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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 mid month (a week later in 2010, 2012 and 2019, by the end of the month in 2013 and 2021, but by the end of the first week 2011 and 2020). 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 also lasts till mid month, producing as it goes over large oval green seeds which will go translucent later in the year and give it its name. In later springs some cuckoo flower may last as late as the second or third week, and early in the month in the Chilterns and east Weald you may spot 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 this time. 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 strawberries, 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.

The most prominent verge flower in May, however, is cow parsley, whose delicate white drifts seem to line every lane and many paths. It is often already fully 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 it 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.

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, but isolated ones survive on verges until late in May. Much more common later in the month and until the end of the summer are superficially similar hawkbit and hawksbeard species, of which there is a bewildering variety.

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 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, more straggly and with thistle-like leaves are beaked hawskbeard and the rarer but very similar rough hawksbeard (the latter has rounded ends to its lower leaves and more showy, untidy flowers, while on the former the lower 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. All of these can be found on verges later in 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 leaves growing up, and you may just see some marsh thistle in bloom late in the month.

Cranesbills and comfreys

Another numerous family 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). There is a pink version of this plant - French cranesbill - that also often escapes from gardens onto verges. Two much rarer varieties are dusky cranesbill, whose striking deep purple flowers look as if they are inside out, and the delicate purple-veined pencilled cranesbill: both are almost certain to be garden escapees if you see them growing on a roadside verge.

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 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, which forms big patches on verges near gardens.

Grassy verges

One of the most obvious flowers of grassy banks in May is the oxeye daisy. It can appear from early on 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). At the end of the month the delicate lesser stitchwort (much smaller than greater stitchwort) may also appear, though it is more common in meadows.

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, but which has very distinctive silver-backed leaves. 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 which on closer examination has distinctive five-lobed leaves. (A 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) and more rarely you also see spotted medick, which has somewhat larger leaves with a black mark on them. Red and white clover crop up too, more in the second half than the first. 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.

Shady places

On shady verges you find wood avens (aka herb bennet), whose yellow flowers appear all too briefly in the second half, while herb robert may crop up at any time in the month. 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.

Note also the strange flowers of cuckoo pint, whose brown 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. By the end of the month those seedheads are forming, as the dying casing of the flower peels back to reveal a cluster of green berries.

Red campion, is also often found on shady verges, though can also 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 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.

Untidy plants and bare ground

Cleavers (aka goosegrass) cover May verges and produce miniscule white flowers later the month, but generally they just make any section of verge they cover 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 and groundsel can also still be seen, particularly, though not exclusively, in urban situations (they were all originally arable weeds - see Arable below). Chickweed is much less common than it was earlier in the spring, however, and the same is probably true of the other two, though it may be that they are just less noticed now there are so many other things to see. 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 also spreading into other urban areas.

Wavy bittercress seems to be confined to the first half of the month. Wintercress, a neat crucifer with showy yellow flowers, lasts a little bit longer but fades later in the month. The straggly hedge mustard persists into June, however. You sometimes also find oilseed rape as a verge weed, and very occasionally you see field speedwell or cornsalad (aka lamb's lettuce). Pineapple weed (looking like a mayweed flower with no petals) can appear on bare ground such as paths and tracks at the very end of the month. Leaves of greater plantain are also very evident in the same habitat, though they do not produce their flower spikes yet.

Greater celandine crops up now and then - nothing to do with lesser celandines, but instead a yellow-flowered member of the poppy family. On sandy soils you may just see two rarities - white climbing corydalis (try the back of St Martha's Hill near Guildford) and the strange spring beauty, with a flower in the centre of its leaf. Also rare, but very occasionally seen on stony ground, is the tiny yellow sorrel.

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.

Verge flowers you may see towards the end of May include foxgloves, common mallow, broad-leaved willowherb and broad-leaved or curled dock.

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 unless there is lots of rain its foliage turns red. In addition it is a favoured spot for beaked hawksbeard and red valerian, while ivy-leaved toadflax (usually found growing out of walls) and (later in the month) purple toadflax occasionally get a footing. The sides of main roads, as well as of some railway lines, may also host the bright yellow flowers of black mustard (or possibly the rather similar hoary mustard).

Other roadside plants 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. Early in the month you may see some scurvygrass in the same location.

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 there seems to be one clump growing on the slopes of Seaford Head.

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 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 the attractive white flowers of water crowfoot, and at the end of the month water lilies may be starting to flower. 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 (the fourth week in 2021: in 2013 it did not come out till the second week and faded in the first week of June). It is a crucifer, a member of the cabbage family, and on arable margins you can find others of this group. Crucifers 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 this family is wintercress, which sometimes forms attractive colonies along arable edges, particularly those of oilseed fields.

Wild radish is also particularly fond of the margins of oilseed rape fields, though it is found around other crops. Its flowers have a propeller-like shape, and are usually white with delicate veins of purple, though yellow and mauve varieties also exist. Towards the end of the month you may see prickly sow thistle, which looks like a conventional thistle but with yellow flowers.

Smaller flowers on the edge of arable fields can include the pretty purple of fumitory and the diminutive field pansy; also cranesbills, particularly cut-leaved cranesbill or small-flowered cranesbill, the latter having pale lilac flowers, and possibly also dovesfoot cranesbill. Some red deadnettle may survive early in the month, and rarely (mainly in more western areas, it seems) you see the blue-flowered borage. A similarly odd-looking (and related) purple flower that sometimes crops up on arable margins is tansy-leaved phacelia - an escapee from "wildflower" seed mixes, apparently, sometimes now deliberately planted along set-aside strips. You also may also still see some field speedwell, and - on sandier soils - corn spurrey and common storksbill. Just occasionally you come across field madder.

At the very end of the month you may see 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.

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

Towards the end of the month you can see the occasional poppy, though June is more their time. 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 sewn as part of a wildflower mixture.

Wheat and barley have grown to their full height by early May and produce their (still green) ears in the second half. Lambs are still in the fields, some still baa-ing away earlier in the month, though as they get older and more used to their habitat they are less vocal. Cattle in the fields in May often seem to be mothers and calves - presumably beef cattle, since dairy calves are removed from their mothers just after birth.

More May pages:

© Peter Conway 2006-2022 • All Rights Reserved

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