Yellow Archangel (Photo © Ian Saunders Stoke Wood, Stoke Goldington 24 May 2018)
Which spring flowers can you expect to see during May?
Spring flowers in May in woodlands, hedges and beside paths
[AWI stands for Ancient Woodland Indicator]
First, a cautionary note:
When you are examining or photographing flowers, especially less common ones, please avoid creating a trampled path, because this makes them more vulnerable. If you must get close, please reach them by an indirect, more concealed route. Better still, consider making do by taking your photo from further away. Last week, in one of our Ancient Woodlands, a heavily trampled off-path route was created through vegetation, which has drawn excessive attention to a small and declining number of an uncommon flower, putting them at risk.
Herb paris Paris quadrifolia (AWI)
Herb paris is a strange-looking almost ethereal plant. Mostly, it has four (occasionally 3 or 5) broad leaves, almost diamond-shaped, slightly-rounded but pointed and dark-green. All the leaves are towards the top of a slender, hairless stalk and lie flat. In the centre of the leaves a spike holds an unobtrusive, small, single, greenish flower which looks more like a double whorl of pointed leaves. It has eight slender long pale-yellow stamens, at the centre of which is the ovary, a small purple bauble. ‘Is that it?’ you think, when looking at such an understated flower: yes, but that is its mystery. It is largely found in Ancient Woodlands, in MK in Linford Wood in particular. It is a ‘shy’ plant, often partially hidden in the underwood and at edges of woodland rides and there is a delay before the flower shows above the leaves. Paris in the name is not about France but from the Latin ‘par’ meaning equal, which is probably to describe its symmetry. It is in the Lily family (Liliaceae) which has other one-offs, including Lily-of-the Valley, Snakeshead Fritillary, Butcher’s Broom, and Grape-Hyacinth Muscari neglectum; this or its garden-escape version Muscari armeniacum, has also been on show in MK grasslands through April into May.
Yellow Archangel Lamiastrum galeobdolon (AWI)
Think of a white Dead-nettle and imagine it with yellow flowers, but the Yellow Archangel is a far less common Dead-nettle and is mostly found in Ancient Woodlands. The leaves are oval and pointed, with coarse teeth. There are several flowers with each pair of leaves up the stem, Each flower is hooded and with a lower lip. They are bright yellow, with slight red or orange streaks on the lip. The plant’s presence can tend to indicate old woodland banks or ditches. I know only a couple of patches of this in Linford Wood, and they are next to the wood’s boundary banks and ditches. You may also find it in Howe Park and Shenley Wood. One potential confusion is a garden-escape which is very similar but with variegated leaves: Lamiastrum galeobdolon ssp. argentatum (if you know heraldry terminology you may recognise that argent = silver, which is the colour of the streaks on the leaves). I have seen a few of this sub-species on the west bank of the Loughton Brook, in Bancroft valley. It is well worth submitting records of either of these plants, with their exact location. [To know how and where to submit a record of this, you can check the MKNHS website Reference section and click on Recording.]
Herb-Robert Geranium robertianum (AWI)
Herb-Robert comes into flower usually in late April or early May, but the leaves emerge well before that and sometimes remain through the winter. Although it is an Ancient Woodland Indicator it is also common more widely by hedges, in woods and on disturbed ground. It is in the Geranium family (Geraniaceae) and the leaves have a strong mousy smell when you get close. It is one of the Crane’s-bills, so-called because the shape of the seed-head is like the beak, narrow head and long neck of a Crane. Its stem tends to be dark red and hairy. Its flower has five pink petals which have a smooth edge all around. The anthers in the flower are orange or purple. Who was Robert? Probably ‘Robin Goodfellow’ aka Puck, the mischief-making house goblin of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A different account is that it used to be called St Robert, or St Robert’s Wort, after an 11th Century monk who used it medicinally.
Lords-and-Ladies Arum maculatum
Here’s another strange, one-off plant. You have probably been seeing its large shiny green leaves ever since January, beside paths and in woodlands, sometimes in dense clumps. Lords-and-Ladies has three distinct stages, so you may not realise that they are one and the same plant. A single, broad, large and pointed, shiny, arrow-shaped leaf springs upwards from ground-level, and some plants have dark streaks on these leaves. The leaf remains without flower for months until late April and early May when a paler leaf-like structure called the ‘spathe’ emerges and, within it, its purple ‘spadix’. This is stage two, followed by a third stage in July or August, when a cluster of orange-red berries emerge on a spike, from which the spathe and spadix have gone. This flower emits a slight odour that attracts insect pollinators: birds also carry its seeds away. It is a common plant in damp and well-drained shady places and usually numerous where you find it. An old name for it is Cuckoo-pint, but it has many other names, mostly innuendoes. It looks poisonous and it is.
Bugle Ajuga reptan
There are quite a few plants that look a little like Bugle: bluey-purple with quite small leaves, so this one needs careful attention to several of its features. Some people assume that identifying flowering plants is all about the flower, but other parts of a plant are just as necessary for identification. With Bugle, try starting at ground level. Here, its lowest leaves (known as ‘basal’ leaves) are in a circle (‘rosette’) around the base of the plant, and these lower ones are larger and have long stalks. The leaves up the stem are in opposite pairs and are smaller than the basal leaves and tend to be dark-green. None of the leaves have toothed edges. When the plant first emerges, it is scrunched up before the stem stretches fully and the pairs of leaves become spaced out from each other. The stem is distinctive, so feel it. It is square and is hairy on only two opposite sides. The flowers are grouped in stages on the upper sections of the stem. Beneath each group are small leaf-lookalikes called ‘bracts’ which tend to be more purple-green than the leaves further down. The flowering parts (‘corolla’) are usually powder-bluey-purple, but occasionally these are pink or white: their colour has no significance. The shape of the flower is of connected lips, with a tiny top one, two-lobed side ones and a lower lip which is longer. Because this plant spreads through runners, it tends to be in clumps. It is usually in damp and shady grassland or in damp woods or by hedgerows. If you check each of the features above you will be able to avoid any confusion with other plants such as Self-heal, the Woundworts, or the Dead-nettles.
May Spring flowers of grasslands, waysides & grid-road verges
Common Bird’s-foot Trefoil Lotus corniculatus
If you don’t know this plant, it is worth getting to know as you can find it in some meadows and other grasslands in MK, including on some grid-road verges. It is popular with bumblebees and other pollinators, and a sign of good grassland management to benefit wildlife. In this instance, the colour of the flower is significant to distinguish it from other species. The flowers are a rich, deep yellow and often with a tinge of red or orange, which is why some people call it ‘eggs & bacon’. The plant is low down because its habit is creeping, with its stalks lying down, and the stems are solid. But there are other Bird’s-foot Trefoils, including a taller one, Greater Bird’s-foot Trefoil Lotus pedunculatus, with longer narrower leaves; and a variety in some commercial seed-mixes Lotus corniculatus var sativus which stands up more but has a hollow stem and lacks the red or orange tinge to the flower. So look at a good identification book to check for these similar species.
Bird Cherry Prunus padus
Although Bird Cherry Prunus padus is an indigenous shrub or small tree, it is native mainly in northern Britain, but has been widely planted in towns and cities further south, including Milton Keynes. Perhaps it is popular because its long white clusters of flowers follow, in late April or early May, the other white-flowering spring shrubs of March and April such as Cherry Plum Prunus cerasifera and Blackthorn Prunus spinosa. The shape of the Bird Cherry’s white flower clusters remind me of the general shape of the mauve flower clusters of Buddleia davidii, but the proper description of such clusters is ‘raceme’ and these ones either droop or stick out sideways. The leaves of Bird Cherry are elliptical and have fine saw-teeth. Its black cherries emerge in July, but don’t try them, they are bitter. Our member, Alan Birkett, suggests that this is why ‘bird’ is in its name as birds do eat these. [See Alan’s Field Guide to the Trees of Britain and Europe which has several photos of every tree, showing more of their features than most other tree guides.]
Lesser Stitchwort Stellaria graminea
Lesser Stitchwort Stellaria graminea tends to flower in May, which is later than Greater Stitchwort Stellaria holostea. Lesser Stitchwort tends to prefer more open woods, grasslands and rough grass area. It is the smaller of the two, but a critical feature to look for is that the five petals of the flower divide well over halfway down. Take care not to confuse this with other five-petalled white flowers such as Chickweeds or Mouse-ears which are also in the Campion family (Caryophyllaceae). This is where a good field guide is needed so you can see illustrations of these similar plants and compare the descriptions of their features. Just comparing photos is more likely to confuse you. If you search the MKNHS website under Reference and click on Identification Guides, then on Plants, you will find several recommended field guides to flowering plants.
The following should also come into flower in MK during May, in grasslands or beside paths and some in woodlands:
Ragged-Robin Lychnis flos-cuculi
Red Clover Trifolium pratense
Lady’s-mantle species. Alchemilla vulgaris agg.
Self-heal Prunella vulgaris.
You can let MKNHS website Sightings know where you see these. Just send a note, and photo if you can, to:firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike LeRoy 4th May 2023