The great thing about wildflower identification is it provides something many of us are looking for right now: a welcome distraction, a connection with nature, and time outside. The wonderful thing about wildflowers is that they can crop up anywhere, so if you don’t have a garden you can head to your local green space, or even just see what’s popping up between the cracks in your paving stones in the street outside your house!
Reconnect with nature while you take a break from work and see if you can spot these common garden wildflowers.
1. Sweet Violet - Viola orodata
These small, scented flowers are often found in gardens. There are ten UK species of violet, but you can tell the sweet violet by its dark colour and scent which is used in perfumes (although both me and my flatmate think it smells a bit like toilet cleaner!).
Another feature to check is the “spur” on the back of the flower head. In dog violet, another common species, this spur should be paler than the face of the flower. As you can see, in our sweet violets it’s the same colour.
2. Daisy - Bellis perennis
Everyone loves a daisy! These lovely little flowers open when the sun shines on them, and close in the evening, which is where their name comes from – day’s eye! They do well on short, but not over-mown grass, especially where people have walked, sometimes forming pathways across fields! Why not make a daisy chain?
3. Petty Spurge - Euphorbia peplus
This may not seem like a flowering plant but look closer – it’s tiny greeny-yellow flowers have no petals! There’s lots of types of spurge but this is the most common. All spurges release a milky white “latex” when their stem is broken. The tiny, petal-less flowers help you identify this species.
4. Herb Robert - Geranium robertianum
This pretty pink flower can be found all over. Its leaves turn red in the autumn, which might be where the name comes from, as the latin for red is “ruber”, but it might also be after King Robert of Normandy. If you crush the leaves they give off a strong scent, earning this plant the nickname “Stinking Bob!” Look for the pink, five-petalled flower and lacy leaves.
5. Green Alkanet - Pentaglottis sempervirens
Many gardeners dislike this plant, as it tends to spread very quickly and it’s bristly leaves aren’t pleasant to pull up! It was actually introduced during medieval times for its root, which can be used to make a red dye. It’s related to the forget-me-not and its bright blue flowers are similar.
6. Wavy Bitter-Cress - Cardamine flexuosa
There are several kinds of bitter-cress, but they all have long thin seedheads and tiny, four-petalled white flowers. They have rounded leaves at the base, and longer, more pointed leaves higher up the stem. The wriggly stem on this bitter-cress means it’s wavy bitter-cress.
7. Common Groundsel - Senecio vulgaris
These tiny flowers look like unopened buds, but actually the yellow tips are the flowers themselves! They turn into tiny dandelion heads of seeds, giving the plant it’s latin name – senex means old man! They also have spiny leaves, and flower all year round. Groundsel is another plant often considered a weed, but sparrows, goldfinches and linnets all love the seeds, as does the bright, stripy cinnabar moth caterpillar.
There are lots of ways to start learning how to identify plants. One of the easiest can be to simply flick through a book until you find something that looks similar, and then read the description to see if it matches up. Remember to check flowering times and location – if it’s only found in northern Scotland you probably haven’t got it in your London garden, and if it doesn’t flower until July it’s probably not what you’re looking at.
Different books are organised in different ways – some by colour, some by flowering season, some by plant family. Figuring this out will make finding your plant easier!
Some books have drawings, and some have photographs. A good tip if you’re not sure is to google the plant you think you’ve identified. Stick with the latin name, as common names can vary from place to place and country to country! You should get a whole range of photos of the plant, from every angle and at every season, which will make it easier to decide if you’ve ID’d correctly.
If you want to get really serious about identification, a hand lens and a wildflower key are invaluable. Hand lenses take a bit of getting used to, but are perfect for seeing those tiny details of a plant that can help you ID down to species level, like miniscule hairs on leaves, or the individual stamens on a tiny flower. Keys can seem intimidating, with a lot of botanical terms to learn, but now is a great time to learn a new skill, which could keep you occupied for months! You could try learning one new term a day.
No books? No hand lens? No problem! The internet has a wealth of information about wildflower identification, from websites, to apps, to the #wildflowerhour hashtag on twitter! Post your photos using this hashtag, and botanists from around the world will help you figure out what you’ve found! Many wildflower guides are available to download to your smartphone, which saves carrying a large book around, and some can even identify your flower from a photo!
The camera zoom on many smartphones these days can get in really close and allow you to spot details you can’t with the naked eye, and can work well at spotting tiny details if you don’t have a hand lens.
If you do have a lens, try holding it to your phone’s camera lens and focusing through it to take amazing macro photos of your flowers. It takes a steady hand – so you can also buy lenses that clip onto your phone. This is also a good solution if you find hand lenses hard to use with your naked eye – the phone makes it much easier.
Sometimes, you’ll need to pick a plant in order to ID it. If you’re doing this, remember to check that it’s not the only one in the area, and try to get some leaves as well as the flower – you’ll need that to ID!
Most of all, enjoy it! Taking time to really notice the wildlife around us can help ground us during this scary time, and the close focus required for wildflower ID is a great distraction. Do remember to practice social distancing if you are out and about, and stay at least 2m away from other people.
Even if you can’t get outside at all, looking at photos of what’s appearing around the country on the #wildflowerhour hashtag on twitter (Sundays between 8pm and 9pm) can be a great way to experience nature virtually.