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Nature and Weather in South East England

July wayside flowers

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

Picture: common ragwort. Click here for more July wayside flower photos.

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 colourful flowers to be seen on the edges of paths and roads, the side of railway lines, and other bits of wasteground.

A good example is common ragwort - poisonous to horses (who will in fact not eat it unless it is carelessly included in hay), 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 (or sometimes not until early August) is the very similar hoary ragwort, which is more branched lower down and has a more scattered and delicate array of flowers. On railway lines, and occasionally in other urban settings, you can also get some new growth (and flowers) from the much more diminutive and bushy Oxford ragwort, originally a native of Mount Etna.

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 July verges (the sides of railway lines again being a favourite site). Coming out early in the month and at its best by the third week or so: it can be starting to look thin by the month’s end. 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, though also on rural verges.

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.

There are several other flowers that seem to favour railway locations in July, but are also found in other places. One is evening primrose - introduced from North America, its tall stems of large yellow flowers are chiefly seen along the sides of railway lines, but sometimes also on derelict industrial sites. In similar places you find dramatic yellow spikes of mullein: mainly great mullein, though very occasionally dark mullein is found. Weld also crops up occasionally.

In the space between railway tracks, as well as on other wasteground, you can see ribbed melilot (or the near identical golden 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. Note also common toadflax seen from early in the month, but more common at its end, and very at home on railway clinker as well as other verges. In the second half of the month, or occasionally a bit earlier, you see the yellow frizz of Canadian goldenrod (often just called goldenrod, but there is a different native flower of that name) - again, often along the side of railways, but sometimes elsewhere.

Other flowers that grow on railway clinker in July include smooth hawksbeard, hawkweed oxtongue, Canadian fleabane, red valerian, purple toadflax and wild carrot. Climbing plants on rail verges include Russian vine, broad-leaved everlasting pea and large/hedge bindweed. See below for more on all of these.

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 rural 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.

Of hawkweeds the most common, at least in the second half, is hawkweed oxtongue with its characteristic wavy-edged leaves, which crops up in all sorts of unloved corners (particularly, it seems, beside railway tracks, though it is hard to be certain of this when whizzing past at speed...). Superficially similar, but bushier and with warty leaves, is bristly oxtongue, more common by the sea but also found inland. You also sometimes come across few-leaved hawkweeds, growing on dry grassy verges: but these are a confusing category of flowers, with many variants.

Much smaller and dantier, with flowers about 10-15mm across, is smooth hawksbeard, a common wayside plant. Also common, but taller, is nipplewort, which has similar flowers to smooth hawksbeard but is taller, with diamond-shaped leaves. You may also find very occasional examples of true dandelions in July, with their juicy stems and saw-tooth 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 in very short or grazed grass, or - at the very end of the month - autumn hawkbit.

Thistles

July is also the month for thistles - not plants that normally inspire admiration, but a 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 found in rough grassland and on downland as well as 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 early in July, usually by the coast. You also may just see some musk thistle on downland and grassland, particularly at the start of the month, and very occasionally welted thistle (which could at a casual glance be mistaken for marsh thistle as it is also tall and spiny).

In July these are joined by the much more common creeping thistle, whose flowers are pale lilac and surprisingly soft to the touch, and whose stems are not spiny, even though its leaves definitely are. By the end of the month they are 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.

Umbellifers

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.

Some giant hogweed can also survive into July. An invasive plant from the Caucasus, it is on a totally different scale to the native version, with huge flowers up to 30 centimetres across. Its leaves are also totally different. The whole plant is irritating to the skin and should not be touched.

Grassland flowers on verges

There is the occasional buttercup on verges in July - probably a creeping buttercup, though meadow buttercup is not impossible - but take a closer look, because silverweed flowers look very similar: they have very different leaves, however, with distinctive silver undersides. Also somewhat buttercup-like in appearance is cinquefoil, which sprawls over some verges, often 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 (often mistaken for a thistle, but totally unspiny), self-heal, wild basil, birdsfoot trefoil, vervain, 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.

Germander speedwell can just survive into July, as can oxeye daisy. Lesser stitchwort and meadow vetchling - normally meadow plants - can also crop up as wayside flowers, 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. A rare plant not dissimilar to these, but with white flowers and wonderfully lemon-scented leaves, is balm.

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. The smaller and more purple-flowered hedgerow cranesbill can be found right to the end of the month. Just occasionally you might see some small-flowered cranesbill.

Not entirely dissimilar to a cranesbill, 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 the yellow-flowered 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). 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. And talking of poppies, they crop up on various bits of wasteground this month, as well as in their native arable habitat - by the side of roads, on bare ground and rural construction sites, and even on station platforms.

Some green alkanet may survive on verges near houses, and just occasionally you may see some tiny field forget-me-nots. Docks are in flower at the start of July, though it is can be hard to tell this, and their timing can be quite variable from one place to the next. Generally, they seem to turn as the month goes on from a rusty red (their flowering colour) to a rusty brown (signifying they have gone over). There are a number of species, confusing to tell apart, but curled and broad-leaved dock are the most common.

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 and generally do not appear till August. Hedge mustard is still occasionally seen, but tends to fade as the month goes on. Ribwort plantain may occasionally be found, and of course stinging nettles continue to flourish: in fact, they are at their height this month, blocking paths and generally being a nuisance to walkers.

As July goes on you get another set of new arrivals - the last big wave of new flowerings in the year, including hemp agrimony, with its fuzzy pink flowers, lovely blue nettle-leaved bellflowers. You may see isolated examples of both earlier in the month, but they are more common towards its end. Towards the end of the month you see tansy (which looks like a daisy without petals) and michaelmas daisies may appear along railway lines, though the latter are more normally seen from mid August.

On heathland the brightly coloured bell heather is at its best the second half of July, though it can be found earlier too, and this is also the peak month for cross-leaved heath. As the month ends ordinary heather is starting to come out. Throughout the month on heathland you can find yellowish spikes of wood sage.

Overlooked 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 example on muddy tracks and paths you can see greater plantain, which has very visible green flower spikes, though you have to look closely to see the faint purple fuzz that indicates when they are in bloom. In the same habitat knotgrass has tiny pink or white flowers that appear at the base of its straggly leaf stems, while pineapple weed looks like a daisy without petals, and actually smells of pineapple if you rub it.

In urban corners, as well as on bare rural verges, you might see shepherd's purse, identifiable by its heart-shaped seeds, as well as groundsel, an opportunist which can go from seed to seed in as little as six weeks. Canadian fleabane is a much larger plant, with very inconspicuous flowers that look as if they have already gone over or are about to come out. It appears in the second half beside railway tracks and in odd urban corners. Also quite tall is fat hen, most notable for its diamond-shaped leaves, while annual mercury forms clumps with yellowish flower spikes, usually near uncultivated gardens.

More colourful flowers in this category include redleg, which grows in both urban and rural situations and has pleasant pink-flowered spikes, and pretty red scarlet pimpernel, found on bare or sparsely vegetated earth. You occasionally sometimes see some blue field speedwell, and very rarely (often by houses or pubs) yellow sorrel. Throughout the month one can see the fly-whisk plants of horsetail, a relic of the age of the dinosaurs.

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 (sometimes white, or pink and white) 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 unkempt verges in semi-wild locations, both being quite common 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, which sometimes can be found on railway lines. Other escapees are cultivated versions of yellow loosestrife, for example dotted loosestrife or whorled loosestrife. The rarely seen native plant is found on damp riversides.

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 indeed once 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 as well as beside railway lines, though by the second half it is past its best. Lady's mantle sometimes escapes onto nearby verges.

Meadows and rough pasture

The fine meadow flower displays of June are now only a distant memory. Instead tall grass with golden seedheads rules. But some flowers can still be found amongst it 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, though here and there afterwards, as do clumps of yellow meadow vetchling. Tufted vetch may be found throughout the month.

Meadow vetchling can easily be confused at a casual glance with greater birdsfoot trefoil (the leaves are the key to identification), which can occur throughout July in damper meadows. Knapweed is a fairly common meadow flower, and a welcome splash of colour. Smooth hawksbeard also sometimes appears in meadows and occasional meadow buttercups are not impossible. Hairy tare may be seen earlier in the month, and there may be some late surviving oxeye daisy.

In rougher or more unkempt fields, docks can premoninate. There are various species, but broad-leaved dock and curled dock are the most common. Early in the month they still have spikes of red flowers, though the timing of this varies from place to place. Later in the month the flowers 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 look fairly rusty. Other species that can take over rough fields include hogweed - though it tends to be going over as the month ends - and common ragwort, which is succeeded by hoary ragwort later in the month. At the end of the month you start to see the cheerful yellow and orange flowers of common fleabane.

Thistles are also common - for example creeping, spear or marsh thistle. You sometimes see new creeping thistle shoots looking as pale as iceberg lettuce. St John's wort and agrimony occasionally make good displays, and common centaury also sometimes crops up. Cinquefoil occurs in shorter grass in rough fields - for example on path edges - and you may just see some mouse ear in wetter summers, as well as black medick in barer spots. Field bindweed (as its name suggests) can spread across grassy fields.

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. Very occasionally dovesfoot cranesbill crops up. In similar habitats, as well as in pasture fields, there can still be a lot of white clover, and maybe also a bit of red clover. Yarrow is a flower that is just as at home on urban grassland as in pasture, and the same is true of self heal and birdsfoot trefoil.

Shady spots and woodland

In shadier spots and woodland, enchanter’s nightshade, which puts out spikes of tiny white flowers with dainty seed pods, is very common in July, and you sometimes still see the tiny pink flowers of herb robert (yet another cranesbill). You can find the occasional flower of wood avens (aka herb bennet), and you may see wood sage along wood edges. Foxglove still graces woodland clearings in the first half of the month.

Rarer woodland plants include small balsam, a plant with small yellow flowers and large leaves, and the tiny ground-spreading yellow flowers of yellow pimpernel or creeping Jenny. You can also see wall lettuce, which looks very like nipplewort to the casual glance, but which has distinctive triangular ends to its lower leaves.

In damper clearings in woods you may see water pepper, which has leaves like redleg, but with paler, much less conspicuous 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 on stalks that you can see on shady verges (they ripen from green to orangey-red as the month goes on, sometimes with a brief yellow stage in between) 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 species that is nevertheless very beautiful to look at and popular with bees. Towards the end of the month you may see the much more delicate orange balsam - the Wey navigation between Peasmarsh and Farncombe is a good spot for this.

Superficially similar to purple loosestrife, but smaller and less showy, is marsh woundwort, which is also found on ordinary verges. From mid month angelica appears - easy to confuse with hogweed, but with more normal-looking leaves and browner stems. It grows along rivers and is also common in damp grassland.

Rarer flowers of the water margins 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 speedwell, or - towards the end of the month - water chickweed, a straggling, larger-flowered version of the familiar field plant.

Watercress is also in flower in July in shallow chalk streams, while the poisonous fool's watercress is found in ditches and streams. The trailing fronds and white flowers of water crowfoot may survive in rivers into the first half the month. In brackish water (for example on the tidal river Arun near Arundel) you may see the white-flowered marsh mallow.

In damp grassland any buttercup you see may be lesser spearwort, which has long thin leaves. There is also a marsh bedstraw, while sneezewort looks like the relative of yarrow that it is. Marsh thistle crops up in damp habitats too, though not as often as one might expect, and water pepper can be seen on boggy paths, though its rather inconspicuous flowers do not appear till August.

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 is likely to be Russian comfrey (bright blue or various shades of purple or even pink, and the leaves do not spread down the stem to any extent), though this is mostly over by now.

On ponds 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 wayside 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 it must not be too dry, and a summer downpour can 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 can see the grass first being left to dry in rows, and then made into cylindrical bales wrapped in black plastic to make sileage for winter livestock feed. 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 seed pods. These may still be green early in the month, but turn to brown as it progresses, sometimes via a nice golden stage, and may be harvested towards its end.

Most poppies have gone over, but a few can be found throughout the month. On arable field edges scentless mayweed (a large daisy) can be seen. This is the main mayweed you see this month, though scented mayweed, which has smaller flowers and smells faintly of chamomile if you rub it, can also survive in places. Even more rarely you find the more untidy-looking stinking chamomile ("stinking" is overdoing it, but it certainly has a less pleasant smell than scented mayweed). The frizzy leaves and yellow heads of pineapple weed (which does actually smell of pineapple if rubbed) can look like a mayweed without its petals, but it is in fact a separate species and common on disturbed ground.

Smaller arable field edge weeds include scarlet pimpernel, field speedwell 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 phenomenon of August. One ground-creeping plant that does this is black bindweed, which you may see starting to flower at the end of July. Very occasionally you might see corn spurrey.

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. Tansy-leaved phacelia is even sometimes sown as a set-aside crop.

On bare field edges knotgrass creates untidy mats, and produces very tiny flowers. Fat hen, a weed of disturbed ground, with triangular leaves, also flowers in a very inconspicuous way in the second half. Greater plantain seems to like muddy farm tracks and field corners: it produces spikes which have such a faint fuzz of purple when in flower that you barely notice they are out. Redleg occasionally crops up as an arable weed, as do groundsel and shepherd's purse. Smooth, prickly and perennial (aka corn) sow thistle grow 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. You can still sometimes see beef cows and calves in a field together, but the young bullocks increasingly get separated out into fields of their own, where their curiosity can make them a nuisance to walkers.

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