No matter what the season, colour can be found in the British countryside. Follow our month-by-month guide to discover the best, starting with spectacular January snowdrops.
January – snowdrop
In mild winters, snowdrops may not even wait for a New Year to begin appearing ©Getty
The snowdrop may appear delicate but it is a hardy little plant, surviving snowfall and cold temperatures. It has long been associated with the winter – its Latin classification, Galanthus nivalis, literally means ‘milk flower of the snow’.
The snowdrop is native across Central and Southern Europe, and became naturalised within our native flora. In his book Types of Floral Mechanism (1908), Arthur Church suggests the snowdrop may have been brought to our shores by the Romans, but notes that the first-known cultivation of the plant was made by John Gerard in 1597.
In the 1950s, snowdrops would not typically flower until late February, but during the past few decades the teardrops of white have appeared ever earlier, and in particularly mild winters, snowdrops may not even wait for a New Year to begin.
Though small, the leafless stem and two slender lanceolate leaves are rich in chlorophyll, and their green stands bold against the deadened colours of winter.
When formed, the flower hangs from the stem like a lantern on a ship’s bow, with the three outer tepals curved into a tight pointed oval that may appear solid. However, there is plenty of room for an insect to squeeze its way in and find pollen at a time when other food is scarce. The bracts later open, releasing the flower to droop downwards, with three outer tepals opening outwards and three inner tepals (white and light-green at the tip) remaining close together.
Find out more with our snowdrops guide.
February – lesser celandine
“There is a flower that shall be mine, ‘T is the little Celandine.” wrote Wordsworth ©Getty
Wordsworth wrote famously of the daffodil, but it was a smaller, more reticent yellow flower that truly captured his poetic heart.
“There is a flower that shall be mine, ‘T is the little Celandine.”
We have two flowers with the name celandine, the greater and lesser, though they are neither closely related nor strikingly similar in appearance – save the yellow of their flowers. Wordsworth’s inspiration was the earlier-flowering lesser celandine, whose heart-shaped leaves are among the first greens to slip between the tired pastels of late winter. They keep a low profile away from the bite of the wind, and often go unnoticed until the flowers unfurl. And on a cold February morning, the narrow, pointed petals shine like the midsummer sun.
The lesser celandine draws the attention of pollinating insects, though the plant is more likely to reproduce through its root tubers, which develop as the plant photosynthesises. These store energy during winter, enabling the plant to grow so early in the year.
The shape of the tubers has been likened to a bunch of figs, hence the Latin name ficaria, whereas in the late Middle Ages, another similarity was noted. The doctrine of signatures was widespread, suggesting a plant could be used to treat the body part it resembled. This led to the naming of flowers such as eyebright, lungwort and hedge woundwort. The tubers of lesser celandine were considered to resemble haemorrhoids and the plant was applied accordingly, becoming popularly known as pilewort.
Perhaps a more poetic and less unpleasant association may be taken from the source of the word ‘celandine’, which is derived from the Latin chelidon – a name given to the swallow, long considered a herald of spring.
March – wood anemone
Wood anenome’s musty waft is not unlike the musk of a fox ©Getty
Our broad-leaved trees are slow to stir in spring. The sun might be warming by the day, but it will be many weeks before the woodland canopy is fully formed with foliage.
Without the obstruction of the leaves, the sun’s rays reach the forest floor unfiltered, and here smaller plants make the most of the opportunity to create a sea of green for themselves.
Dominant in March are the distinctive leaves of the wood anemone. These are palmate in shape and slightly reminiscent of flat-leaved parsley, although their odour should prevent any herbaceous confusion. Their musty waft is not unlike the musk of a fox, leading indeed to the local name ‘smell fox’.
A more familiar sobriquet is ‘windflower’, particularly in a historical context. The Roman scribe Pliny wrote of this delicate flower in his Natural History, suggesting that it was so named because it will not open up its petals until the wind blows. Though this is a slightly unsatisfactory explanation, it does allude to the sensitivity of the wood anemone in relation to the weather. During heavy rain, or as dew threatens at dusk, the linen white sepals of the wood anemone fold shut and the flower droops over like the head of a scolded puppy. This process helps to protect the delicate stamen and immature seed-heads within.
It was once believed that wood-dwelling fairies would take shelter in the flowers of the wood anemone, sleeping through a storm having drawn the curtains snugly around them. In the morning, the flowers open once again, dotting our woodlands like a carpet of stars.
Experience wood anemones and many more wildflowers with one of our spectacular spring rambles.
April – dandelion
Dandelions are rich in nectar, making them a popular food source for insects ©Getty
Our meadowlands are beginning to bloom, although one flower is oft overlooked in the sea of yellow. Amid the buttercups, primroses and celandines is the humble dandelion, whose profligacy and resilience seem to overshadow its beauty.
The dandelion responds each day to the warmth of the sun, splaying open ligulate petals and pushing its stigmas skyward. The flower head then follows the sun west before closing at dusk – tightly packed like a paintbrush dipped in butter.
The flowers are rich in nectar, making them a popular food source for insects, and they have also been long used in wine making. The pipe-like stalks are hollow and contain a latex milk once believed to cure warts.
The toothed leaves may be eaten as a salad plant, especially when young, but their astringency does not appeal to all tastes. They are rich in vitamins A and C, while the shape is believed to be the source of the plant’s etymology – the French name dent de lion literally meaning ‘lion’s teeth’.
The most versatile part of the dandelion is surely the root. It is used in beers and cordials, often alongside that of burdock, while if dry-roasted and ground it offers a surprisingly tasty alternative to coffee. This drink may be caffeine-free but might still wake you up at night as the dandelion often has a diuretic effect.
Why not try making dandelion wine?
May – bluebell
Bluebells wait until the trees begin to green before sending forth leaves of their own ©Getty
A solitary bluebell appears delicate and demure, hanging its head like a coy child. Yet as part of a troop it delivers one of our most powerful floral displays. Through early spring, as the daffodils and snowdrops take centre stage, the bulbs of the bluebell are content to bide their time. They wait until the trees begin to green before sending forth leaves of their own.
By now, the days are long and warm, and the bluebells must respond swiftly before the forest’s canopy blocks out the precious sunlight. The flowers unfurl as one, carpeting the woodland in a shimmering sea of violet that floats ethereally above a sharp gloss of green.
The stem curls beneath the weight of a dozen bell-shaped flowers, each one formed from six lobes that curl back to expose the anthers. The flower is smooth and unmarked, a quality that led to its Latin etymology.
When Carl Linnaeus was classifying the flower in the 18th century, he referred to Romano-Greek legend for inspiration. After the hero Hyacinthus fell, Apollo took his blood and with it created a flower. The god wept, and his tears marked the newly formed petals, resulting in the naming of the genus Hyacinthus.
The perfume of the bluebell can be intoxicating, though it is a smell under threat. The non-native and almost odourless Spanish bluebell has spilled from gardens and parks, hybridising with our native bluebell and neutralising May’s traditional woodland waft.
Learn more about bluebells with our complete guide to this springtime classic.
June – red campion
The roots of red campion contain saponin and were once boiled to form a substitute for soap ©Getty
After a season dominated by yellows and white, a fresh splash of colour is decorating our verges and woodland edges. As early summer replaces spring, so it delivers a pleasant blush of rouge.
The red campion is common across much of lowland Britain and is dioecious, meaning the male and female flowers form on separate plants. As a result, they are heavily reliant upon pollinating insects in order to reproduce. The plants are without scent, so insects must be attracted purely by colour. Although the flowers are relatively small (normally less than 25mm in diameter), the plant itself is fairly prominent, often growing in excess of 60cm high.The stem is stiff and hairy, with pairs of heart-shaped, ivy-green leaves, sparingly placed. The roots contain saponin and were once boiled to form a substitute for soap.
On the Isle of Man, the plant is known as blaa ny ferrishyn, meaning ‘fairy’s flower’, due to the traditional belief that fairies used the red campion to guard stores of honey.
The flower has long been associated with snakes, presumably because it grows in areas where reptiles may frequent.
In Wales and parts of south-west England, red campion is historically bound to the adder, with a common belief that the seeds, when crushed, form a successful anti venom. Other people, meanwhile, feared that a snake would bite anyone who dared to bring a red campion into their home.
Discover more summer bloomers here.
July – hogweed
Hogweed is similar in appearance to several other plants of the carrot family ©Getty
A perfume need not be particularly pleasant to be evocative, and few smells seem to suit the heavy air of high summer like the pungent waft of hogweed. The odour has been likened to that of a pig, as its common name would suggest, and attracts myriad pollinating insects even though our own noses may be turned.
The small white flowers are numerous and variable in size. They sit upon umbels that grow upon multiple rays, splaying out from the stalk like the upturned legs of a spider.
Hogweed is similar in appearance to several other plants of the carrot family, and thrives in the same habitat. It is, however, larger and more robust than cow parsley and rough chervil. Its size and form led to its Latin classification; Heracleum deriving from the Greek hero Heracles, while sphondylium relates to the segmented stem.
Like much of the plant, the thick, hollow stalks are edible, and were once used
as pea-shooters by playing children. Care should be taken when near hogweed – it is easily misidentified as the highly poisonous hemlock and cowbane.
As the leaves photosynthesise, hogweed releases a sap that can cause irritation to sensitive skin. In recent years, its more dangerous, non-native relative, giant hogweed, has spread through the UK. The secretion from this huge (up to five metres tall) invader reacts with sunlight and can cause burns and permanent skin damage.
August – ling
Ling is especially widespread in Scotland ©Alamy
In the tired, sun-bleached landscape of late summer, lies a rich blanket of colour in the most unlikely of places. In August, the high windswept moors that for much of the year seem bleak and inhospitable, shimmer in pink and purple.
Ling is the most common of our native heather species and also the latest to bloom.The flowers are small and abundant, but less distinct in form than the tight bell shape of other heathers. The mauve colour may vary in tone, while occasionally the flowers are pure white.
Scottish legend tells of Malvina, daughter of the third-century poet Ossian, who was presented with a sprig of purple heather picked by her dying love, the warrior Oscar. Her tears fell upon the ling, and the flowers – so tortured by her grief – turned white. Despite this tragic association, white heather has long been regarded as a token of good fortune, while some believe its presence marks the place at which a fairy came to rest.
Ling is especially widespread in Scotland where it has been utilised both practically and culturally. When dried, it was once used for filling mattresses, while the short, stiff branches would be made into brooms, a quality that led to the Latin name Calluna – derived from ‘kallunein’, Greek for ‘cleanse’ or ‘sweep clean’.
The sinewy twists are toughened after many seasons of exposure, cropped by the wind and tightly bound against the rain. A plant may live for 40 years, supplying food for myriad pollinating insects. The flowers are also used for winemaking and beer brewing, while the seeds and shoots provide vital sustenance for deer, hare and birds such as ptarmigan.
September – English stonecrop
Stonecrop prefers to root in acidic soil ©Alamy
Our rocky, salt-scoured coastline is an inhospitable and unforgiving environment, particularly in the west, where the sea is so often stirred by prevailing winds. Here, few species of flora cope with the conditions, yet one or two hardy little flowers thrive.
One of these is the English stonecrop, a slight misnomer as it is found throughout the British Isles. Stonecrop prefers to root in acidic soil, but is not too fussy and will find a foothold in the narrowest of cracks. The small, teardrop-shaped leaves alternate on the stem, with each bulbous form storing precious reserves of water.
To negate the constant buffeting of the wind, stonecrop keeps a low profile, hugging the ground and rarely exceeding a few centimetres in height. Instead, it creeps across the rock surface, creating a dense blanket of rose-tinted green.
Stonecrop is a lover of the sun, and waits until the days are at their longest before flowering. The five lanceolate petals and rounded carpels are white when first formed, but soon begin to take on a pinkish hue. The flowers are small and will still be showing as summer passes into autumn.
Though primarily associated with the coast, stonecrop is also found inland, forming carpets across the rugged and weather-beaten landscapes of Snowdonia, Cumbria and western Scotland. Elsewhere it is more scattered, but as a perennial popular among gardeners, it may be found in naturalised pockets almost anywhere.
The stonecrop’s ability to cling to almost vertical surfaces has recently been utilised in the construction of ‘green’ housing. As a living roof, the tightly packed leaves provide a buffer against extremes of weather and a natural source of sound insulation.
October – honeysuckle
The scent of honeysuckle is strongest at dusk ©Getty
We tend to look to the trees for autumn colour, but here and there a few flowers remain. Among the late bloomers is the honeysuckle, whose trumpet-shaped flowers have filled the air with fragrance since early summer. The scent is strongest at dusk, when pollinating moths find the waft irresistible.
In daylight, bumblebees feast on the rich nectar, drawn by the plum and custard hue of the flowers.
As October passes, the final few honeysuckle flowers fade, replaced instead by tight clusters of berries that ripen into deep red. Blackbirds and winter thrushes gorge on the fruits’ sticky flesh but pass the seeds, aiding the plants dispersal.
The leaves are paired and oval in form, and provide food for the caterpillars of the white admiral butterfly. The larvae feed hard as the days shorten, before, as the temperature falls, securing a leaf to a twig with silk and curling up inside until spring.
The flowers have a distinctive, slender form, and encase a tube that stores the ambrosial nectar. Dormice are particularly fond of eating the energy-rich flowers and will also use the bark of the honeysuckle to line their nests.
The stems are lithe and flexible and entwine themselves around saplings or branches, a characteristic that led to the plant’s traditional association with courtship and devotion, often reflected in romantic literature.
November – poppy
Poppies grow particularly well on wasteland or field edges ©Getty
Late autumn is a time of muted colour. Leaves lie brown on the forest floor, while the once-green verges are lost beneath a march of deadening nettles and dried hogweed. As the days shorten, few flowers are willing to brave the approach of winter, yet it is this time of year that we associate with one of the most striking blooms of all. By November, the delicate red flowers of the poppy will have disappeared from our meadowlands, but the seed heads will be scattered across the ground, where they may lie dormant for decades.
Each chambered capsule can contain thousands of tiny, black seeds – familiar as a topping on bagels or bread. They will remain encased beneath the earth, relying upon a disturbance of the soil to break the capsule and scatter the robust seeds.
This quality has led to the familiar appearance of poppies on cultivated farmland, though they do not blanket the countryside in the numbers they once did (despite an ancient association with agricultural fertility, the poppy can be mildly poisonous to grazing animals and is widely regarded as a weed species).
Bursts of colour still occur here and there, particularly on wasteland or field edges, but it is in November that the deeper symbolism of the poppy comes to light. As bullets flew and shells fell during the First World War, countless trenches and graves were dug, disturbing millions of poppy seeds from their slumber.
The subsequent sight of the flowers swaying among the graves of the dead inspired John McCrae to pen In Flanders Fields. The poem did much to establish the poppy as a symbol of remembrance for the fallen.
Discover more rare flowers of the British countryside.
December – ivy
Ivy is an important source of nectar for insects in the winter months ©Alamy
As autumn drifts into the dark of winter, the once-busy buzz of insect life reduces to little more than a gentle hum. Food is scarce now, but the final few flowers of the ivy still provide a source of nectar. Wasps and hornets will be flitting around the dense green-white umbels, while blackbirds and thrushes feast upon the first of the tight-clustered berries.
Ivy is often regarded as a parasitic plant, but it sources nutrients and water through its own root system, even if it relies on assistance for physical support. It will often climb trees, though never quite to the top – the dense foliage around the crown of the host prevents sunlight from reaching the ivy beneath, and instead of climbing further, the plant will settle and then mature.
As the stems intertwine, the leathery leaves form a thick evergreen shield, beneath which water and light struggle to penetrate. Here, the temperature range remains tight, and throughout the year woodlice and spiders scuttle through the shady must, while tawny owls slip in before dawn after a night of hunting.
Ivy has long been associated with Christmas, a link likely adopted from the pre-Christian age when sprigs were brought into homes to ward off evil spirits. In Ancient Rome, meanwhile, the plant became associated with a different type of spirit. When worn on the head, ivy was thought to temper the effects of alcohol – Bacchus, the Roman God of Wine, is often depicted wearing
a crown of ivy.
Main image ©Getty