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

April verge and field flowers

Other April pages:  Intro and woodland flowers • Blossom and shrubs • The greening of the treesBirds • Butterflies and insects Weather

Picture: stitchwort. Click here for more April verge and field flower photos.

There are plenty of flowers on path, road and field verges in April: indeed, country lanes can be at their most cheerful this month. Yellow celandines (properly lesser celandines, as the unrelated greater celandine also flowers this month: see below) are still at their height at the start of the month, blooming happily almost everywhere one looks. They tend to fade away or get smothered by other vegetation in the second or third week, but they can be found in places right up to the end of the month. Their leaves shrivel away once they have finished flowering, to leave no trace that they have ever been there, though this does not usually happen until May.

Other survivors from March that can still be found on verges are daffodils, violets (mainly dog violets at this stage) and primroses. Daffodils are past their best in city parks by the start of the month but can survive till the second or third week in rural spots. As with celandines, violets and primroses get smothered by other vegetation as much as anything, but can be seen in places right up to the end of April.

Of the verge flowers that appear in April, it is cuckoo flower, garlic mustard and stitchwort that make the best displays. Cuckoo flower (otherwise known as lady’s smock) can be seen in force right from the start of the month if March has been mild, and it remains prominent all month. At its best it can create dreamy drifts of pink. (In the east Weald and Chilterns from mid month onward you can find coralroot, a rare cuckoo flower relative.)

Stitchwort – a delicate white flower identifiable by its double petals – appears in places in early in April, but it really comes out in force in the second or third week and by the end of the month seems to be everywhere. Garlic mustard (which is neither a garlic nor a mustard but whose leaves are supposed to smell a bit of both when crushed) comes out in the second or third week and lasts into May. Honesty, its more flashy mauve-flowered relative, can sometimes be seen a bit earlier - often, though not always, near houses. It gets its name from its large flat seed pods which go transparent later in the year.

Another common flower of verges and any spare bit of grass in April is the humble dandelion. So familiar it tends to get overlooked, it nevertheless steadily increases in number as the month goes on, forming dense yellow patches, until in the third or fourth week the sheer quantity can be almost overwhelming. By this time some of the flowers are starting to go over, forming their famous spherical fluffy seedheads. (Early in the month the superficially similiar coltsfoot is just about possible, but this is quite a rare flower in the south east.)

Ground ivy appears early in the month, if it has not already done so at the end of March, and though its little purple flowers are not dramatic on their own it can form great mats as April progresses. The same goes for germander speedwell, a tiny blue flower that lurks in grass and appears in the second half of the month, becoming very common by its end. Easily confused with it is slender speedwell, a flower of short (often mown) grass, which has mauve flowers and more rounded leaves than germander speedwell: it is more common in the first two thirds of the month. Some field speedwell may also be seen, especially early in the month, and also mats of the very inconspicuous ivy-leaved speedwell, whose tiny lilac flowers are found on disturbed ground - though it is often very hard to tell when this latter plant is in bloom: even when it seems to have gone over, it often still has some flowers.

You can also see white strawberry flowers all through April: in the first half these tend to be barren strawberry (a notch in its petals, which also have a bit of a gap between them, and a blunter end to the. leaves) but towards the end of the month the true wild strawberry starts to take over. From about the third week you start to see the pretty blue spikes of bugle, which in the early stages of its flowering is possible to confuse with ground ivy, though its flowers are bluer. Occasionally from quite early in the month but more generally from mid month, herb robert dots shadier verges its with small pink flowers.

Flowers normally associated with woodland such as bluebells, wood anemones, early purple orchids, goldilocks buttercup and (later in the month) yellow archangel can also sometimes be found on verges, usually either escapees from woodland populations nearby or relicts of former ones. Dog's mercury is a fairly common verge plant too: it is flowering in April but its flowers are green and very inconspicuous. Some cowslips also crop up on verges. and occasionally they interbreed with nearby primroses to produce false oxlips, a delightfully silly mix of the genes of the two plants (usually primrose-sized flowers in cowslip shapes). In addition you get the occasional oilseed rape flowers, escapees from nearby agricultural fields (see Arable below).

You continue to see red and white deadnettles – both of which have usually already appeared in March. The white ones can make quite large displays on verges later in the month; the red are more common on broken ground and are fading away as April ends. Ordinary stinging nettles rapidly grow taller during the month – they can be up to half a metre high by its end. Cleavers (also known as goosegrass) - the plant that sticks to your clothes - attain a similar height. Along with new blades of grass growing straight and green and tall, all these contribute to the growing lushness of verges. For now, however, this does not looks straggly or unkempt but instead fresh and optimistic.

Other wayside flowers in April include forget-me-not and its large leaved relative alkanet, both of which are usually found near to houses, and both of which can form large patches. It is the garden forget-me-not, a version of wood forget-me-not, that you are seeing here. There are also smaller-flowered wild species such as field forget-me-not and early forget-me-not, which may appear later in April but are more usually seen in May.

In the second half of April red campion can be seen, as well as bush vetch and, right at the end of the month, possibly common vetch. A much rarer member of this family is bitter vetchling which occasionally makes good displays on roadside banks in April. Now and then you also spot the yellow-flowered greater celandine - nothing to do with the lesser celandine mentioned above but in fact a relative of the poppy.

The curious erotic-looking flowers of cuckoo pint are found in shady places in the second half (its name has a sexual connotation, as does the alternative lords and ladies), though they seem nothing like as common as the leaves were earlier in the year. It is also quite hard to find the spikes open, revealing the spadix, the central cylinder to which the common names refer.

While we are on odd plants, spikes of horsetail appear in April, sometimes early in the month but sometimes not till the second half, their bulbous tips looking a bit like asparagus. These produce pollen (horsetail having evolved before there was such a thing as a flowering plant) and then later in the month produce green rings which will open up into the familiar fly-whisk leaves in May. Also distinctly strange is the parasitic toothwort, a pale pink plant that grows on the roots of hazel. Meanwhile, spring beauty, a rarity found on sandy soils, has tiny white flowers in the middle of large round leaves.

Among the smaller (and less noticed) flowers is tiny white chickweed - found on verges, on odd bits of wasteground and also in grassy fields. It is also common in urban settings, as is bittercress. There are two species here - hairy bittercress which has been around since February or March and is generally gone by mid April, and the more luxuriant wavy bittercress, which appears this month and is at its best in the second half: it is technically found on damper verges, though often seems to be in dry places too. Other urban verge weeds include shepherd's purse (distinctive due to its heart-shaped seed pods), groundsel (an unromantic weed that can go from seed to flower to seed again in as little as six weeks and which some botanists reckon is the commonest British flower), and sometimes thale cress.

Yellow wintercress can also appear on wasteground (sometimes even in urban corners) later in the month, while shining cranesbill may crop on on verges near gardens at this time. You may just come across hedgerow cranesbill or cornsalad (aka lamb's lettuce) too. Also towards the end of the month, though in places as early as late March, some cow parsley may come into flower, though it tends to remain straggly in appearance and does not achieve the creamy effect of full flowering until early May. Looking like a yellowy-green cow parsley is alexanders, a plant more common in coastal areas but sometimes found inland, which is in flower all month.

In addition, the practised eye can pick out the growing leaves of rosebay willowherb and great willowherb, as well as the large leaves of hogweed and giant hogweed, the latter an irritant to the skin and looking a bit like rhubarb. Also rhubarb-like are the enormous leaves of burdock. Ground elder leaves continue to colonise verges in April and foxglove and mallow leaves can also be seen, along with those of French cranesbill. Greater plantain leaves increase in size on bare muddy paths and tracks, while silverweed foliage is very noticeable on short grass verges.

Thistle leaves grow - creeping thistle appearing fresh out of the ground and growing upwards, and the spear thistle rosettes that have been there over the winter becoming more bushy. Sow thistle plants (which look prickly but are in fact soft to the touch) are seen widely and by the end of the month some may be flowering.

Arable margins

As they do most of the year, the bare margins of arable fields have a good crop of smaller flowers in April. Red deadnettle, already mentioned above in verges, is one example. Others are shepherd's purse, groundsel, and more rarely chickweed or hairy bittercress.

You can also continue to see field speedwell in arable fields in April, and possibly some field pansy or, at the end of the month, pretty pink common fumitory. There are occasional examples of charlock, once a very common arable weed but squeezed out by modern farming methods. The somewhat similar-looking wintercress (very occasionally early wintercress, but mostly the main species), seems to do a bit better, popping up in arable corners and occasionally flourishing along the edge of oilseed rape fields.

The leaves of mayweed are evident but not yet in flower: the same is true of cut-leaved cranesbill, which seems particularly fond of the margins of oilseed rape fields. In the same habitat look out for the white (or sometimes pale mauve or yellow) flowers of wild radish. Very occasionally you also find corn spurrey on non-chalk soils.

Oilseed rape itself turns whole fields an intense yellow when it comes into flower, something that normally happens in late April. But it is a variable crop and is sometimes earlier (at the start of April in 2007, 2012, 2017, 2019 and 2020 and as early as mid March in places in 2014) or not till early May (as in 2006 and 2010). Winter wheat, having looked like rather heavy, thick-bladed 15-20 centimetres high grass all winter, starts to grow in April (if it has not already done so in late March) and can be 30 centimetres high by the month's end. It is called winter wheat because it is planted in the autumn, not because it grows significantly over winter: early planting gives it a growth advantage in the spring. Barley looks even more like a field of ordinary grass, at least in the first half of the month.

April is a good time to see lambs. When first in the fields they baa a lot, seeking reassurance from their mothers, though as they get used to their territory and more independent, this largely stops. In their very early days they also frolic and gambol, but this too soon ceases (presumably because they switch from relying on their mother's milk to eating grass, which leaves them little time for playing). If you see a field of sheep without lambs in April, they are quite likely to be still pregnant ewes, as some farms delay lambing until the weather is warmer.

Cattle also return to the fields during the month, one factor being when the fields dry out sufficiently for their hooves not to churn them up. Bullocks - beef cattle, not infrequently cows and calves - are often the first you can see, but when you see dairy cows in the fields (who never have calves with them) you know that spring is really here. After a long winter eating hay in a barn they can be endearingly frisky when they first get their freedom.

Damp places, roads and railway lines

In boggy places you can see clumps of yellow marsh marigolds throughout the month, while on the edge of streams what looks like an innocent clump of parsley is the foliage of the very poisonous hemlock water dropwort, which sometimes kills cattle. In still or slow-moving water the leaves of yellow flag iris continue to grow as do those of reeds and bulrushes. Very occasionally in marshy spots you encounter skunk cabbage - an aptly-named American invader which is related to cuckoo pint. You also may just see the weird pink spikes of butterbur by riversides.

You sometimes find the greyish foliage and white flowers of hoary cress growing by roadsides and by the end of the month it can be preparing to flower. It is originally a coastal plant but increasingly flourishes inland by the side of roads that are salted in winter. Scurvygrass (usually Danish, occasionally Pyrenean) can sometimes be found by main roads for the same reason.

Along railway lines you can see Oxford ragwort for whom the trackbed clinker is a perfect substitute for its natural home on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. It tends to appear first early in the month in inner city areas such as at the main London termini, before spreading out in the second half to the suburbs and beyond. In recent years it has also been spreading to bare ground near the railways. Herb robert is another plant that sometimes flowers in some profusion on railway clinker in the second half of the month, but it is less drought-resistant than Oxford ragwort, so its foliage soon turns red if there is no rain.

On the chalk faces of railway embankments you may find wallflower - a bright orange garden escapee that also sometimes grows on chalk sea cliffs or out of ancient walls - while oxeye daisy may appear on railway embankments and by major roads towards the end of the month - for some reason it seems to come out a bit earlier in these habitats. At the same time you see might see red valerian starting on railway lines, as well as out of garden walks and in coastal areas.

Downland

One place that is not very good for wild flowers in April is downland, where the best displays are in the summer months. But you can see cowslips (a close relative of the primrose) from quite early in April and sometimes in great numbers towards its end. You can also see primroses in this location, and as mentioned above the two may interbreed to make false oxlips.

If you look closely in downland grass there are also tiny blue (more rarely mauve, pink or white) flower clusters of milkwort - again more common later in the month than earlier. At the very end of the month you may just see the tiny yellow flowers of spring sedge.

Verge flowers such as violets, ground ivy, wild strawberry, bugle and germander speedwell can also be found on downland in April, as can bulbous buttercups (see Meadows below) and early purple orchid. You see both stunted versions of ordinary dandelions and a miniature species that looks a lot like mouse-ear hawkweed, but is easily distinguished from it by its (tiny) saw-toothed leaves. Daisies appear on trodden paths or their margins.

Look more closely and there are plenty of signs of flowers to come, including the pale-backed leaves of silverweed, the distinctive whorls of hedge bedstraw and the leaves of rough hawkbit, salad burnet and ragwort: also those of creeping and spear thistle.

Meadows and grassy fields

April is not a great time for meadows – they still look like grassy fields this month, and it is not till May that they start to grow upwards. However, damper ones can have pink drifts of cuckoo flowers in April, and tall meadow buttercups may start to appear at the end of the month. The tendrils, though not yet the flowers, of meadow vetchling can also be seen. As early as mid month you may see seedheads on meadow foxtail, a species of grass

Otherwise the main field flower in April is the dandelion, which is around all month, but in the second half achieves high concentrations in pasture and mown grass. In the last week of the month some may be starting to go to seed, producing their characteristic spherical "clocks". As they go over, buttercups are starting to take over - often bulbous buttercups, which can be distinguished by their turned-down sepals (the flaps under the flowers), and which come out slightly ahead of the very similar-looking creeping buttercup.

Mown grass also sees great numbers of daisies build up as the month goes on, and they are found in the wild on well-trodden grassy paths and in closely-cropped pasture fields, all habitats in which you might just see some dovesfoot cranesbill. The superficially very similar common storksbill also crops up in the same habitat, or on short grass verges or well-trodden paths.

Look out also in mown grass for slender speedwell, an imported species which has more mauve flowers and more rounded leaves than the germander speedwell, whose dark blue flowers are otherwise quite common in grassy fields in the second half. There are quite considerable concentrations of bugle and ground ivy at the same time, usually around field edges. You may also see chickweed, as well as mouse ear, which has flowers like chickweed but with less foliage and on longer hairy stalks.

Note too the very tiny thyme-leaved speedwell, which might be mistaken at a casual glance for eyebright. Cowslips can crop up in fields in chalky, downland areas, and at the very end of the month ribwort plantain appears, its flowers looking more like a grass seedhead. Dock and creeping thistle plants become increasingly prominent in rougher pasture.

Gardens

The new blooms in gardens brighten up early spring and several manage to cross the boundary and be classed as semi-wild species. The most obvious example are forget-me-nots, already mentioned above, which achieve great concentrations in many flowerbeds as well as on nearby verges. Another blue favourite is grape hyacinth with its bobble-heads, which started to flower in March and which fades by the third week.

In cracks in walls, ivy-leaved toadflax with its dainty purple flowers can be in flower right from the start of the month, though is more common towards its end. The same is true of yellow corydalis, a relative of common fumitory.

Summer snowflake, which looks like an oversized snowdrop, is common in gardens in the first half and sometime hops the fence, and so is three-cornered leek (also called three-cornered garlic), which looks a bit like a white bluebell and which flowers throughout the month. A much less common wild relative of the latter is the weird few-flowered garlic, which has one enormous leaf and individual flowers on stalks from a central hub. It grows in damp spots and tends to have faded by the month's end.

You can also see lungwort, a plant with spotted leaves and pink and blue flowers that hang in curling clusters: it starts in March and lasts until around mid month, and can be found on verges near houses as well. From early in the month white comfrey is in flower, as well as creeping comfrey which forms big patches on verges near gardens. Towards the end of the month Russian comfrey may be starting to come out in warmer years - a wayside plant rather than a garden one, with distinctive blue or purple flowers. Periwinkle is another garden common escapee, usually found on verges near houses but sometimes wild in woodland.

Unusual years

In 2013, following a bitterly cold March, the countryside at the start of April had no more signs of spring than in mid February, and nearly all events described above were two to three weeks late. Spring really started in the second week in April, when nightime temperatures finally rose above zero. Lesser celandines did not come out in force until then, and they then came all in a rush and lasted till the end of the month. The same was true of violets. Cuckoo flowers, stitchwort, dandelions, daisies, germander speedwell and ground ivy then came out in the third week, and garlic mustard and honesty in the fourth week - all these were not at their best till the end of the first week of May.

Daffodils and primroses had done somewhat better in the March cold, but were still not at their best till the second week. The daffodils then lasted till the end of the third week, and some primroses into the first week of May. White and red deadnettle, which had not appeared at all in March, remained scarce throughout the month, only really taking off in the first week of May. Stinging nettles were still just a few centimetres tall mid month, and one wondered if they were big enough for butterflies to lay eggs on.

A great list of normal April flowers were not seen until May, including alkanet, bugle, cuckoo pint, any of the mustards (though bittercresses did OK from the second week), comfrey (though lungwort was seen), beaked hawksbeard, red campion and all of the vetches. On downland, cowslips did not appear till the fouth week. In gardens forget-me-nots and grape hyacinths were not seen until the second week (with the latter lasting till the first week of May). Oilseed rape was not out full out till the second week in May.

In 2016 a very warm November and December 2015 had produced some very early signs of spring - such as daffodils flowering as early as January and scattered bluebells appearing at the start of March. But cool weather in February and March, followed by a period of bitter northerly winds towards the end of April, made many verge flowers late. While a few cuckoo flowers and stitchwort came out at the start of April, they were not out in force until the last week of the month, and garlic mustard was not in flower at all until that time. Germander speedwell did not appear till the last week either, bush vetch and common vetch not till the first week of May, and bugle and red campion not till the second week of May. Herb robert was very occasional right up to the end of April and I did not see an open cuckoo pint flower until the end of the first week in May, though I saw its flower spikes in the second half of the month.

More April pages:


© Peter Conway 2006-2021 • All Rights Reserved

No comments:

Post a Comment