More Spring Flowers

From April through to June you might see masses of white flowers in the churchyard, along hedgerows or in damp meadows (there are usually lots at the bottom of the dam in Daventry Country Park).  If you get closer you will see that these are not white flowers, but very pale pink or lilac.  These are cuckoo flowers or lady’s smock (they are also called milk maids, bittercress, mayflower, meadowcress and pigeon’s eye in various parts of the country).  Their name originates from the coincidence of their flowering time with the call of the first returning cuckoos from their African wintering grounds.  The name lady’s smock dates from the Tudor period due to the resemblance of the flowers to the smocks worn at the time.  Possibly originating from this time is also the belief that it is unlucky to bring a cuckoo flower into the house.

These are a perennial, native plant with yellow-centred flowers (which close up at night and in heavy rain) held on thin stalks that are usually about a foot in height (although they can grow to twice that height).  Their small kidney-shaped leaves are rich in Vitamin C and were used to fight against scurvy.  Although it has been used in salads when lettuce was not available, it hasn’t gained the popularity in modern times of its close relative, watercress.

It is however much prized by the caterpillars of both the orange tip and green veined white butterflies.  In fact, one of the easiest ways to see the orange tip butterflies is to find a hedgerow containing cuckoo flowers and, if it is a sunny day, it probably won’t be long before you see a male orange tip butterfly patrolling by.

Another plant that is seen in hedgerows alongside the cuckoo flower is garlic mustard.  Like most flowers this one also has numerous other names, the most common being jack-by-the-hedge, although it is also known as Garlic Root, Hedge Garlic, Sauce-alone, Jack-in-the-bush, Penny Hedge and Poor Man’s Mustard.

This is a much taller, more erect plant than the cuckoo flower growing up to about a metre in height.  In the first year there are rosettes of green leaves close to the ground.  These overwinter and throw up strong, tall stems.  Between April and June there are clusters of small white flowers, each with four petals arranged in a cross shape.  These then form seed pods which are about four centimetres long that burst open in mid July scattering shiny black seeds up to a metre around.

The name derives from the smell of garlic when the leaves are bruised and, like the cuckoo flower its leaves (and sometimes flowers and seeds) have been added to salads.  In this case they are said to taste of both garlic and mustard.

It has also been used medicinally as a diuretic, disinfectant and to treat gangrene, ulcers and sore throats.

It was introduced to North America in the 1860s and is now considered and invasive species (depending on conditions it can self pollinate and the seeds can lay dormant for a couple of years).  In some areas it is threatening native butterflies which confuse it with food plant of their caterpillar.  They then lay their eggs on the garlic mustard, but the caterpillars cannot eat the leaves and therefore don’t survive.

In the UK it is an important food plant for the caterpillars of the orange-tip and green-veined white butterflies, as well as supporting many other native insects.  Its seeds are also important in the diet of farmland birds.

Early Spring Flowers

One of the earliest flowering native plants is the Lesser Celandine, member of the buttercup family. Although these are often seen in February, they are most commonly in flower from March through to June. In fact their name, Celandine, is derived from the Greek name for the swallow, Chelidon, as they are both seen as early indicators of spring.

Celandines (actually Lesser Celandines) are noticeable by the mass of bright yellow star-like flowers that are seen on a carpet of dark green leaves. If you look closely you will see that there are between eight and twelve glossy petals on each of the flowers. You may also notice that the leaves are heart shaped near the ground, often with white markings, and become smaller and more ivy-leaf shaped closer to the flowers.

Celandines love the sun and are found all over the county, particularly in clay soil, at the roadside, or on sunny banks – the old railway track in Daventry often has some close to town. When the sun goes in the petals close up, reopening as soon as the sun comes out again. Such is the effect of the bright shiny flowers that celandines have been referenced in many poems over the years, they were particularly favoured by William Wordsworth who wrote an ode to the Lesser Celandine.

The lesser celandine has other local names including pilewort, small celandine, smallwort, figwort, brighteye, butter and cheese. The name pilewort derives from its therapeutic use in the treatment of piles, both internally and as an ointment. This was due to the resemblance of the roots to haemorrhoids

All traces of this, and the following flower will have gone by mid-summer, the leaves and flowers dying away completely.


Another flower to look out for in March is the incredibly pretty wood anemone. As the name suggests, it is mainly found in wooded areas (dry and deciduous please), although it can be found in old hedgebanks – as long as there isn’t too much shade. In common with the celandine, it likes sunshine and therefore does all of its flowering before the leaves are out on the trees and only opens when the sun is out.

The exquisite (but scentless) white flowers are held above dark green palmate leaves, just one flower per plant. The flowers are often flushed with a little bit of pink. Again, just like the celandine, it flowers too soon to attract many insects and so propagates underground – although in this case very slowly.

Another name for the wood anemone is the windflower. According to Greek mythology, Anemos, the wind, used the star-like flowers to herald his coming in Spring. The delicate flower stems are strong, but supple enough, to bend and not break in the March winds. It is also called the thimbleweed and smell fox, the latter being an allusion to the musky smell of its leaves.

Wood anemone has few medicinal uses due to the fact that it is toxic to humans and most animals causing amongst other things skin and gastrointestinal irritation, burning mouth and throat sensations, mouth ulcers and nausea.

Unimportant fact of the day – the wood anemone is the county plant of Middlesex