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May wayside flowers

Other May pages: Woodland, meadow and field flowersDownland and seaside flowersTrees and shrubsBirdsButterflies and insectsWeather

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Walking down a path or a country lane can be a delight in early May. Most of the flowers that fill waysides and verges in early April continue into the first part of the month. Stitchwort (properly greater stitchwort) is at its best at the start of the month, though most of it has faded by mid month (a week later in 2010 and 2012, by the end of the month in 2013, but by the end of the first week 2011). The same is true of garlic mustard, though it can hang on in places on till the very end of May. Its purple-flowered relative honesty also lasts till mid month. In later springs some cuckoo flower may last as late as the second or third week.

Other April flowers to survive on verges include a few violets, which last into the first week, and ground ivy, bugle, yellow archangel and wild strawberries, along with red deadnettles, all of which can be seen until the third week. White deadnettle, germander speedwell and alkanet last right through the month. The forget-me-nots one sees this month tend to be wild ones, rather than the garden escapees common in April: most common seems to be field forget-me-not, which has tiny flowers, though the even tinier-flowered early forget-me-not might also be seen in bare rocky places.

The most prominent verge flower in May is cow parsley, however, which produces great white drifts along every lane from early May. It comes out sometimes in the first week and sometimes in the second, lasting about three weeks (ie just edging into June in later years). Once it goes over, lanes look a lot more drab and never really regain their cheerful spring appearance, though in places rough chervil takes over. This looks very like cow parsley, but with more delicate flowers (each little cluster in the head separated clearly from the next, whereas on cow parsley they all blend into one) and purple-tinges to its wiry stems. Other umbellifers (cow parsley-like plants) you may just see flowering on verges towards the end of May are hogweed, ground elder, and - near ditches or streams - the very poisonous (but very common) hemlock water dropwort.

Umbellifers can be hard to tell apart, and the same is also true of the various dandelion-like flowers that appear on verges from mid May. As noted in the meadow and field flowers section, true dandelions tend to go over early in the month, but isolated ones survive on verges until late in May. But much more common later in the month and until the end of the summer are superficially similar hawkbit and hawksbeard species, of which there is a bewildering variety.

Most similar in appearance to dandelions - but slimmer, with a smooth stem and smaller, neater flower - is catsear (a kind of hawkbit) which can also be distinguished by the green or grey tinge to the underside of its petals. It is typically a plant of grassy verges or grassy fields. You may also find the very similar mouse-ear hawkweed, identified by its more conventional basal leaves, on very dry grassy banks, though it is more usually found on downland.

Taller, more straggly and with thistle-like leaves are beaked hawskbeard and the rarer but very similar rough hawksbeard. Smaller than these is smooth hawksbeard. Meanwhile nipplewort is another quite tall but dainty plant identifiable by its diamond-shaped leaves. All of these can be found on May verges later in the month.

Just to further confuse matters, you also see smooth sow thistle in May, which also has dandelion-like flowers, thistle-like leaves and is particularly common as an urban weed. A reliable clue to identification is that its upper leaves curve right around the stem, whereas on hawksbeards only the ends of the leaves clasp the stem. When you touch smooth sow thistle leaves you also find that they are not spiny at all but in fact quite soft. Towards the end of May you may just see the very different prickly sow thistle, however, which looks like a normal thistle but with yellow flowers. (Incidentally the leaves of true thistles can also be seen growing on verges in May - creeping thistle being one and marsh thistle another. But they do not flower until June.)

Another numerous family are the cranesbills, which include the diminutive dovesfoot cranesbill and cut-leaved cranesbill (as well as more rarely small-flowered, round-leaved and shining cranesbill), and range up through the medium-sized purple-pink hedgerow cranesbill, to the large blue meadow cranesbill, which looks like a garden escapee (and often is in the south east, though further west it grows wild in some abundance). There is a pink version of this plant - French cranesbill - that also often escapes from gardens onto verges, and a much rarer dusky cranesbill, with its striking deep purple flowers that look as if they are inside out: this too is very likely to be a garden escapee if you see it growing on a roadside verge.

This is also the month where you see comfrey growing. The true native species, common comfrey, is found only in damper spots and has cream or purple flowers and leaves which run on down its stem. But despite its name it is not seen that often. Much more widespread, and growing in drier habitats, is Russian comfrey, which has blue flowers and leaves scarcely or not running down its stem. Both of these species are quite tall, but early in the month on drier verges you can also see the smaller white comfrey, and throughout the month smaller still hidcote blue/pink garden varieties. Much more rare is creeping comfrey, which is yellow.

Other verge flowers in May include red campion, which gathers strength as the month goes on: less commonly you can find white or bladder campion, and pink campion, which is a hybrid of red and white. On grassy banks look out for bush vetch and common vetch (very occasionally also bitter vetch early in May). At the end of the month the delicate lesser stitchwort (much smaller than greater stitchwort) may also appear, though it is more common in meadows.

Flowers of shorter grass include silverweed, whose flowers are almost identical looking to those of creeping or bulbous buttercup (also seen on verges throughout the month), but which has very distinctive silver-backed leaves. Possible to confuse with any of these is cinquefoil, which has distinctive five-lobed leaves and may be found on bare patches at the end of the month. (A four-petaled version of this flower found on heathland is tormentil.) Black medick forms yellow-flowered patches on shorter grass verges (even suburban ones), while daisies are still common in short mown grass. Ribwort plantain is also widely seen, while rarer grassland plants such as hairy tare and smooth tare can crop up on wilder verges.

You can also see the occasional greater celandine - nothing to do with the lesser celandines seen earlier in spring, but instead a yellow-flowered member of the poppy family. Early in the month in the Chilterns and east Weald you can see the rare pink-flowered coralroot growing on roadsides or in woods. In places you can still see three-cornered leek: in the south east it is often a garden escapee, but in the West Country it carpets lanes and paths in May.

One of the most attractive verge flowers in May is the oxeye daisy. It can appear from early on in the month in places, particularly on grassy banks by railway lines, but really gathers force in the second half. Less prettily, cleavers (goosegrass) cover May verges. They produce miniscule white flowers later in May but generally just make any section of verge they cover look untidy. Stinging nettles are now can be waist high and from mid month start to flower (beige tassels, hanging down). Crosswort, a plant with greenish-yellow flowers, appears early in the month and can form attractive clumps by its end.

Minor weeds of bare ground such as chickweed, shepherd's purse and groundsel can also still be seen, particularly, though not exclusively, in urban situations (they were all originally arable weeds - see Arable below): none are as common as they were earlier in the spring, however. Bittercress (often wavy bittercress) seems to be confined to the first half of the month. Wintercress, a neat crucifer with showy yellow flowers, seems to fade towards the end of the month. The straggly hedge mustard persists, however. You sometimes also find oilseed rape as a verge weed. Much rarer, but sometimes found on stony ground, is the tiny yellow sorrel. Very occasionally you see field speedwell.

A curiosity of May verges are the huge leaves of burdock, which make it look like some kind of rhubarb earlier in the month: later in the month it forms a sturdy shrub but does not flower till the end of June. This is the plant that produces the burs that stick to your socks in autumn. Another curiosity is columbine, whose weird upside down flowers look just like something escaped from a garden, which indeed it probably has. Periwinkle, also usually a garden escapee, can continue to flower in isolated spots throughout the month.

Having started to grow in late April, bracken sprouts up in May, looking like distinctly alien as its first fronds uncurl. May also sees that ancient curiosity horsetail (it dates back to the age of the dinosaurs) putting forward its fly-whisk style leaves. Towards the end of May you may see one or two foxgloves.

Special habitats

On shady verges you find wood avens (aka herb bennet), whose yellow flowers appear all too briefly in the second half, while herb robert may crop up at any time in the month, though is not so common as it was in April. Violets may survive into the first week of May, as may some wood spurge. Note also the strange flowers of cuckoo pint, whose brown spike within a curved casing accounts for its many erotic names and which can be seen in the first part of May.

Roadside plants include hoary cress, a greyish plant with white flowers which is found traditionally by the sea but also likes roads that have been salted in winter. Later in May you may just see dame's violet, a showy garden escapee with long upward curling seeds and pink-purple flowers which puts out a strong scent towards dusk.

On railway lines oxeye daisy and beaked hawksbeard join Oxford ragwort: the latter is typically found by tracks in urban areas in the first part of May, but it may survive until the month's end in places. Herb robert can also form quite large colonies on rail lines. Also towards the end of the month white and red valerian can appear on dry trackbeds, as can hoary or black mustard with their frizz of yellow flowers.

Red and white valerian are also found growing out of garden walls. In the same habitat you continue to see ivy-leaved toadflax, mexican fleabane (a kind of daisy) and yellow corydalis (a relative of fumitory), all growing out of cracks that seem to provide no possible nutrients or water: later in the month you can see the attractive blue trailing bellflower doing the same. At the same time purple toadflax - a garden escapee - can be seen on bare ground in villages and towns.

By water, as well as the hemlock water dropwort and common comfrey mentioned above, you can see yellow flag iris. Early in the month there may also be some marsh marigold surviving. Note too that reeds are now growing strongly. In the second half in chalk streams you can find the attractive white flowers of water crowfoot and at the end of the month water lilies may be starting to flower. A rare specialist of damp places is celery-leaved buttercup.

Arable fields

Oilseed rape is often still in full flower at the start of the month, creating great yellow seas in arable fields. It generally fades by the second or third week (though in June 2013 it did not come out till the second week and faded in the first week of June). It is a crucifer, a member of the cabbage family, and on arable margins you can find others of this group. Crucifers are notoriously hard to identify, but a common agricultural weed at this time of year is the yellow-flowered charlock. Note also the distinctively straggly hedge mustard. Oilseed rape itself can sometimes be a wayside weed as well, having seeded from the crop the previous year.

In addition, yellow-flowered black mustard and hoary mustard plants may be found in the second half on arable wasteground. Another crucifer - wild radish - is particularly fond of the margins of oilseed rape fields, though it is found around other crops. Its flowers have a propeller-like shape, and are usually white with delicate veins of purple, though yellow and mauve varieties do exist. Smooth sow thistle may occur on arable wasteground throughout the month, and towards the end of the month you get prickly sow thistle, which looks like a conventional thistle but with yellow flowers.

Smaller flowers on the edge of arable fields include find the pretty purple of fumitory and the diminutive field pansy; also cranesbills, particularly cut-leaved cranesbill or small-flowered cranesbill, the latter having pale lilac flowers, and possibly also dovesfoot cranesbill. Some red deadnettle may also survive early in the month, and rarely (mainly in more western areas, it seems) you see the blue-flowered borage. You also may also still see mats of blue field speedwell, and - on sandier soils - corn spurrey and common storksbill. Just occasionally you may see field madder.

Also evident on the margins of arable fields are the frizzy leaves of scentless and scented mayweed. The later (which is almost identical to stinking chamomile) may be flowering at the end of May, giving off a very faint chamomile scent: the larger flowered scentless mayweed waits until June, however. Confusing matters is pineapple weed, which looks like a mayweed flower with no petals. It can be found flowering quite early in May and smells like pineapple when crushed or rubbed.

Other arable weeds that seem to be more at home in urban environments also sometimes crop up in their original arable margin habitat. In this category are shepherd's purse, identifiable by its purse-shaped seeds; groundsel, whose yellow flowers never open and which can go from seed to seed head in as little as six weeks; and very occasionally, chickweed.

Towards the end of the month you can see the occasional poppy and on verges by gardens you can may come across the occasional welsh poppy (yellow) and atlantic poppy (orange), both escapees in this part of the world. Traditionally May was also a month for cornflowers - a blue, tasseled flower looking a bit like knapweed - but if you see one now it is almost certainly a garden escapee or sewn as part of a wildflower mixture.

Wheat and barley have grown to their full height by mid month and produce their (still green) ears in the second half. Later in the month you may see a large field of blue flax (aka linseed) grown as a crop, or isolated examples on arable verges seeded from previous crops.

More May pages:


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