a spring wild flower adventure
I remember one sunny May weekend nearly 20 years ago spending a couple of days botanising down in the West Country.
We had a white 2CV, and drove around very slowly, roof down, spotting any colour change in the grass or hedgerows, feeling our way to finding groves of early purple orchids mixed with bluebells, a meadow full of fritillaries and an area of chalk downland dotted with cowslips as far as you could see. These cowslips were in an unfaltering carpet and had been there for centuries.
It reminded me of similar times with my father in his Morris Minor, heading off most weekends from the beginning of May, with two ham sandwiches and a large bar of fruit and nut, to find flowers.
I think, with him, those were the happiest moments of my childhood. But what is it that is so life-enhancing about looking for and finding wild flowers at this time of year?
Waiting to be discovered
Maybe, at one level, it's to do with a simple sense of relief that the winter is over and, without anyone fussing or becoming anxious about sowing the seed or potting up, or looking for the right conditions, or generally fiddling and fossicking around, that here are masses of flowers in all their extraordinary beauty.
And they don't short-change you. Once you start to look really closely, our wild flowers are as intimately beautiful as anything we cultivate in a garden.
This is especially true if you lie down and put your nose right into the world of the flower, when nearly all of them take on qualities that the usual, looking from above, cruise-past-it view would miss. So go out expecting to find it and, once you do, don't hurry on.
Of course there are the bores – I don't really love dog's mercury, dandelions are pretty take-it-or-leave-it in my view, and I don't like those yellowy cabbagey brassica things or their white equivalents like Jack-by-the-hedge or shepherd's purse – and there are lots of these around at this time of year. They're not pretty, extraordinary or glamorous enough to excite me.
I undoubtedly have my favourites, flowers to go out hunting for or stop the car for when glimpsed at 30mph (it is surprisingly easy to botanise from inside the car).
Beauty available to everyone
Don't think that to do this you suddenly have to become all trainspottery, moral and proper. These English beauties are available to everyone. They are our common inheritance and that is another reason I love them.
There's nothing stuck-up about the great English wild flower. Most – not all – are a little demure, but there are show stoppers here, too. You may assume – because many people do – that most of the interesting wild flowers have gone from England. I worried about that too, but have had a wonderful spring finding one extraordinary flower sight after another.
The flowers are there, much more restricted in range than they once were but far from extinct. Just imagine what it must have been like in the past when these treasures we now have to search for were part of everyone's everyday experience. The whole of spring then must have felt like an illuminated manuscript. Nowadays, the best advice is to go to your county's Wildlife Trust website and see what plant riches they can offer you nearby. All of them have reserves. And if that doesn't work in your area, look into National Trust or Plantlife sites. These have wild flower riches, too. But where you go doesn't matter hugely. Just make sure you spend a few hours looking at the incredible things we have right here before the spring is over.
The best May wild flowers (and the best places to find them)
The most exotic, chequered flower we have, its bells like the lanterns in a bedouin's tent. The reason these are now so rare is that – as a bulb – one ploughing of a site where they may have been for centuries can destroy them. Surprisingly, if you were to spray a meadow with herbicides (although you wouldn't want to do that) at a time of year when the fitillary bulbs are not in active growth you'll hardly touch them, but ploughing smashes the bulbs to smithereens.
Visit Fox Fritillary Meadow, Suffolk or Magdalen College, Oxford or, for even more, the damp meadows at Cricklade.
The oxlip has the flat, pretty, open flowers of a primrose, but held up high above the plant, much more out there – a subtle creature making a flamboyant display. It's like a cowslip but with individual flowers of twice the size and much taller. That's why they used them to breed so many of the showy polyanthus you see in classic spring bedding schemes all through our parks and urban landscapes. But with an oxlip, it's a pure, creamy vanilla colour – a glamorous delicacy that is a universe away from coarse rubbery modern bedding plants.
We've photographed oxlips in Hayley Wood, Cambridgeshire, but you'll find oxlips in other ancient woods, particularly in East Anglia.
Pulsatillas, or pasque flowers, are like flowers by Toast (the high-end, smokily sexy mail order clothes company), with each flower – or model – backlit, trapped in a halo of light. You never get the solid, clumped-up spectacle with pasque flowers that you do with oxlips and fritillaries. They scatter themselves sparsely over their chosen very thin, chalky pastures so that each one lies there like an incredible beauty – the girls left in the ballroom at the end of the dance, their dusky purple, nearly grey dresses folded around them.
These are worth travelling miles to see. We visited Therfield Heath, near Royston in Hertfordshire, but many counties have them in one chalky site or other.
early spider orchid
Samphire Hoe is an extraordinary place on the Kent coast. You drop to it down a steep tunnel, straight through the white cliffs of Dover, for which you have to wait for many minutes at traffic lights before you're allowed to head in. It's like arriving on an industrial site, but in fact you descend into nature. Once through, you're into what was the sea wall and a small beach, but is now a nature reserve, created out of the spoil of the Channel tunnel.
Once landscaped, it was then seeded with a collection from the cliff tops and in the first few years a scattering of early spider orchids (Ophrys sphegodes) appeared. In 1998 they counted 67, and by 2009 they had 11,000. You feel like you're in a Mediterranean country as you walk along, with almost every step in some places potentially crushing another orchid unless you're on tip toes.
Samphire Hoe is owned by Eurotunnel and managed together with the White Cliffs Countryside Partnership. I loved their sign: "Adders very active at this time of year, keep to the paths".
Don't forget the bluebell. They're unique to the Atlantic seaboard of Europe and so it's only us that know what it's like to walk through a wood in May and get that incredible smell.
A day in a bluebell wood, for its sheer assertion of life and the persistence of a delicate thing, is worth two weeks anywhere else. It's the nearest I know to swimming in air.
Setting off on your own wild flower adventure
Set out on your own adventure to discover the wild flowers local to you. If you're not sure where to start, you could try ...
- the extensive listing of the National Trust's wild flower walks throughout the British Isles.
- Plantlife International, the wildlife conservation charity, which has sites around England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man.
- Suffolk Wildlife Trust's reserves and natural habitats.
- Wildlife Trust, including details of Cambridgeshire's Hayley Wood.
- White Cliffs Countryside Partnership, set up to help conserve coastal areas and countryside in Dover and Shepway districts.
Read more about my favourite British wild flowers ...
Buy a signed copy of my Wild Flowers book, featuring beautiful photography from Jonathan Buckley.