The ubiquitous and humble common daisy (Bellis perennis) is one of the first flowers we can name when, as youngsters, we are taught to make daisy chains! When a bit older we pull the petals off one by one saying "She loves me, she loves me not" or "He loves me ....!".
Love them or hate them if you have a lawn you almost certainly have the daisy growing there. Surely everyone has daisies on their lawn apart from one of my neighbours whose lawn is like astro-turf. Cutting the grass gets rid of them for an hour or two but it is not long before those familiar white and yellow flowers reappear.The name daisy comes from a corruption of the 'day's eye', the flowers close up at night and open during the day.
The books say that the daisy flowers from March to October but here in Dorset, the soft south, you can see daisies in flower at any time of the year. They prefer short grazed (or mown) turf everywhere and they are so familiar we take them for granted but looked at close up they are attractive little flowers.
The flowers have homeopathic uses in treating cuts and bruises. The leaves can be eaten in salads and can be dried and made in to a tea, both are considered goos for digestive problems.
Oxeye Daisy: you can bank on it
If you travel the A35 from Dorchester towards Bere Regis (or from Bere Regis heading towards Dorchester!) in summer you will see the northern verge covered in white oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare). In fact they can be seen on the other side too, and along road verges almost everywhere in the county in summer, especially June. They thrive on fertile meadow-like environments and where the new road was put in some years ago now the embankments of the cutting near Bere became ideal meadow-like habitat for them.
They are classic 'daisy' in appearance, not dissimilar to the daisies on your lawn but much bigger of course with flower heads almost two inches across and the plants reaching as much as two feet or more tall.
They flower from May until September so you have plenty of time to take in the glorious sight as you speed along past Bere Regis!
Scentless Mayweed: daisy of the fields
Nobody who has been for a walk in the countryside and crossed an arable farm field cannot have failed to notice this daisy flower and perhaps rather taken it for granted and not given a thought to its name; it is just a daisy. Its common name is scentless mayweed (Tripleurospermum inodorum) although it is also known as false chamomile.
Scentless mayweed is undoubtedly one of our most common weeds of cultivation but it is one of seven superficially similar species and it would be quite possible for the casual observer like me to dismiss them all as scentless mayweed without a second thought. Sea mayweed is found in a different environment but the others are all likely to be found on disturbed soils, usually that means farmland and as a result most of the six have declined considerably in recent times due to the extensive use of herbicides; somehow though, scentless mayweed soldiers on! It is a European species but it has spread to north America where it is considered an obnoxious weed.
The name mayweed is somewhat misleading as it actually flowers from April right through until November! It probably becomes most noticeable with its first real flush in May.
Sea Mayweed: the sea chamomile
Sea mayweed (Tripleurospermum maritum) is a classic daisy in appearance. It is much larger then the lawn daisy, of course, but it has that yellow centre surrounded by an array of white petals. On the surface, very similar (and closely related) to scentless mayweed which is a very common flower of arable farmland but the fact that this grows near the sea on the upper reaches of the shoreline on sand or pebbles, often at the base of cliffs, that can be a pretty definitive guide to identification without resorting to a hand lens.
Not a common plant, more 'occasional', but you can easily find it at places like Ringstead, West Bexington, Worbrarrow, and Kimmeridge. It is also known as sea chamomile as when you crush the leaves there is a hint of the scent that one gets from its relative, chamomile. It has similar health properties to chamomile too being an effective skin soother and its antioxidant properties help to reduce skin inflammation
Yarrow: for Achilles healing
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a very common flower around Dorset, you can see it just about anywhere from july (sometimes even in June) right through until the first frosts of the autumn and winter eventually kill them off. They are found in meadows, grasslands, hedgerows and roadsides, just about anywhere in fact. It is also a common weed of lawns and is definitely not a gardeners friend.
Yarrow is, perhaps, one of those flowers you walk by without a second look because it is so common but when you do stop and take a really close look you find that the flower-head is not one flower but a hundred or so tiny flowers, all like little daisies. Millefolium - a thousand flowers. The overall flower head can range from white to pink but, in general, is dirty white or, perhaps more kindly, cream. It is very popular with insects.
According to Wikipedia the plant has a long history of being used to treat wounds, cuts and abrasions and the Achillea part of its scientific name derives from the greek hero, Achilles, whose army supposedly carried it with them to treat battle wounds! The leaves do apparently encourage blood clotting and can be used fresh to treat nosebleeds. It apparently has many other medicinal uses too and treats all sorts of conditions. It has also been used as a vegetable, a culinary herb, for beer making and as a form of tea; a truly versatile plant!
Sneezewort: bless you bless you all fall down
Those of you who know the familiar flower yarrow might well think that that is what this is, but it's not. It sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica); an Achillea like yarrow but a smaller plant with less feathery leaves.
July and August, riversides and wet meadows are good places to look for flowers a bit out of the ordinary and that is where you find sneezewort. It is described as being 'local' and so where it occurs it is usually quite common but finding places where it occurs is a bit more difficult. Certainly, the lower reaches of the River Frome is one place. It has a preference for acid soil rather than chalk so it is unlikely to be found further up stream in the chalk areas where our streams tend to originate.
I have no idea why it is called sneezewort but I suspect it has connections to the Great Plague of 1665! It has a number of other common names too. The leaves can be cooked and eaten and they are also used to extract an essential oil used in herbal medicine. The leaves can be used as an insect repellent, quite a versatile plant!
Gallant Soldier: on parade!
What a gallant little soldier this plant is! Despite it now being November with strong winds and frequent rain this small flower is doing its best to keep its head up. It has been flowering here in Dorset since August and I suspect it will take a frost or two to see it off.
It is a member of the daisy family and its latin name is Galinsoga parviflora. Say that first part out loud with a ‘soft’ g and you will see where its common name of Gallant Soldier comes from. Just a short step from latin to English country dialect.
I have not seen it anywhere else in Dorset other than around Carey and Northmoor near Wareham and here it is a common weed of roadside gutters. It can thrive with virtually no soil to hold its roots, it can stand its ground as the rain water rushes along the gutters and uses the rainwater to spread its seeds further along the gutter to new places.
Some people do clear the gutter outside their houses but where they don’t this truly gallant soldier will dig in and hold its own!
Blue Fleabane: blowing in the wind
Blue fleabane (Erigeron acris) is a rather insignificant flower, the heads are quite small and do not attract your attention like many of the daisy family do. That said, it carries all the hallmarks of the daisy family, just smaller!
The flowers have a central 'core' surrounded by a ring of narrow petals which then go on to produce small thistle-like seed heads and that spread quickly in the wind. Indeed, where you do find them you will usually find a small colony together. In my experience they like bare patches where there is little competition and they are often found alongside stony paths in on the heaths and woodlands of the Poole basin.
Sea Aster: not yet Michaelmas
The first time I encountered the sea aster (Aster tripolium) after moving to Dorset I thought it was an 'escaped' Michaelmas daisy which is grown in many gardens and originates from North America. However, there subsequently proved to be so much of it along the coastal cliffs and especially on salt-marshes (Radipole and Lodmore in particular) I soon had to get my field guide out and take a closer look.
The Sea Aster is, indeed, a close relative of the Michaelmas daisy and even flowers at the same time of year. The flowers are very similar but closer examination of the plant itself reveals thicker, more fleshy leaves. The most obvious distinction however is where they grow. The sea aster is very much a plant of late summer and autumn and a much valued nectar source for insects at a time when many flowers have gone to seed. It is an abundant plant of our sea and estuary coasts and a very attractive one it is too.
Common Ragwort: the poison challice
The common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) is yet another species from the natural world that we love to hate. Ragwort pulling is an autumn preoccupation around farms and nature reserves. It presents us with two problems. Firstly it is poisonous to cattle and horses and so there is always a risk if these animals are feeding around the plant. In reality, it seems to me, cattle eat everything around the ragwort and leave the ragwort well alone. I am pretty sure I have not seen a dead cow in a field with ragwort in it!
Secondly, it is its capacity to set seeds and spread. It is a prolific plant and in some years it can be more abundant than in others but it is always abundant! You can find it on waste ground, hedgerows, pastures, dunes, downland; just about anywhere, especially if the ground is regularly disturbed or the general vegetation is sparse.
Hated by humans it may be but it is adored by insects and is another plant worth closely watching if you like insects. It is, amongst other things, the food plant of cinnabar moth caterpillars which do an amazing job of stripping everything off of the plant rendering it pretty harmless! Perhaps we should farm and spread more cinnabar moths as a biological control for this pernitious, obnoxious and useless weed?
Oxford Ragwort: right on track
If you are going anywhere by train during the summer months you will see this common weed of the railway tracks, Oxford ragwort (Senecio squalidus). This is not the common ragwort seen in meadows in late summer and autumn, it is a totally different species although superficially similar. This is an imported species brought in to Oxford, possibly to the University botanical gardens, as part of a research programme many years ago. I did hear the exact story some years ago and no can't remember it!
Like common ragwort these flowers turn into small dandelion type seed heads which are dispersed by wind. They were flowering near the main railway line in Oxford and the seeds were carried along the line in the slip stream of trains and now they are seen across the entire rail network.
They originate from volcanic areas in the Mediterranean region where they thrive on thin, dry soils so the chippings on railway lines is well suited to their needs.
Colts-foot: Its not the cough that carries you off its the coffin they carry you off in
March is all about looking for signs of spring as far as I am concerned. After those long bleak winter months with little of interest to see, the anticipation of spring bursting upon us in April just seems too long to wait and so March is full of expectation. Actually there is not always that much sign of life in March so little hints of spring lift the spirit and what signs there are are more visible because of lack of competition from other species. So it is with colt's-foot (Tussilago farfara); the bright yellow flowers standing out in the surrounding dullness.
Colt's-foot is a member of the daisy family and is related to the dandelion types of compositeae. Indeed, its bright yellow-rayed flower may often be dismissed as a dandelion but it is worth a closer look. It grows on bare patches of ground where the earth may be quite thin and it can be seen frequently on the tracks of old railway lines for this very reason. It flowers in March and is soon over. In keeping with its family ties those yellow flowers will quickly turn to fluffy seed heads to be dispersed by the March winds and then all signs of the plant will be gone for another year until it pops back up again to remind us that spring will not be long coming.
Colt's-foot is so called because of the shape of its leaves although I think you need quite a vivid imagination to make the connection! In researching this I was surprised to find that colt's-foot was used as a herbal remedy for coughs and in some places it is called coughwort. Now coughwort does need a great deal of corruption to become colt's-foot does it? Before you rush out and pick some to cure that nagging cough you should be aware of this warning that appears on the Internet:
"Colt's-foot is considered UNSAFE. It contains chemicals called hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can damage the liver or cause cancer."
Common Fleabane: the original insect repellent?
You cannot go far in August without seeing this brilliant golden daisy, the common fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica). It likes clay or damp soils and so you find it mainly along hedgerows and roadsides where there are ditches but it occurs just about anywhere the soil is heavy. It is also very successful in spreading and so, where it occurs, there is usually a lot of it.
As you might guess from its common name this plant was once used to deter fleas and other insects. I find that quite odd because actually this member of daisy family is very popular with insects! Its open top flower suits larger insects like bees and hoverflies. The scientific name of dysenterica comes from the fact it was once considered a cure for dysentery.
Common fleabane will flower throughout August and well in to September and its cheery face is always a welcome sight, even if it does mean that summer is well advanced and autumn is just around the corner.
Golden Samphire: shake rattle and roll
In August the golden samphire (Inula crithmoides) starts coming in to flower and is especially well established on the cliffs at Durslton; although it can be found on shingle banks and drier areas of salt marsh too.
Golden samphire is a member of the daisy family and is unrelated to rock samphire which is a carrot. It has an entirely different flower to rock samphire but has similar slender, fleshy leaves which is why I guess both share the English name of samphire. The scientific names have a resemblance too with rock samphire being 'crithmum' and golden samphire being 'crithmoides' or 'crith like' however crith seems to mean to tremble, shake or shiver so I am not sure what he connection is..
Flowering from late July until early September the golden daisy flowers cannot be missed nor can they really be mistaken for anything else.
Pineappleweed: a fruit squash
Pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidea) has two distinctive characteristics that mean that it should never go unidentified by anyone who takes the trouble to look at it; its petals and its scent.
I say that its petals are distinctive but they are distinctive by their absence. When you look at pineappleweed it looks every bit a daisy flower like scentless mayweed or chamomile except the petals are just not there, they have not fallen off, the plant never had any in the first place! Despite this lack of petals the plant obviously manages to pollinate and spread as it is one of our most successful colonisers of waste ground and paths. The central piece of the flower looks a little like a pineapple but that is not how it got its name.
The name comes from its second distinctive feature, its scent. Pick a piece of pineappleweed, squash it your fingers and take a sniff. What is that familiar smell? Yes, of course, its smells like pineapple.
It seems that this is a native of north America and north east Asia and it first appeared in Britain in 1871. My book is very exact about the date but it does not say how it came to be here!
Trifid bur-marigold: the day of the trifid
I remember quite well the 'scary' sci-fi film of the 1960's based on the book "The day of the trifids". It was with some trepidation, then, that I had my first encounter with the trifid bur-marigold (Bidens tripartita) but it proved to be quite harmless and I emerged unscathed!
Trifid bur-marigold is a member of the daisy family; it is one of those daisies that has the yellow centre to the flower but not a ring of white petals around it. Instead the central flower is backed by a ring of seven pointed green 'bracts'. These give the flower head a rather unique appearance. The central stem is reddish in colour and forms into branches, each branch having a flower on it. It is a fairly typical bushy daisy, about two feet tall, that flowers from July right through until October and is usually found around the dry margins of ponds, lakes and reservoirs. When the seed heads form they have burs on them that attach to animal fur or human clothing as a means of seed dispersal.
Being a daisy it is easy to see why it is called 'marigold' and as it produces burs then bur-marigold is a pretty obvious development but where does the trifid come from? Trifid means split or divided in to three lobes or parts but I cannot see how this relates to this plant, maybe someone can tell me?
Groundsel: the old man of spring
A quick survey of wild flowers in our garden shows that after the tiny hairy bittercress the rather dull groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) is the next most common species. Whilst the bittercress is the one my wife hates the most, for me it has to be groundsel. I am usually pretty positive about most animal and plant species but I am afraid groundsel is just ... irritating. It is that 'pull on site' weed for me!
It is a member of the daisy family although it lacks the white ring of petals, instead having yellow rays a bit like a closed up dandelion. Once they go to seed the flowers certainly look like miniature dandelion clocks. It is variable in height growing anywhere to a foot tall. The leaves are narrow, pointed and have jagged edges.
Groundel flowers all year round and has many country names, one of which the the old man of spring! It is described as being both tenacious and noxious although not considered invasive. It is poisonous and can cause liver damage if consumed in any great quantity but who would want to eat a plant like this anyway?
Heath Groundsel: the woodland ragwort
Most people with a garden will be familiar with the small, pernicious weed, groundsel; an untidy and fast spreading plant that is difficult to eradicate from well kept flower beds! Well, imagine a bigger version of that; it exists but, fortunately, will not normally bother you as you lovingly tend your flower borders.
The larger version is called heath groundsel (Senecio sylvaticus) and it grows in dry, sandy places and so ii Dorset is often found on heathland but not always. Interestingly perhaps, sylvaticus means 'of woodland' and yet it is rarely found in woodland habitat unless the tree canopy is open and the soil sandy. It is known in some places as the woodland ragwort because, like ragwort, it is a member of the daisy family but for me that is where the similarity between the two ends!
Apart from favouring different growing conditions and being somewhat bigger, usually at least a foot tall, its flower heads are much more conical; wide in the seed box and narrow at the petal tips. It also tends to be more upright than the common groundsel which can be a bit droopy.
Quite common, indeed it can locally be very common, it flowers from June right through until September.
Ploughmans spikenard: blister creme?
Ploughman's spikenard (Inula conyzae) is plant of the downlands that is easily overlooked, not because it is small, because it isn't, but because it looks a bit like a ragwort that has gone over. It grows on calcareous soils on wasteland, grassland and scrub and so will be found on the Purbeck Ridge and along the cliffs where the earth is, perhaps, a bit bare.
It has a strange name and I have no idea where it comes from, there is very little information elsewhere on the web about this flower. It is a bit prickly, or spiky, and it is out in the late summer and early autumn when traditionally the fields would have been ploughed after the harvest so perhaps ploughman's spikenard is something to do with the spiky plant that ploughmen tread on? It seems nard was an ointment made from a Himalayan flower so was probably quite exclusive and expensive. Maybe a cheap form of nard was made from this plant and ploughmen used it treat blisters on their hands? Any further ideas are welcome!
It is a member of the daisy family and the nondescript flower heads turn into clusters of seeds heads, much like groundsel.
Small Cudweed: plain and simple
Heathland tends to occur on sandy soils, often course sand, but where the sand is finer bare patches can occur, possibly lightly grassed. It is on these dry, bare areas you should look for the elusive small cudweed (Filago minima). It is far from common but is probably often overlooked because, true to its name, it is small. Ted Pratt's indispensable guide to the Wild Flowers of the Isle of Purbeck suggests Studland is the best place for it as well as restricted areas on Stoborough Heath and Hartland Moor (although I have never found it there).
You would be forgiven for thinking that this plant does not produce flowers because they are very small and pale yellow which does not stand out well against the greyish/green of the stem and leaves. Rarely growing above a couple of inches tall it is a member of the daisy family so the flowers, visible from June through until September, appear in clusters at the tops of the stems. The stems and leaves are very downy which gives it is grey appearance.
Not a remarkable wild flower to look at, rather plain and simple, but a good find when you spot it.
Common Cudweed: or perhaps the uncommon cudweed
It may be called the common cudweed (Filago germanica) but in my experience, in Dorset at least, it seems to far from common. It is one of three species of cudweed that occurs here and the only one encountered frequently is marsh cudweed.
Cudweeds are members of the daisy family and bear those characteristics without actually looking obviously like a daisy! I know that sounds odd and I possibly have not really explained myself very well. Common cudweed has a small compound, yellow flowers which daisy-like in some ways and not in others. The leaves cling close to the main stem without opening out and are a whitish green. Again, some daisy species are similar in this respect but most are not.
Taller than marsh cudweed and much bigger than small cudweed you cannot really misidentify common cudweed if you encounter it. It is found in dry, sandy places on out heaths in July and August. It is listed in the Red Data Book as near threatened in the United Kingdom and yet elsewhere in Europe it is considered an invasive species.
Mugwort: the natural insect repelent
It seems to me that mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is one of those plants never seems to flower because when it does flower its flower does not really look like we think a flower should look! I do not know whether that makes sense but I know what I mean ...
Mugwort is a member of the daisy family but daisy is not what you think of when you see it. The plant is a bit untidy and grows to between four and five feet tall wither several stems coming from the same root and each stem has several flower spikes coming from it at the top. Before the flowers open they are creamy white buds; when open the are a yellowish drown and then when they have gone over they are a darker brown. There is little or no colour at all which is unusual for daisies., Each flower within a flower spike is quite small, a bit like groundsel when seen close up, and is hardly a striking flower that you want to pick ans put in a vase! The flower spikes appear from July though until September and are faintly aromatic. The leaves are dark green and smooth on top and white and hairy underneath and the stems are generally tinged with red.
Mugwort grows in quite large patches on roadsides and on waste ground and is quite common in Dorset. Why mugwort? It was once known as midgewort as it supposedly repelled midges and over time midgewort became mugwort.
Carline Thistle: a dose of heaven
Walk on the cliffs of Dorset or on the Purbeck Ridge in mid to late summer and you will almost certainly see a good number of these curious thistles. They may look they are the dying flowers of a daisy or a thistle going to seed but these are, in fact, how they look when in full flower.
The carline thistle (Carlina vulgaris) is quite common on chalk grassland everywhere in the southern half of Britain from July through until September but it can be overlooked because it just looks dead! On closer examination, especially in bright sunshine, the flower glistens in silver and gold and is very attractive.
Now here is a gem of information I discovered in researching this plant and it explains why it is called the carline thistle. Apparently, during the middle ages the Emperor Charlemagne (Carl the great to his friends) was losing soldiers to a dreadful plague. However, an angel came to his aid and introduced him to this herb to stem the spread of the epidemic. This flower was named after Carl in his honour. It seems to me it would have been fairer to have named it after the angel perhaps? I suppose the angel may not have left his name when he departed.
Identifying thistles is not easy! But out of the fifteen or so species you may encounter this one, at least, is quite distinctive.
Greater Knapweed: butterfly heaven
This is a favourite flower of mine because it is also such a favourite with insects. When you come across a patch of greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) it is always time to slow down and look at each one to see what lies in store feeding in that lovely flower head. It is a real magnet for butterflies, especially the marbled white, but also for skippers including the Lulworth skipper. Bumblebees adore it as well.
Knapweeds are members of the daisy family and closely related to thistles. The greater knapweed is a common species in the south of England, especially in Dorset, on calcareous soils where it can be found on grassland, on downland, in scrubby areas and in hedgerows .
Flowering from June through to August you can find it on the cliff tops of the Dorset coast, along the Purbeck Ridge and on the downlands in the mid and north of the county.
Lesser Burdock: natural velcro
Lesser burdock (Arctium minus) is complicated! There are actually three subspecies of lesser burdock and the differences are minimal unless yolu are something of an expert botanist with an eye for detail. My field guide, "Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland" by Marjorie Blamey, Richard Fitter and Alastair Fitter describes these differences. The subspecies Arctium minus ssp minus has flower stalks of less than 1cm with the florets sticky or downy. The ssp nemorosum has flower stalks of less than 1cm with the florets never sticky or downy! This subspecies is sometimes called the wood burdock. The third ssp pubens (sometimes called the intermediate burdock) has flower stalks between 1cm and 4cms.
The first of these is the most common and I am afraid I cannot even begin to try and sort out which of the many burdock plants I see belongs to which subspecies so I record them all as lesser burdock!
It gets its name for from the seed heads that have hooks, just like velcro, and attach themselves to passing animals and human clothing, These are called burrs hence the name burdock.
Winter Heliotrope: vanilla ices
I can never decide whether the appearance of winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) in early January is a sign that spring is on its way or that winter is definitely with us! Sadly, it is probably the latter and we still have a month or two to wait for true signs of spring.
Winter heliotrope was brought over from the Mediterranean in Victorian times and it subsequently 'escaped' and has become a naturalised wild flower. It is interesting that despite the colder climate here it still flowers at the same time as it would have done in its home Mediterranean region. It was introduced into gardens, partly for its winter colour but also because it has a strong vanilla scent, the fragrance giving its botanical name, 'fragrans'.
It is quite common in Dorset in mid-winter in damp, shaded habitats along hedgerows, road verges, river banks and waste places. It spreads rampantly often forming quite large patches. The plant produces large, round leaves which are readily identifiable. If you see an area of large round leaves by the roadside then stop and take a closer look, it could well be winter heliotrope. It will flower through January and on into February.
Hemp-agrimony the holy rope
Go anywhere where the ground is normally damp in Dorset and you are likely to find hemp-agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum). It will be found along river banks, lake sides, in fens, marshes, wet meadows, damp woodlands; it just needs damp ground.
No relation to agrimony despite the similar name (both English and scientific), hemp-agrimony is a member of the daisy family and has lovely soft padded flower heads which insects adore. It is always worth browsing the flowers of hemp-agrimony to see who is at home! Once the flowers go over then the finches move in to feed on the seed heads. All things considered hemp-agrimony is a top flower! Good to see, good for insects and good for seed eating birds.
Also known as holy rope, goodness knows why but I guess rope used to be made out of hemp, the plant contains chemicals known to cause cancers so best not to collect it and smoke it although despite the name cannabinum I have not found a link to cannabis!
Spear Thistle: life at the sharp end
Thistles can be a problem to identify at first, they all look the same! That is not true of course and once you make a start they are not too difficult really. Whilst my field guide lists eighteen species of thistle some of those are either absent from the United Kingdom or are very rare and not found usually down here in Dorset so actually there only eleven to chose from. Be warned, though, there are also a number of look-a-likes to confuse things even further!
The spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare) is very common, indeed its scientific names means 'common thistle'. It is a good one to get to know early on in your quest to identify species of thistles (if you have that quest of course!). It has the classic thistle head but the main identifier, however, is its sharp, pointed, spear-shaped leaves that give the plant its name. Those multiple spears are truly diagnostic and also truly painful if you don't treat them with respect.
The spear thistle is common in open areas and roadsides from July through to October and is a popular plant with all sorts of insects and so it is well worth keeping an eye on them.
Creeping Thistle: the answer is blowing in the wind
The creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) is probably our most common thistle species. It grows almost anywhere on scrub, grassland and roadsides with a preference for open ground so it also likes arable land and pasture and there it can become a serious weed.
The creeping thistle is not the most attractive of flowers. It has small pale purple flowers that emerge in clusters at the top of the stems. The leaves are untidy, wrinkled and prickly (rather than speared). Despite being rather plain and dull they go through a stage in the autumn when they take on, for a brief time anyway, a certain beauty. Thistles of all all varieties turn from their generally purple coloured heads into silver-grey haired oldies and for all its faults the creeping thistle produces the most wonderful seed heads that are a favourite of goldfinches and other birds. For this reason, whilst most farmers seek to eradicate the creeping thistle, on Arne farm it is positively encouraged by the RSPB!
This autumn beauty is short lived however as the wind soon starts to break the seed heads up and blow them away. I just wonder at how many seeds there must be on a single flower head. Isn't nature amazing? Even the common creeping thistle is a little bit special despite being despised.
Dwarf Thistle: the picnic thistle
The dwarf thistle (Cirsium acaulon) is also known as the stemless thistle because the single flower head is down amongst those prickly leaves that form a rosette on the ground. It also has the nickname of picnic thistle because the first time you notice it is when you sit down on the ground to eat your sandwiches when you are out for a walk!
The dwarf thistle is common in Dorset and the rest of the south of England, found primarily on short turfed calcareous soils, so the chalk and limestone of Dorset is ideal for it. Flowering from June until September, when no flower is present it is easy to dismiss it as an emerging creeping thistle.
I suppose it could also be called the boring thistle as I can find no other interesting facts about it!
Marsh Thistle: tall and ugly!
The marsh thistle (Cirsium palustre) is another of the common members of the thistle genus found in Dorset. It mainly grows, as its common name implies, in marshes, damp meadows and grassland, by rivers and ponds, in damp woodland; indeed anywhere the soil is damp (for some of the time at least). It can be quite widespread and can even form quite dense patches in suitable habitat.
This plant has a tall central stem (which is very prickly) from which other stems occasionally shoot out to the sides and at the end of each stem you get a tight cluster of small dark purple flowers, just a few in flower at any one time. The leaves are thin and pointed with sharp spines on the edges. It is not a particularly attractive plant perhaps but it can certainly be impressive and I have seen them growing to nearly eight feet tall.
It flowers from July to September and is really quite distinctive once you recognise its main features.
Welted Thistle: seams like a nice plant
When I first identified this as a welted thistle (Cardus crispus) I had to stop and think "What on earth is welted?". The best way to find out was to refer to my ever present Collins English Dictionary and I found out that a welt is a raised or strengthened seam on a garment. Not being one for dress making I guess it is not surprising I had not come across the term before!
Once you know what a welt is then it becomes obvious why this is a welted thistle, it has a raise edge along the underside of its stems, they look almost like a saw blade (I do know a little about saws, although not a lot!). Sadly my photograph does not show this feature but all good field guides will surely do so. It is a little like the marsh thistle but once you notice the welt it is quite distinctive.
This seems to be more common in the south east of England and up the east coast rather than here in the south west and I have, so far, only found it in one place. It likes dry conditions and so chalk is a good place to look for it.
It is thought that this plant may be beneficial in treating cancer as it contains Crispine B (hence the Latin name of crispus).
Musk Thistle: the nodding thistle
It seems that thistles are not very popular. Considered an untidy, invasive weed they are frequently loathed and persecuted. Is it right then that I should have a favourite from amongst this despised family of plants? Well, whether it is right or not, the musk thistle (Carduus nutans) is undoubtedly my favourite thistle. It has the most lovely soft purple pads which bumblebees just love to snuggle in to and gorge themselves on the nectar and pollen. In late summer it seems every blossom has at least one bee nestled into it.
The musk thistle is also known as the nodding thistle because the flower head tilts forward and then, as the breeze blows, it nods, up and down. It is the turned down head that makes this species distinctive from the others.
This is a thistle that likes chalk downland and is relatively common on the Dorset cliffs, the Purbeck Ridge and the inland chalk grasslands where there is a bare patch of soil or perhaps where the ground has been disturbed, often by cattle hooves. It is a local species rather than a common one; where it occurs it is frequent but it is restricted in where it occurs.
Slender Thistle: the shore thistle
The slender thistle (Carduus tenuiflorus) can possibly be a difficult thistle to identify because it looks, at first glance, like the very common creeping thistle. However, it does not grow in the same dense, spreading clusters as the creeping thistle and is a tall, slender (as the name implies) plant that can reach two metres tall on occasions. The flower heads are a paler pink and come in large clusters at the top of the stem. Overall, the plant is very spiny.
This is an uncommon species in Britain and is found mainly near the coast, especially on cliffs in the south of England. There is a lot of it on the cliff tops near St Adhelm's Head and it also occurs on the Purbeck Ridge at Ridgeway Hill. The car park at Studland is full of it! Where it does occur it is usually well established and as iIt does not seem to have a medicinal uses it is considered something of weed; but then so are most thistles.
It has several common names around the world including the shore thistle and the sheep thistle which rather reflect the habitats it tends to favour. It is an untidy, rather nondescript plant that flowers from June to August. It is at its 'best' in July but really this is a plant that is never really at its best!
Woolly Thistle: the friars crown
Everything about the woolly thistle (Cirsium eriophorum) is big. It is a big plant with big thorns and big flower heads which turn in to big woolly seed heads later in the season. It is the 'bigness' of the plant that distinguishes it from other thistles.
This is not a common plant, I have only seen it at a handful of places but I suspect it does occur elsewhere in Dorset, especially on the limestone soils of the coastal downs and cliffs.
Flowering from July until September it is September that the very large, white woollen seeds heads, looking a bit like cobwebs, appear. It is popular plant with bees and other insects and I have seen three bumblebees on one flower head, all different species but all absorbed in the lovely deep purple coloured flowers.
Although its accepted common name is the woolly thistle in some places it is known as the friar's crown!
Meadow Thistle: a spineless character
The main feature you usually first notice about thistles are the thorns or spines but the meadow thistle (Cirsium dissectum) does not appear to have any at all! Generally growing in damp meadows amongst long grasses the leaves are generally well hidden but if you dig deep down at the base of the stem you will find prickly leaves so it is a real thistle after all! The stem may not be prickly but it is certainly hairy.
The meadow thistle is a perennial herb found always in damp grassy places where the soil is none acidic; this type of habitat is formally known under the British National Vegetation Classification system as fen-meadow. This means that the meadow thistle is probably most common in the west of Dorset on the clay soils of Blackmore Vale and Marshwood Vale. Where it occurs it can be quite well established and plentiful but it does not grow in clusters like some of its relatives.
Care needs to be taken to avoid confusing this plant with similar species such as saw-wort and knapweed.
Cotton Thistle: flower of Scotland
The cotton thistle (Onopordon acanthium) is probably better known as the Scotch thistle! However, it occurs outside of Scotland and so the books have decided on cotton thistle as a common name. It is far from common here in Dorset but then I guess we are further from Scotland than most of the rest of the United Kingdom.
This is a big plant; it grows to about six feet tall and with its sticking out, spiny branches it can be four to five feet wide. The leaves are exceptionally prickly and covered in white woolly hairs which is, of course, where the name cotton thistle comes from. The familiar thistle shaped flower can be up to three inches in diameter and there can be a lot of them on each plant. As I said, this is a big plant!
Although the bearing the name Scotch thistle this is really a plant of warm Mediterranean regions as it prefers dry summers and fairly barren soils, often with a hint of chalk. It can spread very quickly and become a real problem in the wrong place but here in Dorset that does not seem to be an issue. It is not all bad news though; it has apparently been used to treat cancers and ulcers although I have no idea with what success.
Dandelion: the lions teeth
You can probably find a dandelion (Taraxacum agg.) in flower at just about any time of year but it is March when they seem to burst upon us in great numbers and to many, along with daisies, are an absolute pest making a mess of our lawns, verges, parks, churchyards and open grassy places! Dandelions, however, are a vitally important flower as they form the basic food source for many of our early emerging insects. Find a patch of dandelions and take a look; many will have an insect of some sort buried in amongst the petals gathering nectar.
There are lots of flowers in the same family and telling them apart can be difficult although the 'true' dandelion should be quite obvious to everyone. However, there are also hundreds of closely related micro-species of dandelion and telling them apart is a job for a botanist, not me!
The name dandelion is a corruption of the original French phrase 'dent de lion' meaning 'tooth of the lion'. In Greece it is called Leotodon which also means lion tooth. This is because the notched leaves apparently resemble the teeth of lions!
The dandelion has many medicinal and culinary uses and they are even cultivated for commercial purposes in some parts of the world. Not here though, as soon as they appear the local council swing in to action and cut them down before they can produce those wonderful dandelion clocks we used to blow away as children.
Cats-ear: and cats there!
There are a number of different plants with a complex ‘dandelion’ like flower and they can be quite confusing at first, indeed they can be quite confusing to even experienced botanists! The secret (if there is one) is to look beyond the flower at the plant itself.
Cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris radicata) gets its name from little ‘ear-shaped’ leaflets that can be found on the otherwise smooth stems and this is the defining factor. The overall ‘look’ of this plant is different from many of its relatives when you get to know it; it is totally smooth and hairless whereas many others in the family are very scruffy and hairy, even prickly. A single plant will have multiple stems and each stem will have multiple flowers. As I say, given the similarity of the flowers in this group you need to look at the leaves and stems if you want to tell them apart.
Cat’s-ear is in flower from June onwards until the frosts put an end to them. It is a widespread plant, often abundant where they occur, and you can find them just about anywhere; on roadside verges, in hedgerows, in meadows and grassland, on sea cliffs, sand dunes, indeed anywhere as long as the soil is not too chalky.
Autumn Hawkbit: the autumn dandelion
There are lots of flowers we call dandelions and many, of course, are not! They may have yellow dandelion-like flower heads that turn into dandelion-like clocks but they are not dandelions. The challenge is telling them apart. I am not a botanist but by applying some basic principals identification of these tough species (thistles are another one) becomes a bit easier.
Firstly, some species are more common than others and this is a good starting point because you are, statistically, more likely to see a common species than a rare one. Then, time of year and habitat play a role.
This species, autumn hawkbit (Leontodon autumnalis), is common in late summer and throughout the autumn and it can be found in all sorts of habitat but it really loves a bit of rough ground or roadside verge. It has stems that branch out with a single flower on each branch. It is a scruffy, untidy flower that likes scruffy, untidy places. A true 'weed'.
Rough hawkbit: the answer lies in the soil
I think it is very easy to get dismissive, jump to a conclusion and move on when you see a flower. I know I do it, I try not to but I still do. With rough hawkbit (Leontodon hispidus) it is so easy to just dismiss it as a dandelion when, in reality, in the right environment it can be far more numerous than dandelions will be in their preferred environment.
Rough hawkbit and dandelions are closely related, they are both of the Leontodon genera, sub-species of the daisy family. They both have that classic yellow dandelion flower which turns in to a fluffy 'clock'. They both have a basal rosette of leaves which are toothed (dandelion - dent de lion - lion's teeth). However, there are differences if you look. Rough hawkbit has a hairy stem, the dandelion smooth. Rough hawkbit has a green stem, the dandelion often tinged purple or brown. Rough hawkbit has a smaller and much tidier flower as dandelions tend to have untidy sepals that turn down under the flower. There are other small differences too if you have a book with you to help you identify the two of them.
Now here is the key for me, the answer lies in the soil! It is not possible to look at every low growing yellow-rayed flower to see if it is a dandelion or rough hawkbit. If you are on chalk or limestone grassland then expect rough hawkbit, if you are on heavier, more fertile soil (like my lawn) then think dandelion. I think I am right in saying that you are unlikely to find the two together so once you have identified one, the masses of others nearby will almost certainly be the same.
Smooth Catsear: bring me sunshine
There have been many times in my years of nature watching when I just knew I was a real amateur; I have no real eye for detail and I am just too impatient. Happily though I have been privileged to meet, and in some cases, to get to know quite well some real experts. These are people to whom little details are important and who will spend a considerable time looking and examining a specimen, be it an insect, a flower, a fungi, even a lichen or a moss. Experts usually have a specific interest in a subject matter that they become experts in. Me, I am a jack of all trades and a master of none!
So it was with this little plant, the smooth catsear (Hypochaeris glabra). I was leading a walk at Arne doing my bit with birds and common flowers and insects when John Wright, sadly no longer with us, suddenly stopped and stooped down while the rest of continued walking. After a little way I noticed John on his knees looking at something and I knew we should be there and not where we were so I took the group back! Sure enough, John had spotted this small, insignificant little flower and, after close examination pronounced it as smooth catsear, a nationally scarce plant and one more often associated with south eastern England and this was one of the few records ever for Dorset. That is what makes an expert.
Just to make identification even harder with this plant is that it only opens fully in bright sunshine and on the day in question it was bright but cloudy and so it was not fully open. I can only marvel at the ability of the experts.
Nipplewort: not just another dandelion
Dandelion-type flowers can be a real trial for even the experienced botanist on occasions so what chance have we amateurs got? Well, with a little thought, we have a chance with some and this one, nipplewort (Lapsana communis), is a good start.
Nipplewort is a fairly tall plant growing to a metre or more tall and so it cannot be a dandelion. The plant has multiple flowers on shorter branches emanating from a central stem so it cannot be a dandelion. The leaves are not toothed they are fragmented and they do not form a basal rosette but grow out from the central stem so it cannot be a dandelion. The flowers themselves are quite small and simple whereas a dandelion has bold, complex flowers. Nipplewort is a common plant of shady hedgerows and woodland whereas dandelions are found in the open in grassy areas. Hopefully you are getting the idea!
Nipplewort is part of a 'subset' of the dandelion family known as hawkbits and, with experience and using the various features of the flower it is possible to distinguish between them but it does take practice.
So, you are all asking "Why is it called nipplewort?". Simply because the unopened flower bud is said to resemble a nipple!
Smooth Hawksbeard: a weed of neglected lawns
Now surely no one can mistake this for a dandelion? I know it is yellow and has lots of florets in the flower head but it bears no other resemblance to a dandelion at all. This is the commonest of the hawk's-beards, smooth hawk's-beard (Crepis capillaris).
The flower of the hawk's-beard is much, much smaller than a dandelion and the main stem keeps branching with a flower appearing at the top of every stem whereas the dandelion has a single central stem to support one flower. The outside florets on the edge of the each flower head is tinged with orange as the flower opens. Many of the lower flowers will have turned to seed before the top ones have even opened so each plant has a long flowering period and, again, the seed head is very different from a dandelion, it is much more contained within the sepals and does not open out into the glorious globe of a dandelion clock.
I said this was the commonest of the hawk's-beards in Dorset the only other one likely to found out of the seven listed in my reference book is the similar beaked hawk's-beard. However, they are easy to tell apart if you look at the developing flowers as the buds are pointed (giving the appearance of a beak) whereas the smooth has round flower buds.
In flower from June through until the frosts kill it off in November time you can find it along roadsides, on waste ground, and grassy places in general including lots of it on my lawn; and there you have it, a crude beginners guide to hawk's-beards!
Bristly Oxtongue: the pimply dandelion
If you are anywhere near the coast of Dorset in late summer or autumn then you will find a considerable amount of this rather untidy plant, the bristly oxtongue (Picris echioides).
At first glance this might look like another of those hard to identify dandelion 'look-a-likes' but actually it is really easy to pick out because its leaves are prickly (a bit like a thistle) but the main feature is the presence of 'bumps', or pimples as one of my field guides describes it,all over the leaves, they look a bit like galls. This is a difficult to describe and illustrate feature but once you find the plant you will know what I mean, it is like no other. The flower head turns in to the classic dandelion clock when it is over and the same plant produces many stems each with flowers at various stages in the cycle. You will find new buds, full flowers and seed heads all on the same plant.
A scruffy plant yes, but these yellow complex flower heads are quite delightful and are a prime nectar source for insects late in the year, particularly for bees and hoverflies.
Narrow-leaved Hawkweed: the leafy hawkweed
These dandelion look-a-likes are notoriously difficult to identify. They look similar and they have similar names; hawkweeds, hawkbits, hawksbeards, just where do you start? Indeed, for the casual observer like me it is almost impossible to approach these flowers with any confidence at all.
The usual rules can be applied, however, and by taking in to account habitat, the time of year it is in flower and how common a species is helps to narrow down the field to a limited choice. With the narrow-leaved hawkweed (Hieracium umbellatum) these rules help because it occurs on dry heathland where it is quite common. From there it is just a question of telling it apart from the limited number of species occurring in such conditions. It then becomes relatively easy because narrow-leaved hawkweed is a tall plant with a tight cluster of small, dandelion-like flowers at the top of the stem and a series of opposite, narrow and pointed leaves occurring along the full length of the stem, bigger leaves at the bottom getting smaller as you go us. This array of leaves up the stem gives rise to its other common name, leafy hawkweed.
Even with this series of diagnostic steps it is still easy to get it wrong but don't worry, even experts can struggle with this family of plants!
Hawkweed Oxtongue: a hawkweed-like non-hawkweed
Hawkweed oxtongue (Picris hieracioides) is described in my field guide as our most hawkweed-like non-hawkweed! Well, that is a great help on two counts; what does a hawkweed-like hawkweed look like and how do you tell this hawkweed look-a-like from true hawkweeds?
Although nothing like a dandelion I describe these hawkweeds and their relatives as being dandelion-like. By that I mean flower heads made up of a cluster of narrow yellow petals coming from a single seed box at the top of the stem. It is there the similarity stops but it is amazing how many people think these hawkweeds and the like are actually dandelions!
Hawkweeds, Hawkbits and hawkbeards account for about fifteen similar species of flowers we see in Dorset and the differences are, at first, hard to take on board but with practice it gets easier! Hawkweed oxtongue is a tall plant, it has a red stem which branches and branches again (just like a tree) and on each branch is one yellow (as opposed to golden) flower head. It is found in grassy places usually on lime so look for it on Portland and along the Purbeck coast.
There are other differences to the various similar species but the ones I have listed will get you started.
Mouse-ear-hawkweed: just another dandelion
Just another dandelion? No, it is mouse-ear-hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum). There may seem countless flowers we call dandelions but are not but actually it is not that many and whilst telling them apart can be tricky there are often obvious clues if you look.
In this case, although perhaps similar in height to a dandelion, mouse-ear-hawkweed is a more delicate plant that the sturdy dandelion. The flower is more of a lemon yellow than the strong golden yellow of the dandelion but the key is to look at the underside of the flower head and if there are reddish streaks then it is mouse-ear-hawkweed. There are other differences too, the leaves are not serrated like those of the dandelion and the stem is hairy and not smooth like the dandelion. So you see they are not alike at all!
Flowering from May until October this is a species that likes short grassy areas, usually on poor lime soils; the dandelion likes richer, more neutral soil. So no excuses, you can now tell the two apart!
Common sow-thistle: the rough with the smooth
There are two common species of sow-thistle (Sonchus species) that are very similar and I am not competent enough to tell them apart and so I combine my sightings under the name 'common sow-thistle'. The two species are prickly but also known as rough sow-thistle (Sonchus asper) and smooth sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus).
They are different, of course, but the defining factor is whether the auricles of the leaves are rounded or not! Rough sow-thistle can have brighter yellow flowers, may have more pointed leaves, may prefer lime soils and is less likely to be seen in winter months. Smooth sow-thistle is probably the nore frequent of the two. Overall, they are quite unmistakably thistles but with yellow flowers that occur in clusters, have prickly leaves and exude a milky substrance if broken.
Undoubtedly weeds of cultivated areas the seed and spread quickly. The leaves are edible and are popular in Chinese cooking and the plant are used by herablists as a cure for gall stones, liver and kidney complaints and piles.