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Wildflowers and the history they hold

Updated Friday, 22nd May 2020

Dr Clare Lawson looks at the common names given to wildflowers and how these can vary depending which part of the country you are from.

Flower-rich meadows are a rare sight in Britain today. Full of insects, birds and mammals as well as flowers, these habitats are valued for their diversity and, rare and unique species. Reliant on traditional low-input farming systems such as hay making to sustain them, many of these meadows have been lost over the past eighty years mainly due to changes in farming. Those surviving parcels of wildlife have a vital role to play in nature conservation but also in preserving our social and cultural heritage.

Flower-rich meadow, west of Oxford on the river Thames Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Clare Lawson Flower-rich meadow, west of Oxford on the River Thames.

The conservation value of these flower-rich grasslands results from their long and continuous management as hay meadows. The pattern of hay making followed by grazing of the re-growth by cattle and sheep was an established management across the country as long ago as the 12th and 13th centuries. Hay was a crucial resource providing winter feed for livestock. Consequently, these meadows were considered a very valuable part of the farming system.

Hay making would have taken place over a period of several weeks as cutting took place by hand using a scythe. It was a very skilled job to cut the hay. The timing of the hay cut would vary from year to year as it was determined largely by the weather. Combining all these elements of traditional management together creates this unique cultural landscape. 

These flower-rich meadows are a reminder of a traditional way of life, providing us with a connection to the past. Each meadow has its own distinctive character and sense of place fashioned by the local environment - the product of the interactions between the traditional management, climate and soil. The flowers connected with these meadows are also distinctive, only species adapted to hay making and grazing can thrive. 

We are aware that the loss of these habitats throughout the wider countryside is responsible for the decline in wildflowers and many dependent species. They are a great nectar source for pollinating insects such as bumblebees and hoverflies. Yet this decline in biodiversity may also conceal another loss, the diminishing recognition of these flowers and the important role they played in rural life and culture, in the not so distant past.

Common Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Clare Lawson Common Birds-foot-trefoil (Lotus corniculatus). There is a richness of information available in many of the old common names of wildflowers. They often give a clue to the colour or shape of the flower, (Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Lotus corniculatus - picture to the left. It's also known as Eggs and bacon, Butter and eggs and Granny's toenails), the time when they flower, or the environment in which they grow (Marsh marigold, Caltha palustris). Other names indicate an old medicinal use; the fairy flax (Linum catharticum), a diminutive white flower, is also known as purging flax. Superstitions and beliefs are also reflected in many names. The speedwells (Veronica spp.), a group of bright blue little flowers, were thought to give you good luck on your journey.

The wildflower names you are familiar with can indicate from which part of the country you are from. Common names for the same wildflower often vary depending on locality. The rare Snakeshead fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris), a spring flower often found in wet meadows, is known by the names: Chequered lily, Frogcup, Folfalars.

These old common names reveal the deep understanding and knowledge that people had of nature in the past and illustrate the closeness of their relationship to the countryside and their surroundings. So next time you are out and about, look more closely at the wildflowers you see and appreciate the part they play in conserving nature and our cultural heritage.


Clare Lawson wildflower collage Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Clare Lawson

Pictured above from left to right are:

  • Germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys - other commons names include Bird’s eye, Cat’s eye, Farewell). 
  • Common knapweed (Centaurea nigra - common names are Hardheads and Black knapweed) is a good source of nectar too!
  • Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris - with common names of Kingcup and Mayflower) is an indicator of damp conditions.




Blackstock, TH., Rimes, CA., Stevens, DP., Jefferson, RG., Robertson, HJ., MacKintosh, J. & Hopkins, JJ. (1999) The extent of semi-natural grassland communities in lowland England and Wales: a review of conservation surveys 1978-96. Grass Forage Science, 54, 1-18.

Carvell, C., Roy, DB., Smart, SM., Pywell, RF., Preston, CD. & Goulson, D. (2006). Declines in forage availability for bumblebees at a national scale. Biological Conservation, 132, 481-489.

McDonald, A. (2007). The historical ecology of some unimproved alluvial grassland in the upper Thames valley. British Archeological Reports. British Series 441. Published by Archaeopress, Oxford. 161pp.

Mabey, R. (1997). Flora Britannica. Published by Chatto & Windus, Random House, London.







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