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May wayside flowers

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Picture: rough hawksbeard. Click here for more May wayside flower photos.

Walking down a path or a country lane is a delight in May. Throughout the month there are wildflowers everywhere and in large quantities. The countryside is at its most green, with no signs of the seediness or tiredness of summer. Everything grows straight and tall.

Most of the flowers that fill waysides and verges in late April continue into the first part of the month. Stitchwort (properly greater stitchwort) is at its best at the start of the month, though most of it has faded by the end of second or third week.

The same is true of garlic mustard, though it can hang on in places on till the very end of May. Its purple-flowered relative honesty lasts till mid month, producing large oval green seeds as it goes over which will go translucent later in the year and give it its name.

Cuckoo flower (aka lady's smock) is often over in the first week, if not before, but may last in places as late as the second or third week. Early in the month in the Chilterns and eastern Weald you might come across the related, but rare, coralroot growing on roadsides or in woods.

A few violets and lesser celandines may also last into the first week, though they usually are overtopped by other growth by now. Lesser celandine leaves can already be starting to yellow and die back. In later springs you may just see some primroses at the same time. Cowslips can occur on verges in the first half and occasionally they hybridise with primroses to produce false oxlips.

Yellow archangel and red deadnettle can last into the third week. The same is true of ground ivy, bugle, wild strawberry and white deadnettle, though a few examples of these may survive into June. Germander speedwell and alkanet last right through the month.

The garden variety of forget-me-not (which is a kind of wood forget-me-not) can still be quite common early in the first half, but as the month progresses wild species take over. Most common of these is field forget-me-not, which has tiny flowers, though the even tinier-flowered early forget-me-not might also be seen in bare rocky places.

Early in the month bluebells may still be seen on some verges, and indeed they can last there a week or so longer than they do in woodland. Ramsons (commonly known as wild garlic) sometime also crop up on verges in the first half.

The most prominent verge flower in May, however, is cow parsley, whose delicate white drifts seem to line every lane and path. It is often already out at the start of the month, though sometimes not at its best till the second week. It then lasts about three weeks, usually fading towards the end of the month but sometimes just edging into June (definitely so in 2021, when it was not at its best till the fourth week of May).

Once the cow parsley goes over, lanes look a lot more drab and never really regain their cheerful spring appearance, though in places rough chervil takes over. This looks very like cow parsley, but with more delicate flowers (each little cluster in the head separated clearly from the next, whereas on cow parsley they all blend into one) and with wiry stems which may have a purple tinge.

Another umbellifer (cow parsley-like plant) you may just see flowering on verges in May, particularly in the first half of the month, is alexanders. It has yellowy-green flowers and might just be mistaken at a glance for cow parsley going over or about to come out. It is more normally a plant of coastal areas, but is sometimes found inland.

Umbellifers with white flowers that start to bloom towards the end of May include hogweed, ground elder, and - in or around ditches and streams - the very poisonous (but very common) hemlock water dropwort. In addition you may see some ordinary hemlock at this time (also poisonous and a rather straggly and unpleasant looking plant), particularly for some reason by main roads.

Dandelions and their relatives

Umbellifers can be hard to tell apart, and the same is also true of the various dandelion-like flowers that appear on verges from mid May. As noted in the meadow and field flowers section, true dandelions tend to go over early in the month, though isolated ones survive on verges until late in May. They are succeeded by superficially similar hawkbit and hawksbeard species, of which there is a bewildering variety, and which go on to dominate for the rest of the summer.

Most similar in appearance to dandelions - but slimmer, with a smooth stem and smaller, neater flower - is catsear (a kind of hawkbit), which can also be distinguished by the green or grey tinge to the underside of its petals. It is typically a plant of grassy verges (even mown ones) or fields. You may also find the very similar mouse-ear hawkweed, identified by its oval basal leaves, on very dry grassy banks, though it is more usually found on downland.

Taller (up to a metre or more high), more straggly and with jagged stem leaves are beaked hawskbeard and the rarer but very similar rough hawksbeard. The latter has rounded ends to its leaves and more showy, untidy flowers, while on the former the leaves are pointed: but it still takes a lot of practice to tell them apart. Meanwhile nipplewort is another quite tall but dainty plant identifiable by its diamond-shaped leaves. Beaked hawksbeard can be in flower as early as the second week: the other two appear more towards the end of the month.

You also see smooth sow thistle, which also has dandelion-like flowers, thistle-like leaves and is particularly common as an urban weed. A reliable clue to identification is that its upper leaves curve right around the stem, whereas on hawksbeards only the ends of the leaves clasp the stem. When you touch smooth sow thistle leaves you also find that they are not spiny at all but in fact quite soft. They appear from mid month, sometimes earlier in urban spots.

Towards the end of May you may also see the very different prickly sow thistle, which looks like a normal thistle but with yellow flowers, though the flowers often seem to be closed. True thistles - for example creeping, marsh and spear thistle - do not usually flower until June, but you can see their plants growing up, and you may just see some marsh thistle in bloom late in the month.

Cranesbills and comfreys

Another numerous family May are the cranesbills, which include the diminutive dovesfoot cranesbill and cut-leaved cranesbill (as well as more rarely small-flowered, round-leaved and shining cranesbill), and range up through the medium-sized purple-pink hedgerow cranesbill, to the large blue meadow cranesbill, which looks like a garden escapee (and often is in the south east, though further west it grows wild in some abundance).

French cranesbill, with its large pink flowers, also escapes from gardens onto verges. Much rarer escapees include dusky cranesbill, whose striking deep purple flowers look as if they are inside out, and the delicate purple-veined pencilled cranesbill.

This is also the month where you see comfrey growing. The true native species, common comfrey, is found only in damper spots and has cream or dull purple flowers and leaves which run on down its stem, but despite its name it is not seen that often. Much more widespread, and growing in drier habitats, is Russian comfrey, which has blue or purple flowers and leaves scarcely or not running down its stem.

Both of these species are quite tall, but early in the month on drier verges you can also see the smaller white comfrey, and throughout the month the smaller still creeping comfrey (naturally with cream colour flowers, but variants have red or blue tinges), which forms big patches on verges near gardens.

Greater celandine crops up now and then - nothing to do with lesser celandines, but instead a yellow-flowered member of the poppy family. True (red) poppies may also start to appear towards the end of the month.

Grassy verges

One of the most obvious flower of grassy banks in May is the oxeye daisy. It can appear from early in the month in places, particularly by railway lines or major roads, but really gathers force in the second half. Also on grassy verges look out for bush vetch and common vetch (very occasionally also bitter vetchling early in May).

Common mouse-ear can be seen too, while towards the end of month the much more delicate and pretty lesser stitchwort appears - really a plant of meadows, though sometimes found in pathside grass. These two have similar flowers, except that the stitchwort petals look more evenly divided and grow on longer, thinner stems.

Other flowers of shorter grass include silverweed, whose flowers are almost identical looking to those of creeping or bulbous buttercup, also seen on verges throughout the month. You can distinguish silverweed by its very distinctive silver-backed leaves, though these can be growing a little way from the flower.

Possible to confuse with any of these at a casual glance is cinquefoil, which you may just see at the end of the month, and has distinctive five-lobed leaves to match the five petals of its flower. (A smaller four-petaled version of this flower found on heathland is tormentil.) The taller meadow buttercup is also sometimes found on verges.

Black medick forms yellow-flowered patches on shorter grass verges (even suburban ones), as well as bare ground, and more rarely you also see spotted medick, which has somewhat larger leaves with a black mark on them.

Daisies are still common in short mown grass, as are dandelion (earlier in the month) and catsear, as mentioned above, while ribwort plantain is found on wilder grassy verges. Crosswort, a plant with greenish-yellow flowers, appears early in the month and can form attractive clumps by its end. Later in the month you may see some red or white clover.

Shady places

On shady verges this is the best time for herb robert, which flowers in great profusion in places all month. By contrast, the yellow flowers of wood avens (aka herb bennet) appear all too briefly in the second half, seeming to be fading almost as soon as they have started. Violets in shady places or woods may just survive into the first week of May, while wood spurge can crop up even late in the month, though it can be hard to tell if it is flowering or seeding at this stage.

Note also the strange flowers of cuckoo pint, whose dark spike within a curved casing accounts for its many names with erotic connotations, and which can be seen in the first part of May. The flowers are a lot harder to spot than the leaves were earlier in the spring, or the red seedheads are later in the summer. From mid month those seedheads are starting to form, as the curved casing collapses. By the end of the month it peels back to reveal a cluster of green seeds.

Red campion, is also found on shady verges, though can occur out in the open. Some is evident right from the start of the month and it gathers strength as the month goes on. Less commonly (and always out in the open) you find white or bladder campion, the latter almost always on downland soils. There is also a pink campion which is a hybrid of red and white, but this is rare: more normally you just see red campion with lighter pink colourings.

Towards the end of the month you may start to see foxgloves flowering in woodland clearings and other shady spots.

Untidy plants and bare ground

Cleavers produce miniscule white flowers later the month, but generally they just make any section of verge they cover with their sticky straggly stems look untidy. Stinging nettles are now can be waist high and in the second half of the month start to flower (beige tassels, hanging down).

Minor weeds of bare ground such as chickweed, shepherd's purse, groundsel and field speedwell can still be seen, particularly, though not exclusively, in urban situations (they were all originally arable weeds - see Arable Fields below), though they are much less common than they were earlier in the spring. As mentioned above smooth sow thistle is also a common street weed, while the Oxford ragwort that has so successfully colonised railway lines (see below) is now spreading into other urban areas.

Wavy bittercress seems to be confined to the first half of the month, as are thale cress and cornsalad (aka lamb's lettuce). Wintercress, a neat crucifer with showy yellow flowers, can last a little bit longer but fades later in the month. The straggly hedge mustard persists into June, however, while oilseed rape, which occasionally is found as a verge weed, lasts as long as the crop does (see Arable Fields below).

More elusive flowers you may just see include the very attractive scarlet pimpernel, red as its name suggests, and spreading yellow sorrel, which sometimes crop up on urban bare ground.

Towards the end of the month you may see pineapple weed (looking like a mayweed flower with no petals) on bare ground such as paths and tracks. The leaves of greater plantain are very evident in the same habitat, though they do not produce their flower spikes yet.


A curiosity of May verges are the huge leaves of burdock, which look like some kind of rhubarb earlier in the month. Later in the month it forms a sturdy shrub but does not flower till the end of June. This is the plant that produces the burs that stick to your socks in autumn. Another plant with huge leaves (which can cause skin irritation if you touch it) is giant hogweed: it does not put out its huge flowers till June.

Having started to grow in late April, bracken grows to its full height in mid May, sometimes looking distinctly alien as its fronds uncurl. May also sees that ancient curiosity horsetail (it dates back to the age of the dinosaurs) putting forward its fly-whisk style leaves: these start the month as green rings which then slowly grow larger.

On sandy soils you may just see the strange spring beauty, with a flower in the centre of its leaf.

Railway lines and roads

Grassy banks beside railway lines and major roads such as motorways are good place to see oxeye daisies. They seem to appear here from early in the month, before they become common on other verges. You also continue to see Oxford ragwort on railway tracks, which the plant finds the ideal substitute for the volcanic clinker of Mount Etna in its native Sicily.

Herb robert can form quite large colonies on rail line clinker too, though its foliage turns red if there is not enough rain (this doesn't necessarily stop it flowering). In addition clinker is a favoured spot for red valerian, while purple toadflax may just get a footing there, particularly later in the month.

Along the edges of rail tracks you also find beaked hawksbeard, and in the same habitat, as well as at the sides of main roads, the bright yellow flowers of black mustard.

Other plants by busy rural roads in May include hoary cress, a greyish plant with white flowers which is found traditionally by the sea but also likes roads that have been salted in winter. Particularly early in the month, but sometimes later, you may see some scurvygrass in the same location, while towards the end of May, as noted above, hemlock seems to thrive there.

Near gardens

Red valerian (and its white variant) are also found growing out of garden walls. In the same habitat you can see ivy-leaved toadflax, mexican fleabane (a kind of daisy) and yellow corydalis (a relative of fumitory), all growing out of cracks that seem to provide no possible nutrients or water. Later in the month the attractive blue trailing bellflower does the same.

Another garden plant to note is the grey-leaved and white flowered snow-in-summer. This is a cultivated version of field mouse-ear, and sometimes escapes onto grassy habitats (particularly cliff tops, for some reason). The true wild plant is seen much more rarely, but in 2019 and 2020 there was a clump on the cliffs of Seaford Head and in 2024 there was one in a field near Farningham, Kent.

In places you can still see three-cornered leek, particularly early in the month: in the south east it is often a garden escapee, but in the West Country it carpets lanes and paths in May. Likewise Welsh poppy is generally only found in or near gardens in these parts, though in the north of England it is a common wayside flower. A small amount of few-flowered garlic may also survive into the first few days of May.

A curious garden escapee is columbine, which has weird upside-down pink or blue flowers, but can find its way into surprisingly adventurous habitats. The same is true of dame's violet, a showy plant with long upward curling seeds and pink-purple flowers which puts out a strong scent towards dusk.

Periwinkle, which spreads from gardens to nearby verges or even woods, can continue to produce occasional flowers throughout May. Later in the month purple toadflax is seen on bare ground in villages and other places (such as railway lines: see above).

Damp places

By water, as well as the hemlock water dropwort and common comfrey mentioned above, you can see yellow flag iris in ponds and boggy areas in the second half. Early in the month there may also be some marsh marigold surviving.

Note too that reeds are now growing up rapidly. Bulrush may still be covered with its fluffy winter seed, which confusingly looks a lot like the male flower: but flowering does not start on this species until June.

In the second half in chalk streams you can find large mats of the attractive white flowers of water crowfoot, and at the end of the month water lilies may be starting to flower. The erect leaves of water plantain appear in stagnant water. A rare specialist of damp places is celery-leaved buttercup, and I have also once seen the very attractive water violet in a pond.

Arable fields

Oilseed rape is often still in full flower at the start of the month, creating great yellow seas in arable fields. It generally fades by the second or third week, but this is quite variable. For example it was mostly over in the first week in 2024, but not till the fourth week in 2021 and in places in 2023, while in 2013 it did not come out till the second week of May and faded in the first week of June.

Oilseed is a crucifer, a member of the cabbage family, and on arable margins you can find others of this group. They are notoriously hard to identify, but a common agricultural weed at this time of year is the yellow-flowered charlock, which has a very distinctive lower leaf with uneven lobes. Note also the straggly hedge mustard.

A much prettier member of the family is wintercress, which sometimes forms attractive colonies along arable edges, particularly earlier in the month and particularly alongside oilseed fields, into which it blends very well. It can also be found on bare or fallow fields, however.

Wild radish is found in the same habitats. Its flowers have a propeller-like shape, and are usually white with delicate veins of purple, though yellow and mauve varieties also exist. Not a crucifer, but with yellow flowers (when they deign to open) is prickly sow thistle, which may just crop up in fallow fields.

Fairly common along arable edges (again, particularly oilseed fields) are cranesbills, especially cut-leaved cranesbill or small-flowered cranesbill, the latter having pale lilac flowers. Some red deadnettle may survive early in the month.

Other arable weeds that seem to be more at home in urban environments these days also sometimes appear in their original arable margin habitat. These include shepherd's purse, identifiable by its purse-shaped seeds; groundsel, whose yellow flowers never open and which can go from seed to seedhead in as little as six weeks; and very occasionally chickweed.

You also may also still see some field speedwell or the diminutive field pansy, and there is a whole category of once common arable weeds that are now sadly rather rare, among them the pretty pink flowers of fumitory and field madder. and - on sandier soils - corn spurrey and common storksbill.

Larger and more showy flowers that you sometimes see on arable edges include the blue-flowered borage (more common in western areas, it seems) and the purple-flowered tansy-leaved phacelia - originally an escapee from "wildflower" seed mixes, but sometimes now deliberately planted along set-aside strips. Another flower in this category is crimson clover, which once was a fodder crop and which seems to be making a comeback as a set-aside plant.

Traditionally May was also a month for cornflowers - a blue, tasseled flower looking a bit like knapweed - but if you see one now it is almost certainly a garden escapee or sown as part of a wildflower mixture.

At the very end of the month you may just see some poppies, as well as the daisy-like flowers of scented mayweed, which give off a very faint chamomile scent. At the same time pineapple weed can look like a mayweed flower about to come out: that is, it has a flower centre but no petals. True to its name, it smells like pineapple when crushed or rubbed. For all these flowers June is the more normal time, however.

Wheat and barley have grown to their full height by early May and produce their (still green) ears in the second half. You may also see the gorgeous blue flowered flax (aka linseed) - it seems to be increasingly popular as a crop.

Lambs are still in the fields, sometimes still baa-ing away earlier in the month, and still looking cute. Cattle often seem to be mothers and calves - beef cattle, since dairy calves are removed from their mothers just after birth. Later in the month you may find herds of young bullocks, who can be worryingly frisky and nosey when humans turn up.

More May pages:

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