Flowers of the Woods


A riot of yellow and purple explodes across woodlands up and down the country, seeming to bring the sun down to earth for us to bask in.

Bluebell Woods at Marks Hall, by Barbara Copperthwaite, Go Be Wild

There can be little to beat the splendid yellow ground cover of wild daffodils waving amongst breaks in trees. Although wild daffodils, known as Lent lilies, are less widespread than they were, they are still prolific in the west and south of England and Wales, and some colonies have regained ground in eastern England.

   They struggle sometimes because of indiscriminate picking, land drainage (daffodils do better I damp ground) and their deliberate removal from pastures because their bulbs are slightly poisonous to grazing animals. However, when left undisturbed they can flourish.

   The Lent lily (narcissus pseudonarcissus) is the only true native – and therefore wild - type of daffodil in Britain, the rest are foreign species and hybrids that have escaped from gardens and are now widely naturalised. It has solitary drooping flowers with delicate pale yellow petals and a darker yellow trumpet.

   Possibly the Tenby daffodil (narcissus obvallaris) the symbolic flower of Wales, is also native; if it is a garden escape it certainly escaped a long time ago. It differs from the Lent lily in that it has deeper yellow petals and is slightly taller.

   The primrose was given the name prima rosa – first rose of the year  by medieval scholars. Primroses still flourish in old grassland and hedgerows or in woods.

   Like many other common and easily-recognised plants, the primrose has been put to numerous uses. Its flowers and those of its cousin, the cowslip, were recommended as a flavouring in a 17th century recipe for minnows fried with egg yolks, and vast quantities of primrose and cowslip blossoms went into country wines and vinegar.    Primrose leaves were boiled with lard by medieval New Forest woodmen to make an ointment for cuts.

   Some primroses in the woods of south Wales have pinkish flowers, and in some plants, the flowers grow on a common stalk instead of all springing separately from the base of the plant. With such variability existing naturally in wild primroses, it is not surprising that gardeners have seized on the opportunity to single out oddities – the long-stalked or large flowered or brightly-coloured mutants which, by hybridisation with cowslips and oxslips, have given birth to the enormous range of polyanthus varieties we see in gardens today.


Daffodils, Barbara Copperthwaite, Go Be Wild

   While primroses and daffodils have been hybridised in gardens in seemingly endless permutations, other plants have escaped from gardens to the countryside. The spring crocus is a familiar spring flower of gardens that is found increasingly growing wild in meadows and woods.

   When it comes to purple power though, there is one flower which reigns supreme: the bluebell.

   In May, before the shade cast by trees becomes too dense, bluebells flourish among other flowers, grasses and bracken. The bluebell can grow in the darkness of woods because it has ground bulbs by which it propagates itself each year. Their reign is truly wonderful, but all too brief, as by June the flowers start to die down and the leaves begin to rot.

   Light, well-drained sandy or clay soils in birch, oak, hazel, coppiced or mixed woods, are where you will find this beautiful, delicate flower, although it can also be found along hedge banks and clearings. Albino bluebells are also fairly common, found in a ratio of 1 in every 20,000 approximately, and are caused by a genetic fault in the pigmentation.

You often find bluebells mixed with bracken and creeping soft-grass. The three species can co-exist in the same area without any competition for soil nutrients as they have roots that go down to different depths. Other species of plants associated with bluebells are the common violet, common tormentil, wild strawberry and early purple orchid. 

Bluebells, Barbara Copperthwaite, Go Be Wild
Daffodils at Highbury Park, by Barbara Copperthwaite, Go Be Wild
Spring crocuses at Highbury Park, Barbara Copperthwaite, Go Be Wild