, although the trefoil leaves are
Wood sorrel
In contrast, this plant has open flowers and closed leaves

Wood sorrel is a low-lying plant with dainty, purple-veined white flowers that hang in closed bells in low light. When the sun reaches them, they open to reveal their five petals. The bright green trefoil leaves also fold up in low light or rain. Flowering in April and May, it likes moist, shady woods. It’s clover-like leaves means that some believe it to be the ‘shamrock’ St Patrick supposedly used to illustrate the Holy Trinity. While others dispute the idea St Patrick ever did this, the plant has another religious connection. Because it traditionally flowers around Easter, it is sometimes known as alleluia, referencing Easter psalms.

Wood Anemone

Wood anemones
Wood anemone is superficially similar to wood sorrel

Superficially similar to open wood sorrel flowers, wood anemone is distinguished by its pointed, deeply lobed leaves. The leaves don’t close in low light either and the flowers lack wood sorrel’s purple veins. Where it has had time to spread using its underground root system, it can form dense, white-starred carpets. Unsurprisingly, it is another ancient woodland indicator. The white flowers appear from March, making it one of our earliest woodland species to bloom. The plant is also called the windflower, and both this and anemone come from the Greek wind god, Anemos. In legend, he sent the flowers at the start of spring to announce his coming.

Bluebell

Bluebells
Our native bluebells droop to one side

The bluebell is one of our best-known and best-loved woodland flowers. Appearing slightly later than some of the flowers here, they are at their peak in May. Unmistakeable violet-blue bell-like flowers droop from the top of long stems with long, thin leaves lower down. In some places they can form dense carpets, producing a beautiful blue haze. White or pink flowers are less common. Incredibly, about half the world’s bluebells are found in the UK and, yet again, they are an ancient woodland indicator species. The Spanish bluebell, a common garden escape, has paler, less drooping flowers and does hybridise with our native plant. However, fears it might dilute the native gene pool appear to be unfounded as research shows our native flower is more fertile than the interloper.

Greater Stitchwort

Greater Stitchwort
Greater stitchwort was once thought to cure side stitches

Also found in hedgerows, this pretty white flower first blooms in April. Five petals are each divided halfway and sit on stems that can be up to half a metre tall. It has thin, grass-like leaves. Common across the UK, it was once believed to cure side stitches, hence the name. One of its other names, popguns, refers to the noisy firing mechanism of the seed pods as they ripen and disperse their seeds. Lesser stitchwort, as its name suggests, has much smaller white flowers. It tends to prefer more open habitats, as well.

Wood Avens

Wood avens
Wood avens is a tall, straggly plant

Common throughout the UK, wood avens flowers from May through to August. Although its five-petalled flowers are bright yellow, their smallish size compared to the height of the plant mean this species may often get overlooked in favour of some of its more obvious neighbours, such as bluebells or foxgloves. The leaves are three-lobed with toothed edges and hairy like the rest of the plant. The flowers are a good source of nectar for various pollinators. Once the flowers are over, red, seed-containing burrs appear. Their hooks help them to catch on passing animals and spread.

Enchanter’s Nightshade

Enchanter's nightshade
Enchanter’s nightshade has dainty, butterfly-like flowers

This, along with the next two species, is less a flower of spring, more early summer. Appearing in June, the small pinkish-white flowers are dainty and made up of just two deeply notched petals. Long stamens protrude beyond the petals, and the flowers bloom on tall spikes up to 70 cm in height. The plant prefers damp, shady woods and hedges and grows in most of the UK barring the north. Despite its name, the enchanter’s nightshade is not related to other nightshades and is actually a member of the willowherb family.

Chickweed Wintergreen

Chickweed wintergreen
Chickweed wintergreen is also known as Arctic starflower

Another June bloomer, this small, beautiful, white star of a flower is restricted to the north of England and Scotland. It can also be seen on moors. The white flowers can have five to nine petals and are superficially similar to those of the wood anemone. The petals, however, appear more defined and pointed. The green, oval leaves turn copper and pink in autumn. This is another plant with a confusing common name as it is neither a chickweed nor a wintergreen. Instead, it is a member of the primrose family. Its alternative name, Arctic starflower, alludes to its preference for more northerly climes.

Foxglove

Foxglove and bee
Foxgloves are beautifully adapted to attract bees

Our final woodland plant is instantly recognisable. Blooming in June, the foxglove has tall spikes of many pink, occasionally white, tubular flowers. Although also found in more open habitats, they are often found on woodland edges and glades, sometimes in huge banks of pink. The flower shape allows bees to land before entering, which in turn means they are more likely to leave the pollen of other foxgloves, aiding reproduction. There is no consensus on how they got their name. It could be due to a belief that foxes wore the flowers on their paws to silence their footsteps, a lovely image. Although highly poisonous, foxgloves contain a chemical called digitalis that can be isolated and is important in the treatment of heart disease.

Woodland Wonders

Spring is the perfect time to go in search of woodland flowers, with many blooming early in order to beat the leaf burst. Lesser celandines, dog’s mercury and green hellebores all start to bloom in February, heralding the end of winter. If you miss these early flowers, though, there are still some treats to come in the form of bluebells, foxgloves and wood avens, providing splashes of colour under the woodland canopy throughout the summer.

Bluebells
There is nothing quite like a woodland floor carpeted with bluebells in spring

Sadly, our woodlands face many threats. Deforestation due to development and an increase in the number of new diseases and destructive insects brought here by plant imports and climate change are just some of the problems facing them. A 2021 report by the Woodland Trust found that just 7% of our native woodlands are in good condition. Although we are increasingly planting new trees, if we fail to protect our existing woods, we could lose many of our slower-spreading, yet most-beloved, woodland flowers along with the trees.

Further Reading

This gorgeous, illustrated book introduces us to over 170 woodland flowers. Organised by season, this is a beautiful guide to what to see when. Waterman also gives an overview of our woods and how they have been shaped by man over the centuries.

Part of the British Wildlife Collection, Keith Kirby’s book is a more in depth look at our woodland flowers. As well as exploring how certain flowers can show a wood’s history, he looks at why our woodland specialists face an uncertain future. He also looks at the way we have connected to these plants culturally in a book that is both accessible and comprehensive.

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