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May woodland, meadow and field flowers

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Picture: ramsons (wild garlic). 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.

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.

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, garlic mustard, forget-me-not and goldilocks buttercup (which has narrow leaves and slightly deformed flowers). As soon as they have finished flowering, the yellowing leaves of lesser celandine, become a common sight in woods (more so than on verges, where they are overtopped by other vegetation), 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 yellow archangel, bugle and stitchwort, but red campion and herb robert can last till the end of the month. The drooping tassels of pendulous sedge, a plant with thick grass-like blades of vegetation, may still be in yellow flower early in the month, turning brown once they have gone over. But the tassels soon turn green as they produce their seeds. Dog's mercury (which flowers unnoticed in April) also has green seeds on its female plants.

Cow parsley can sometimes occur occur as a woodland flower too: if it has not already come into flower in April, it soon does so in early May, lasting till the second or third week of the month. Cleavers (goosegrass) and stinging nettles form patches when there is a bit of a break in the canopy; both conspicuously flower in the second half, stinging nettles producing beige tassels and cleavers tiny white stars. From as early as the second week 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, and the ground-hugging yellow pimpernel, all possible throughout the month. Pale mauve wood speedwell, more likely in the first half of the month, is easy to confuse with the more conspicuous germander speedwell, which can also be found in woods and whose flowers are larger and generally more blue-coloured. Germander speedwell also has several flowers branching off a stalk with small leaves on, while on wood speedwell there are one or two flowers on an otherwise bare tendril.

You sometimes also find pignut (usually a meadow flower) in woods, 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 in the second half of the month you may see common figwort. 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 in meadows. You might also see pignut – a small cow-parsley like flower, once common in hay meadows and cherished for its edible roots (which it is now illegal to dig up...). From mid month common sorrel gives meadows a reddish tinge.

Very rarely in damp meadows you may see beautiful pink ragged robin. The leaves of meadow vetchling are evident but they do not flower yet. 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, which can nevertheless sometimes take over quite large areas of a meadow with its tiny pale pink flowers.

Also small are the white flowers of mouse-ear, which look very similar to those of 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, which can form big mats, as well as mouse-ear and ribwort plantain. You occasionally see yellow rattle, and the same is true black medick (another mat-former, which despite its name has a yellow flower). 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. At the start of the month you may also see the mauve-coloured slender speedwell in mown grass, which could be mistaken at a casual glance for germander speedwell.

White clover can also occur in mown grass, and is also seen on grazed fields or paths (it is an indicator of places that are trodden by horses or animals, apparently), with red clover in less trodden spots. Early in the month you may still find good displays of cowslips in grassy fields on chalky soils.

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, spear and marsh thistle 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: in the same habitat you can see the four-petalled yellow flowers of tormentil.

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