Weed or Wildflower?
“It’s a weed!” is what my Mum would shout on noticing my curiosity at a plant that had popped up unexpectedly in the garden. But to me the plants that wriggled through the cracks in the pavement or scattered the lawn uninvited were wildflowers. The daisy and the dandelion are the ones we learn early and remember from childhood, but there are many more to find and learn.
With less floral diversity than many other parts of the world, an amateur botanist in the UK has a good chance at learning the names and habits of nearly all the native and introduced wildflowers. However, an easier way to learn, rather than one by one, is to learn the ‘families’ that plants are grouped into. Each family has a selection of characters which we can learn to recognise, for example the wonderful Carrot Family’s members have flowers that sit at the end of umbrella-spoked stems. Or the pea family, which includes clover, recognisable from their lip-shaped petals and neat little leaves.
The St John’s Wort family is an easy one – always yellow, with 5 pointed petals radiating around an explosion of stamens (where the pollen comes from!). The cabbage family, whose members have fat seed pods that point upwards, are alternatively called the Crucifers: the flowers all possess four distinct petals which appear like a cross. The Dead-nettle family (it’s members unrelated to the common nettle but with similar-shaped, un-stinging leaves) are a little trickier to spot. This is where our noses can help us as this family contains those herbs we are familiar with in the kitchen – marjoram, thymes and mints.
Once you’re aware of all the family groups and their defining characters, when you come across a new wildflower you can begin to narrow down where it might belong in the tree of life, and reach an identification much quicker!
The best way to get to grips with the families is with a good guide or key. Francis Rose’s Wildflower key is a firm favourite among amateur botanists. At first it can be daunting, but with practise you can get to grips with the terminology by using the excellent illustrated glossary at the back (whorl and wing, ray and raceme, panicle and papus are a just a few of the words you’ll have to get used to as you learn to identify the plants around you). Francis Rose’s key is beautifully illustrated, but it can be nice to complement it with a photographic guide. Simon Harrap’s Wildflowers field guide is split into the same family groups but contains useful distribution maps and photos of each species, allowing you to be extra sure you’ve named that wildflower right.
What’s in a name!
Wildflowers were once treasured and named for their healing properties. Nowadays few of us would dare to guess which wildflower might provide medicine for an ailment, but these secret medical uses are often hidden in the plant’s common names. Eyebrights (a dainty meadow flower in the Figwort Family) is still used today for eye problems, Speedwell (in the same family) provided curative tonics to speed healing and Feverfew (from the daisy family) in medieval Britain was planted around doorways to protect homes against disease and plague.
When to start? The best time is now!
The first flowers of Spring stick out like sore thumbs after months of winter and grey. First comes Lesser celandine in March, a bright yellow woodland flower (belonging to the Buttercup Family) which is a sure sign of Spring. You might spot Green Alkanet of the Borage family (forget-me-nots belong here too) with bristly spear-like leaves and bright blue five-petaled flowers. Then by the end of April appears Jack by the Hedge (the Cabbage family) with tiny white cross-shaped flowers and garlic-smelling leaves. Aim to learn the new flowers as they appear and watch them carefully as they change throughout the season.
Make a Herbarium
Why not make your own herbarium collection to refer to as you learn!