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July wayside flowers

Other July pages: Downland and seaside flowersHedgerow, fruit and berriesBirdsButterflies and insectsWeather

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In July the landscape starts to lose its fresh green appearance, with yellowish-brown grass seed now dominant in meadows and arable crops ripening. But there are still plenty of flowers to be seen on the edges of paths and roads, the side of railway lines, and other bits of wasteground.

The flowers that put on the best display are often those that are regarded as the greatest pests by farmers and gardeners. A good example is common ragwort – poisonous to horses and so pulled up by some landowners, but a lovely golden flower and an important food source for insects: it forms large concentrations as the month goes on. Joining it later in July is the very similar hoary ragwort, which is more branched lower down and has a more scattered and delicate array of flowers. You can also get some new growth (and flowers) from the much more diminutive and bushy Oxford ragwort, originally a native of Mount Etna, found in this country mainly on railway lines.

Another July classic is rosebay willowherb, a flower that was rare until the second world war when it suddenly appeared all over bombsites. Its dramatic pink spikes of flowers make a bold impression on the July landscape, coming out early in the month and at their best by the third week or so: some can be starting to look thin by the month’s end, however. The less showy great willowherb appears in the second week and is at its best well into August. You may also see the much smaller broad-leaved willowherb, particularly as an urban weed.

Showing that not all invasive foreign species are bad for wildlife, buddleia puts out a few flowers early in the month and then builds in intensity as the month goes on. This bushy plant, a native of stony deserts in northern China, finds odd bits of urban dereliction and the sides of railway lines the perfect habitat, and produces enormous purple flower spikes that are beloved of butterflies and bees.

Another introduced plant, this time from North America, that likes old industrial sites but is chiefly found along railway lines is evening primrose, which has tall stems of large yellow flowers. In similar places, though also sometimes on bare verges, you find dramatic yellow spikes of mullein: mainly great mullein, though very occasionally dark mullein is found. Weld also crops up occasionally.

Dandelion-like flowers

If you see a tall, branched plant with a dandelion-like flower on wasteground or urban verges, it is most likely to be a sow thistle or some kind of hawkweed. On roadsides and in urban places smooth sow thistle is one possibility - it looks like it will be spiny but is in fact soft to the touch. There is also prickly sow thistle, which looks like a thistle with yellow flowers and which is more often seen in arable locations, though also sometimes urban ones; and this is the best month for perennial sow thistle (aka corn sow thistle), which has large showy flowers and is found more on grassy verges. Looking similar to these and very occasionally found on verges are various lettuce species - for example great lettuce or prickly lettuce.

Of hawkweeds the most common is hawkweed oxtongue with its characteristic wavy-edged leaves, which crops up in all sorts of unloved corners. Superficially similar, but bushier and with warty leaves, is bristly oxtongue, more common by the sea but also found inland. Much smaller and dantier, with flowers about 10-15mm across, is smooth hawksbeard, a common wayside plant which in turn can easily be confused with nipplewort: the leaves are the clue to telling one from the other. Both can be seen all July.

At an even smaller scale, you may also find very occasional examples of true dandelions in July, with their juicy stems and notched basal leaves, but the vast majority of small dandelion-like flowers you see are common catsear, a plant of grassy verges (and occasionally fields with shorter grass), or one of the hawkbits - perhaps lesser hawkbit or - at the very end of the month - autumn hawkbit.

Mustards, melilots and thistles

If all these plants can be hard to tell apart, then the same is true of mustards, which form yellow-flowered clumps on wasteland. Black mustard and hoary mustard, for example, can be distinguished by minor details of their leaves and seeds. Hedge mustard is easier to distinguish because it is a smaller, weedier plant, though it tends to fade as the month goes on.

Recently disturbed ground can produce large displays of golden melilot (or the near identical ribbed melilot? They are very hard to tell apart) which has yellow vetch-like flowers. There is also a white melilot that is seen much less often.

July is also the month for thistles - not plants that normally inspire admiration, but nevertheless another very useful nectar source for butterflies and insects. Already in flower at the start of the month is marsh thistle - tall, thin and very spiny and by no means always found on marshes or even on damp ground. The much less common slender thistle, which has small thin flowers, tends to have gone over by now but can crop up in July. You also may just see some musk thistle on downland and grassland, though it tends to go over early in the month, and very occasionally welted thistle.

In July these are joined by the much more common creeping thistle, whose flowers are pale lilac and surprisingly soft in appearance, and whose stems are not spiny, even though its leaves definitely are. By the end of the month it is going over in many places, producing a mass of seeds that drift off into the air and become the "fairies" once beloved of young children. Some continue to flower into August, however. The same is true of spear thistle - the classic thistle flower, with a large globe below it - which appears in force from the second week or so and is very common at the month's end.

Not a thistle (it is actually closely related to scabious), but similarly spiky, is teasel, which flowers from the second week or so, the flower consisting of a pink band around its fearsome head. A shrub with thistle-like flowers is burdock, whose blooms always look as if they are only half out: latter in the year these become the burrs that stick to your clothing.


On path and lane verges hogweed continues to be found throughout the month: it has a rather unpleasant smell which fits its name, though in concentrations it can look quite pretty. A much more delicate plant of the same family (the umbellifers) is hedge parsley, which graces many a grassy verge, taking over from the rough chervil that occupied this slot in June and the cow parsley of May. Hedge parsley has drifts of small, rather delicate flowers that can turn a bit pink as they go over, and a rough, wiry feel to its stems.

A tiny bit of ground elder may also survive into July, and just occasionally you can find delicate stone parsley or even corn parsley. If you see a yellow plant in this family it could be wild parsnip, but especially near the sea you also find fennel, whose thread-like leaves smell strongly of aniseed when rubbed.

Grassland flowers on verges

There is the occasional buttercup on verges in July - probably a creeping buttercup - but take a closer look because silverweed is also possible. Its flowers are very similar to those of the buttercup but its leaves are very different, with distinctive silver undersides. Also somewhat buttercup-like in appearance is cinquefoil, which sprawls over some verges, producing a lot of foliage and relatively few flowers. The small four-petalled version of this that you see on heathland is tormentil.

Various other flowers more normally associated with downland can be found on verges as well, particularly in the second half of the month. These include the yellow spikes of agrimony (not to be confused with hemp agrimony: see below), marjoram, knapweed, self-heal, wild basil, birdsfoot trefoil, vervain, common centaury, wild carrot and field scabious. You also see some white or red clover and black medick, and earlier in the month perhaps some hedge or lady's bedstraw. Yarrow is the reverse - a common verge flower that is sometimes found on downland. Lesser stitchwort and meadow vetchling - normally meadow plants - can also crop up as wayside flowers in July, particularly early in the month.

Other verge flowers

Other verge flowers in July include hedge woundwort – which looks somewhat nettle-like but has maroon flower spikes – and the unfortunately named black horehound which is dotted with pink flowers. Both of these can be found throughout the month, but hedge woundwort is more common in the first half. In addition there is a marsh woundwort - much prettier, with striking pink flowers - which can be found by riversides and ditches, and sometimes drier places, and which can last well into August.

You might also also still see some meadow cranesbill, whose large blue flowers make it look like a garden escapee, which in the south east it may well be: further west (Oxfordshire, Wiltshire) it seems to crop up in wilder places. It tends to fade as the month goes on. The same goes for French cranesbill, which has large pink flowers and is definitely an escapee. Early in July you may also see one of the smaller cranesbills - cut-leaved, round-leaved or small-flowered cranesbill, for example, and the slightly larger hedgerow cranesbill can occasionally crop up right up to the end of the month. In drier places what you think is a tiny cranesbill may just be a storksbill.

Not entirely dissimilar to cranesbills, but with much larger flowers, is common mallow, which also comes in a delicate pink variety called musk mallow. Both flowers are related to hollyhocks, a garden plant producing tall spikes of purple or pink flowers which flourishes in and near gardens in July. Looking like a blue version of these is chicory, found occasionally on bare verges, wasteground or fallow arable fields.

Also to be seen on verges in July is St John's wort, along with its semi-wild garden relative rose of sharon. A striking purple-blue flower is tufted vetch which can be seen throughout the month. In addition you get the occasional white campion, red campion or bladder campion (and pink campion, a hybrid of red and white campion) along with some foxgloves early in the month. Any comfrey you see on verges is likely to be Russian comfrey, rather than the native common comfrey which is confined to damp places and has leaves running down its stem.

Note also the occasional outbreaks of white deadnettle, and even more occasional clumps of greater celandine - nothing to do with the lesser celandine that you see in early spring but instead a relative of the poppy. Some green alkanet survives on verges near houses. Curled or broad-leaved dock are in flower at the start of July, though it is hard to tell this: as the month goes on they fade from a rusty red (their flowering colour) to rusty brown (signifying they have gone over). Ribwort plantain may occasionally be found and of course stinging nettles continue to flourish.

Mugwort can be seen all month, a large metallic green plant that is very common and conspicuous. It often looks as if it is in flower in July but its flowers actually consist of a dun-coloured centre to its white buds that you will only notice if you look closely: they generally do not appear till August.

In the second half of July (sometimes a bit earlier) there is another set of new arrivals - the last big wave of new flowerings in the year. This is the time for hemp agrimony, with its fuzzy pink flowers, and lovely nettle-leaved bellflowers: also Canadian goldenrod (often just called goldenrod, but there is a different native flower of that name) which produces a mass of showy yellow tassels and which is particularly fond of growing along railway lines, though by no means exclusively found there. You get some common toadflax and common fleabane earlier in the month, but they become much more common towards its end. Both these flowers are much more attractive than their names suggest - common toadflax having yellow flowers a bit like butter curls and common fleabane orange daisy-like blooms.

Right at the end of the month you see tansy (which looks like a daisy without petals) and michaelmas daisies may appear along railway lines, though normally they are seen from mid August. On heathland the brightly coloured bell heather is at its best the second half of July, and you may also see some cross-leaved heath. As the month ends the ordinary heather is starting to come out in place. Throughout the month you can find yellowish spikes of wood sage.

Small plants of bare ground

As well as the showier wasteground plants mentioned at the top of this page, there are also a number of overlooked plants in July on bare ground - for instance the dried mud of footpaths or odd urban corners. These include common orache, fat hen, knotgrass and greater plantain. All may start to produce their very inconspicuous flowers during the month. In the case of greater plantain the flower spikes are visible enough but the flowers are a faint purple fuzz that you have to look very closely to see.

Other bare ground plants you may spot include the occasional shepherd's purse, field speedwell, yellow sorrel and scarlet pimpernel, plus pineapple weed, which looks like a daisy flower without petals and which is another coloniser of earth paths. (It does indeed smell of pineapple if rubbed.) Now and again on mud paths - and also on urban verges - you see redleg. Throughout the month one can see the fly-whisk plants of horsetail, a relic of the age of the dinosaurs. Groundsel can occur on bare ground almost anywhere, but it seems to most often flower in urban cracks, where it can go from seed to seed in as little as six weeks.

Hedgerow climbers

July is the month for the showy traveller's joy - wild clematis - to flower in hedgerows on chalk soils. This is the plant whose fluffy seeds are known as old man's beard in winter. Its white blooms can be seen in places from early July and widely from mid month, though in wet summers it may be delayed until the end of the month or (in 2007) even until mid August.

Throughout July you also see the big white trumpets of large or hedge bindweed sprawling over hedgerows and waste ground (the two species are almost indistinguishable, the difference being in the green flaps - the bracts - at the base of the flowers), while the small pretty pink field bindweed can be seen at ground level on path sides.

Two other climbers worth noting are honeysuckle, with its aromatic white flowers, and bittersweet (aka woody nightshade) with its inverted purple flowers. Both broad-leaved everlasting pea, with its showy pink (sometimes pale pink) flowers, and Russian vine with its white-flowered cascades, also sprawl over fences and hedgerows in semi-wild locations, Russian vine being particularly prevalent along railway lines.

Garden escapees

This is the month when lavender flourishes in gardens, and it is also grown in places as a crop, though the latter is usually harvested sometime around the middle of the month. It is never found in the wild but there are flowers that do stray beyond the garden fence, notably the striking spikes of purple toadflax. Other escapees, properly belonging by damp riversides but more normally seen on verges, are cultivated versions of yellow loosestrife, for example dotted loosestrife or whorled loosestrife.

Some orange-flowered montbretia may be found in the second half, but it rarely strays far from the garden from where it seeded. It tends to be near gardens walls that you see the daisy-like feverfew. On disturbed ground you can see the showy goat's rue, a member of the pea family which forms large pink-blue clumps, and sometimes soapwort, which was once indeed used to make soap.

Growing out of garden walls you can still find ivy-leaved toadflax, the daisy-like mexican fleabane, yellow corydalis and - early in the month - trailing bellflower. Some red valerian may also still be found in the same habitat early in the month. Lady's mantle sometimes escapes onto nearby verges.

Meadows and rough pasture

The fine meadow flower displays of June are only a distant memory in July. Instead tall grass with golden seeds rule. But some flowers can still be found amongst them in the first half of the month, for example the (usually closed) buds of goatsbeard, a yellow flower with grass-like leaves that only opens in the early morning and which is more usually identified by its fluffy dandelion-like seedheads. Lesser stitchwort also still lurks in grassy fields, particularly in the first half, as does tufted vetch and clumps of yellow meadow vetchling. The latter can easily be confused at a casual glance with greater birdsfoot trefoil (the leaves are the key to identification), which can occur in damper meadows. Knapweed is also a fairly common meadow flower, and a welcome splash of colour. Ribwort plantain can occasionally be seen, as can hairy tare. Smooth hawksbeard also sometimes appears in meadows.

In short mown grass (mostly in parks and on suburban verges, though also on grassy footpaths) one can still see some daisies, as well as catsear, occasionally lesser hawkbit, and - towards the end of the month - autumn hawkbit. In similar habitats, as well as in pasture fields, there can still be a lot of white clover still in flower, while red clover also sometimes crops up. Yarrow can also be seen on in pasture and on urban grassland and the same is true of self heal. Birdsfoot trefoil may also dot grazed fields, while cinquefoil occurs in shorter grass in rough fields - for example on path edges.

In rougher or more unkempt fields, docks can premoninate. There are various species but curled dock and broad-leaved dock are most common. Early in the month they still have spikes of red flowers: later in the month these go over and leave the plants looking rusty brown, but the transition between these two states is hard to spot - even in flower docks can still look fairly rusty. Other flowers that can take over rough fields include hogweed - though they tend to be going over as the month ends - and common ragwort; possibly also hoary ragwort later in the month, which lasts into August. Thistles are also common - for example creeping, spear or marsh thistle. You sometimes see new creeping thistle shoots looking as pale as iceberg lettuce.

Shady spots and woodland

In shadier spots and woodland, enchanter’s nightshade, which puts out spikes of tiny white flowers with dainty seedpods, is very common in July, and you sometimes still see the tiny pink flowers of herb robert (yet another cranesbill). Early in the month you can also find the occasional flower of wood avens (aka herb bennet), while towards its end you may see wood sage along wood edges.

Rarer woodland plants include small balsam, a plant with small yellow flowers and large leaves, or balm, with its white flowers and lemon-smelling leaves. You may also spot the tiny yellow flowers of yellow pimpernel or creeping jenny. In damper clearings in woods you may see water pepper, which has leaves like redleg, but paler flowers, which appear only at the very end of the month. In the same habitat look out also for lesser spearwort, which is easy to mistake for creeping buttercup, but which has long thin leaves.

The rather alien-looking clusters of berries that you can see on shady verges (they ripen from green to orangey-red as the month goes along) belong to cuckoo pint.

Waterside and damp places

Near ditches and rivers you can see the white frizzy flowers of meadowsweet throughout the month, while the wonderful spikes of purple loosestrife appear from around the second week. Common from mid month onwards is himalayan balsam, an invasive pest that is nevertheless very beautiful to look at and popular with insects. There is also a much rarer orange balsam.

Superficially similar to purple loosestrife, but smaller and less showy, is marsh woundwort, which is also found on ordinary verges from around mid month. Towards the end of the month angelica appears - easy to confuse with hogweed, but with more normal-looking leaves.

Rarer waterside flowers include the attractive pink-flowered common valerian, which looks a bit cow parsley but is from a different family, and water forget-me-not - a summer version of the woodland/verge plant which grows on the edges of rivers or in boggy places. In the same habitat you may just see water chickweed, a straggling version of the familiar field plant, or water speedwell. Watercress is also in flower in July in shallow chalk streams and I have once seen both fool's watercress and wild celery. In damp grassland any buttercup you see may be lesser spearwort, which has long thin leaves. There is also a marsh bedstraw, though it is quite hard to distinguish from the fairly similar (and more common) heath bedstraw. Marsh thistle is also possible in damp habitats.

Wet ground is also the place to see the native common comfrey (cream or dull purple flowers, with leaves spreading down the stem): otherwise any comfrey you see on verges is likely to be Russian comfrey or its variants (bright blue or various shades of purple or even pink, and the leaves do not spread down the stem to any extent).

You continue to see the distinctive flowers of bulrushes - the brown cylinder of the female flower and the fluffy male part on top of it, though the latter soon fades. Stagnant water can become green with pondweed but more prettily it is a good month for water lily flowers (both yellow and white ones).

Right at the end of the month wild mints may appear, though August is a more normal time for them. The first to flower is often water mint, with its distinctive double pink globes: it is found both by streams and in wet grassy places. For other mint species see August flowers.

Arable fields

July sees arable crops come to golden ripeness - barley first, and then wheat. From mid month one can start seeing barley harvested, though wheat is usually left till later in the month or early August. For the farmer this is a delicate decision – leaving the crop longer helps it to dry, but leave it too long and a summer downpour could ruin everything. In medieval times 1 August was Lammas - "Loaf Mass" - Day, when the first bread was baked from the new grain, ending the "hunger gap" of July.

Meadows are also cut (if they were not cut in late June) and you start to see rounded hay bales in the fields (sometimes wrapped in black plastic): also grass being left to dry in rows before being baled. One depressing sight is the wastes of oilseed rape, which in May were such a riot of yellow flowers but which are now a mass of elongated seeds pods. These turn from green to brown as the month progresses (sometimes via a nice golden stage) and may be harvested towards its end.

Most poppies have gone over but some can survive well into July. On arable field edges scentless mayweed (a large daisy) can be seen. Early in the month you may also see scented mayweed, which has smaller flowers and smells faintly of chamomile if you rub it, and throughout the month the scrappier looking and less pleasant smelling stinking chamomile may also be found, though it is much less common than the other two. The frizzy leaves and yellow heads of pineapple weed (like a daisy without its petals, which does actually smell of pineapple if rubbed) can look like one of these about to flower, but it is in fact a separate species and common on disturbed ground.

Smaller arable field edge weeds include scarlet pimpernel and field pansy - and much more rarely common fumitory or field madder. Once wheat has been cut all these can also spring up amongst the stubble, though this is more a phenomenum of August. One ground-creeping plant that does this is black bindweed, which you may see starting to flower at the end of July.

Three occasional arable weeds that look like garden escapees include chicory, with its striking blue flowers, tansy-leaved phacelia (which is in fact an escapee from "wildflower" seed mixes), and the striking blue borage, (usually seen to the west of London, in Wiltshire or Oxfordshire). The first two of these can be present in large quantities.

On bare field edges knotgrass creates untidy mats, and may start producing its inconspicuous flowers: the same is true of fat hen, a weed of disturbed ground with triangular leaves, or the similar looking common orache. Greater plantain seems to like muddy farm tracks and field corners: it produces spikes which flower later in the month but they have such a faint fuzz of purple that you barely notice they are out. Redleg occasionally crops up as an arable weed, as does groundsel. Smooth, prickly and perennial (aka corn) sow thistle also crop up on field edges from time to time, and very occasionally you see charlock.

Sheep may be let in to graze on arable stubble: by now the lambs are as big as their mothers, and you can only tell them apart because the breeding ewes have been shorn, while the lambs (destined for the abattoir) have not...

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