Nature Menu

Introduction Beginner's Guide Where to find wild flowers Where to find butterflies Books and online tools Week by Week Nature Blog SWC_Nature

Nature and Weather in South East England

This Week Message

For the latest observations, see the Nature Blog or the @SWC_Nature Twitter feed.

May woodland, meadow and field flowers

Other May pages: Wayside flowersDownland and seaside flowersTrees and shrubsBirdsButterflies and insectsWeather

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 continue 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 (though 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 and 2014 bluebells were largely over by the start of May).

Lingering on slightly longer are ramsons (commonly known as wild garlic, though it is in fact only a relative of the variety we eat) which are at their best in the first week or ten days of May (a week longer in 2010, while in 2013 they came out in the first week of May and lasted till the end of the month). Some can last until later in the month in places, however, and at the month's end their dying leaves can still give off a pungent garlic smell.

Other April woodland flowers which may survive into the first week of May in later springs include lesser celandines, wood anemones, primrose, wood sorrel, violets, ground ivy, ivy-leaved speedwell and goldilocks buttercup (which has narrow leaves and slightly deformed flowers). Early in the month you can also see the tall maroon-coloured early purple orchid and the rather inconspicuous flowers of cuckoo pint.

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. 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.

At the same time dog's mercury (which flowers unnoticed in April) is producing green berries on its female plants. Later in the month you may also see some yellow flowers of wood avens (herb bennet), while pendulous sedge, a striking grass-like plant, produces its characteristic drooping catkins. By this time there are large patches of yellowing wood anemone and lesser celandine leaves as these plants die back after flowering.

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) 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 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

May is a wonderful time for meadows - they are at their height late in the month and into early June - and their star flower is the meadow buttercup, the classic tall buttercup of haymeadows. A few may be seen in late April, but they increase rapidly in number in early May and soon have turned whole fields yellow. (For other buttercups also seen in May see Other grassy fields below.)

Grass in meadows grows tall and green at the start of the month, but as it progresses 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 in places) timothy, smooth meadow grass 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 flowers.

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 right from the start of the month, while clover is evident in small quantities from the second week. Usually it seems to be red clover that comes out first, gathering force as the month goes on, with white following a bit later.

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, the first week in 2011) 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, though they are normally a verge flower. Sometimes beaked hawksbeard 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 smooth stems while mouse-ear's are 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 other shorter grassy fields in May - 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 to the creeping buttercup. Both species can form intense carpets, particularly in fields grazed by horses or sheep.

Dandelions can also still cover grassy fields early in the month, but they are going over rapidly. Briefly their famous white seed heads 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 all sorts of 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 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 and you sometimes find dovesfoot cranesbill and yellow rattle. In the first three weeks of May bugle can flower in attractive clumps in damper fields. 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 positively carpet grass if it is left uncut, they also appear in short grass elsewhere, for example on grassy paths and in fields grazed by horses. White clover is also a common plant of grazed fields or trodden paths, and you sometimes also see red clover and ribwort plantain.

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. Thistles also start to grow, 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.

More May pages:

© Peter Conway 2006-2017 ● All Rights Reserved