Thistle Trekking has a variety of long distance guided walks that span the UK including the Cape Wrath Trail and West Highland Way in Scotland, The Snowdonia Way and Pembrokeshire Coast Path in Wales and the South Downs Way and Coast to Coast in England. Walking along the trails amongst trees, in the mountains or by the sea gives the budding botanists a chance to delve into the diverse flora at your feet often overlooked as eyes gaze to the spectacular views towards the horizon.
As you hear the dawn chorus of birds attracting mates and lambs jumping for joy in the fields, this is the time for your eyes to wander south and look out for flowers while you walk. The first wild flowers appear as early as January and are the delicate white nodding flowers of the snowdrops hinting that the dark days and long nights of winter will soon be drawing to a close.
In the woods there are spectacular displays of spring flowers with the first flower of the year being the perennial (one that lives for several years) herb of the lesser celandine that carpet woodlands with their yellow star like flowers and glossy green heart shaped leaves. Another woodland spectacle is the swathes of intense blue under the opening tree canopy that is one of the nations best loved wild flowers, the bluebell. Like the lesser celandine, the bluebell forms an essential part of the woodland ecosystem and flowers early to make the most of the suns energy while the leaves are not yet on the trees. Often arriving with the bluebell is the purple pink flowers of the early purple orchid, one of the earliest orchids to bloom.
Another beautiful purple flower found in woodlands is the common dog violet, once collected and made into treacle by adding water and sugar as a cure for colds and coughs. Other woodland plants that put on an early spring display are wood anemone, red campion, wood-sorrel, ramsons, garlic mustard, lords-and-ladies and yellow archangel.
In the mountains purple saxifrage can appear as early as February growing low amongst rocks and on broken areas of cliff, it has adapted to survive under snow and then flower as soon as the snow melts. Another saxifrage you will be able to see has white flowers either at or near the top of its stem and rises up to 20cm. It forms a moss like mat which acts as protection from drying winds found in the higher grounds, another example of adaption to survive in the harsh mountain environment.
Along the grassy areas of the British uplands in spring you will get the flowers of bilberry that are often mistaken for unripe berries. As spring turns to summer these flowers are replaced by extremely tasty berries that are loved by birds. Wild thyme can also be found in grassy areas with hairy leaves and short flowering stems and wild strawberries that are smaller, less erect with the fruit being dry compared to the strawberry we know and love on these isles. Other berries you might see in the uplands are the crowberry that is not nearly as tasty as bilberries and the cowberry that are used by herbalists in the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism.
Between the startling yellow outcrops of gorse that can often smell of coconut, an abundance of wildflowers appear in May and June along our coast paths. This includes the English stonecrop with its strange looking succulent leaves that are visible all year round with the star like flowers that are white with tinges of pink visible for a couple of months in the summer. Oxey daisy’s will also be in bloom with dark green spoon shaped leaves and a solitary white daisy like flowerhead. Thrift or sea pink has long and straight dark green leaves looking like blades of grass and delicate pink flowers that protrude up to 20cm, the dried flower is an antibiotic that has been used in the past to treat urinary infections.
During the summer months the mountains are painted with purple as the heathers come into flower. There are only 3 types of heather in the UK being the bell heather, common heather (ling) and the cross leaved heather. All heathers are good producers of nectar and heather clumps are favourite haunts for bees. One of my favourite named flowers is the sneezewort flowering through July and August, getting its name from its ability to make anyone sneeze from one smell!
There are a few flowers that you would be mindful to stay clear of unless you want to have wet feet for the rest of the day and like the sneezewort their names give away their inherent danger. Bog asphodel have beautiful bright yellow star like flowers that are visible in July before soon drying out by August. Bogbean with its distinctive spectacular flowers that project about 30cm and bog cotton or common cottongrass who’s flowers develop distinctive white bristle like seed heads that resemble tufts of cotton.
There are literally 1000’s of wildflowers in the UK and once you start looking out for them you will be surprised out how many you have walked by before without batting an eyelid. This article only scratches the surface on some of the flowers that you might find, if you are interested in wildflowers do talk to our guides on your trek who will be more than happy to point you in the direction of some of the flowers mentioned in this article and a number that are not too.
Please note that any culinary and medicinal quotes are included purely for interest, please do not pick or consume wild flowers!
About the Author
Dean Russell, is a climber, mountaineer, trail runner and snow sports enthusiast that after 10 years in the environment sector is retraining to share his passion for adventure with others. He has climbed 6000m peaks in Nepal, scaled mountains in the Alps and recently ran the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. While in the UK Dean can be found running the fells of the Lake District, climbing the stunning coastline of Pembroke and mountaineering in Scotland.