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May woodland, meadow and field flowers

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Put your cursor over any photo to see its caption, or click here for more May woodland, meadow and field flower photos

The wonderful woodland flowers of April fade early in May but roadsides and field verge flowers are at their best, and meadows start to come into their own. At best the countryside can seem like absolute perfection. Or, depending on your mood, it can all start to see a little over-exuberant.

The last of the woodland flowers

Bluebells are out in full force at the start of the month but are fading by the end of the first week. (In the late spring of 2006 and 2013 bluebells did not come out in force till the end of the first week in May and stayed until the end of week three, while in 2010 they came out only at the very end of April and likewise lasted till the end of week three. By contrast, in 2011, 2014 and 2019 bluebells were largely over by the start of May. In 2018 they lasted into the first ten days of the month, but a hot third week in April had caused rapid tree foliage growth which shaded out many bluebell woods before they had fully flowered: as a result most never managed to be more than half out.) This late in the bluebell season growing bracken fronds can be a problem in some woods, breaking up the "sea" of flowers: new leaves also uncurl on hart's tongue.

Lingering on slightly longer than bluebells are ramsons (commonly known as wild garlic, though they are in fact only a relative of the variety we eat) which are at their best in the first half of May. In places some can even last until later in the month, and everywhere at the month's end their dying leaves still give off a pungent garlic smell. (In 2013 they came out in the first week of May and lasted till the end of the month.)

Other April woodland flowers which may survive into the first week of May include lesser celandine, wood anemone, primrose, wood sorrel, violet, ground ivy, ivy-leaved speedwell and goldilocks buttercup (which has narrow leaves and slightly deformed flowers). The yellowing leaves of lesser celandine are a common sight from the second week or so, and later in the month are joined by those of bluebell and wood anemone. Early in the month you can also see the tall maroon-coloured early purple orchid and the rather inconspicuous flowers of cuckoo pint. The latter are a lot harder to spot than their leaves are earlier in the year or their red seedheads are in later the summer. By the end of the month those seedheads are forming - a cluster of green (at this stage) berries.

Woodland flowers lasting longer but tending to fade in the second half as the leaf canopy thickens are herb robert, yellow archangel, bugle, stitchwort and red campion, while the drooping tassels of pendulous sedge, a striking grass-like plant, may still be in yellow flower early in the month, turning brown once they have gone over. Dog's mercury (which flowers unnoticed in April) has green seeds on its female plants.

Cow parsley can sometimes occur occur as a woodland flower too, as can cleavers (goosegrass), while stinging nettles form patches when there is a bit of a break in the canopy. Both these last two flower inconspicuously in the second half, stinging nettles producing beige tassels and cleavers tiny white flowers. Later in the month you may also see some yellow flowers of wood avens (herb bennet).

Rarer woodland species include woodruff (with tiny white flowers and leaves arranged in ruffs to match its name), wood spurge, pale mauve wood speedwell, and the ground-hugging yellow pimpernel. You sometimes also find pignut (usually a meadow flower), while the strange umbellifer sanicle especially likes chalk beechwoods. On sandy soils you may come across lily of the valley. All of these can occur throughout May, while at the very end of the month you may see small balsam, which has tiny yellow flowers set amid large leaves. Early in the month in the Chilterns or eastern Weald you may just see the pink-flowered coralroot.

Meadow flowers

At the start of May meadows still look like ordinary grassy fields and you might not guess the transformation that is about to take place. But as the month goes on the grass grows taller, flowers increase, and by mid month you are starting to get the full meadow effect. An important contributor to this are meadow buttercups, the classic tall buttercup of haymeadows. A few may be seen right from the start of the month, and from the third week or so they can turn whole fields yellow. (For other buttercups seen in May see Other grassy fields below.)

Meanwhile as the grass grows, more and more of it goes to seed. You realise as this happens just how varied grass is, with different species such as meadow foxtail (whose seed heads can be seen right from the start of the month, or even in late April in places) timothy, smooth meadow grass, cocksfoot and yorkshire fog. Early in the month the seeding grasses just add further variety to the meadows but towards the end they can start to overwhelm the buttercups a bit.

Look more closely at May meadows and you see all sorts of other flowers. Ribwort plantain puts out a delicate white ring of flowers around its seed head from around the second week, and at the same time you start to see some clover flowers - usually red clover. You might also see pignut – a small cow-parsley like flower, once common in hay meadows and cherished for its edible roots - while from mid month (end of May in 2010) common sorrel gives meadows a reddish tinge.

The plants of meadow vetchling are evident but they do not flower yet. Rarely oxeye daisies can form patches in meadows towards the end of the month, though they are normally a flower of grassy banks. Sometimes beaked, rough or smooth hawksbeard also make a good showing in meadows.

On a smaller scale one can see common vetch and, later in the month, grass vetchling - a tiny red flower on grass-like leaves. Hairy tare is another inconspicuous member of the vetch family with tiny pale pink flowers, while on smooth tare there are only two flowers and they are a bit larger.

Also small are the white flowers of mouse-ear, which looks very similar to lesser stitchwort, the latter appearing later in May. The difference between them is that lesser stitchwort has delicate smooth stems while mouse-ear's are thicker and hairy. Lesser stitchwort also has a slightly larger flower, usually (though not always) with evenly spaced petals, while in mouse-ear they are grouped in twos (actually one petal with a big notch in it).

At the very end of the month you may see goatsbeard. This weird plant - which is actually quite common - only opens its yellow flowers in the morning. For the rest of the day all you see is a huge ridged flower bud on a stem with grass-like leaves, or possibly a large grey dandelion-like seed head.

Other grassy fields

As well as true meadows, in which the grass grows tall, there lots of flowers in May in shorter grassy fields - pasture or other lowland grassland. These too can be dominated by buttercups, but in this case by the smaller bulbous and creeping buttercups. The bulbous buttercup, which has turned down sepals under its flowers, is usually the first to appear, in late April, and prefers drier grassland. Both species can form intense carpets, particularly in fields grazed by horses.

Dandelions can also still cover grassy fields early in the month, but they are going over rapidly. Briefly their famous white seedheads can make a good display but they tend to be all gone by the second week. This is worth noting, because later in May you can see dandelion-like flowers which lead many casual observers to conclude that dandelions flower all summer. In fact, these are hawkbits, hawksbeards and hawkweeds - a confusing group of plants which are described in the May wayside flowers. One that can occasionally make a good display in grassy fields late in May, as well as on mown suburban verges, is catsear.

Otherwise in shorter grass note such flowers as germander speedwell and black medick (which actually has a yellow flower), both of which can form big mats. Mouse-ear is also a common pasture field flower, as is ribwort plantain, and you may can sometimes find yellow rattle. In the first three weeks of May bugle can flower in attractive clumps in damper fields and some small drifts of cuckoo flower linger on in the same habitat well after they have disappeared from path and road waysides. An extremely diminutive grassland flower, which could at first glance be mistaken for the eyebright you see on downland in the summer is thyme-leaved speedwell.

In addition May is a fabulous month for daisies. Though these are more seen in parks, where they can form intense carpets if the grass is left uncut, they also appear in short grass elsewhere, for example on paths and in fields grazed by horses. Dovesfoot cranesbill crops up in mown or short grass too, as more rarely does common storksbill, while white clover is seen on grazed fields or paths, with red clover in less trodden spots.

Rougher fields are dotted with the large leaves of dock (often curled dock or broad-leaved dock) which has similiar flowers to common sorrel (see Meadow flowers above), and which may be starting to flower towards the end of the month. Creeping and marsh thistles plants also grow upwards, though do not flower yet. Sheep's sorrel, a much smaller version of common sorrel, forms rust-coloured patches in shorter grass, particularly on heathland.

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