You may be familiar with dandelions and daisies but, with over 1600 types of wildflower in the UK, how many can you identify? RSPB England’s Oriole Wagstaff looks at the importance of wildflowers and provides some tips to help you identify a few of our most common wildflowers.
Over the past few months, like many people, you may have found comfort in the nature around you. Perhaps noticing brightly coloured flowers fighting through pavements. Let us feed your curiosity and help you understand what exactly you’ve been looking at.
The importance of wildflowers
A wildflower is simply a flower that grows in the wild, yet their small splashes of colour are important for us all. As well as brightening our days, wildflowers are vital for UK wildlife. Wildflowers provide food throughout the year for many pollinating insects, including bees, when commercial crops aren’t producing flowers. These insects then pollinate crops in the UK and allow us to grow some of our favourite fruits, including strawberries and apples. Some wildflowers in the UK are even used to make medicine, such as foxgloves, which contain chemicals that are used to treat heart conditions.
Five wildflowers you can easily find and identify
There are hundreds of wildflowers you can learn about and discover. Although we’d love to talk about them all, we’ve picked five of the most common ones (which you might not be familiar with) that you are likely to spot this summer and offer a few top tips on how to identify them.
Birds foot trefoil
This common wildflower is a member of the pea family and can grow up to 35cm in height, in small clusters. It provides food for several different caterpillars and has an eclectic range of common names. One of these names is ‘Eggs and Bacon’ because of the egg-yolk yellow and red colour petals. Keep an eye out for the claw-like (or bird foot) seed pods in late summer, a characteristic that’s also led to the, not so magical, name ‘Granny's Toenails'. Another key identifier is the downy leaves that are made up of five leaflets, these are smaller leaves, two leaves at the base and three (the trefoil) at the end of the leaf.
You may well be familiar with clovers, their iconic three leaves are often associated with the traditional Irish shamrock, or you may even have been lucky enough to find a four-leaf clover. But, did you know the leaves are a vital food source for wood mice and the common blue butterfly? Commonly found in grassy areas it’s likely you’ve seen the flower but may not have realised it was a clover. Easy to identify from their iconic clover leaves, the flowers produce a white rounded head often with a pinkish tinge (although look out for the similar red clover except, you guessed it, with red petals). The flowers are no more than 40cm in height and sometimes known simply as ‘milky blobs’.
This creeping plant is often found in short grass and even roadsides. As the name suggests it has a long history as a traditional medicine, used to stop bleeding, heal wounds and treat sore throats. It’s an important source of food for bees and wasps and can be identified from the tight cluster of purple-blue flowers a top the stem. It can grow to 20-30cm in height and look out for the oval leaves which are hairy and often purple-tinged.
Known as a good luck charm for travellers, these bright blue flowers are often found in patches amongst grass. Their long stems creep along the surface of the ground and can grow up to 20cm in height. The blue flowers, about a centimetre wide, are made up of four petals with a white middle, or ‘eye’, giving it the other names 'Bird's Eye' and 'Cat's Eye'. Look out for the two lines of white hairs on opposite sides of the stems (unlike the rarer wood speedwell with a stem that is hairy all the way round).
The purple flower heads of this thistle like plant stand out amidst all kinds of grasslands. It’s also known as ‘Bachelor's Buttons’ or ‘Iron Knobs’ because of the hard-rounded heads. Knapweed has also been used for its medicinal properties to treat wounds, bruises and sore throats. The flowers attract clouds of butterflies, and the seeds provide food for birds. They can grow up to a metre in height and the pink- purple flower heads are actually made up of many small flowers. These flowers sit within a spherical base formed of many small brown ragged, leaf-like bracts.
Learn more- wildflowers need our help
Wildflowers flourish in low-nutrient soils where they don’t have to compete with other plants. They can grow in a huge range of places from roadsides and verges, to cliffs and in woodlands. Yet one in five wildflower species in Britain are threatened with extinction, as their habitats are slowly disappearing. But, there are plenty of things we can do, together, to help these wonderful wildflowers. Here are five simple things you can do now to learn more and help wildflowers:
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