A Simple Guide to the Wildflowers of Britain’s Meadows

Anyone that loves the outdoors will know there are fewer sights more beautiful than the wildflowers of Britain’s meadows in the spring and summer months.

Before being converted to use as farming land or lost through urban development, these lush and colourful meadows would have been found in their natural state all over the country.

Although over a whopping 95 per cent of wildflower meadows have been wiped out, they still play an important part in Britain’s natural ecosystem.

The diverse plants that flourish within them not only provide nutrient rich forage for livestock and wild animals but a colorful variety of flora that attracts insects, butterflies and other pollinators.

There are several types of wildflower meadows with the most common being upland hay meadows, floodplain/ wetland meadows, and lowland meadows.

Each of these boasts a variety of wildflower species suited to their soil conditions and sometimes meadows will have different mixes of wildflower if a field contains variations in the soil types and moisture.

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Upland hay meadows are usually used for grazing during lambing season in the spring.

The livestock is then moved on in May before the meadow is cut for hay towards the end of July. 

On the other hand, wet and floodplain meadows that are nurtured for their hay have the grazing livestock removed in winter due to soil saturation.

Lowland meadows will typically also have a wide variety of flora, including oxeye daisy, meadow buttercup, red clover, and common knapweed.

There are two main types of wildflowers, namely perennial and annual wildflowers.

Annual Wildflowers

Most meadows will tend to have a mixture of wildflower species including annual wildflower varieties.

These are flowers that grow quickly and easily on most soil types and flower in the space of a few months.

Their seeds are scattered when the flower dies and new plants will germinate from them to create their spectacular displays once again the next year.

Perennial Wildflowers

Although they may take a couple of years to be established from seed, perennial wildflowers are the gift that keeps on giving as they will bloom for years to come.

Popular species in this category include knapweed, oxeye daises, and red campion.

Oxeye Daisy

oxeye daisy
A typical grassland plant, the oxeye daisy thrives on roadside verges and waste ground, as well as in traditional hay meadows and along field margins.

A firm fixture of meadows and grasslands up and down the country, daisies are a hardy perennial wildflower that will come back again year after year, sometimes in greater numbers.

Daises are particularly rampant if growing in more fertile soil.

Whether it be trodden down grazing pastures, woodland or meadows, the ‘day’s eye’, – as the Anglo Saxons used to call it, is an all too familiar sight in spring and summer.

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The oxeye daisy is sometimes referred to as the dog daisy, marguerite, or more commonly without its prefix as just simply, daisy.

The species grows on most types of soil and can be found on roadside and field verges as well as many of Britain’s meadows, grasslands and parks.

Common Spotted Orchid

Dactylorhiza fuchsii, the common spotted orchid,
Dactylorhiza fuchsii, the common spotted orchid, one of the most beautiful wildflowers

In bloom between June and August, the common spotted orchid is a wildflower that grows to heights of about 15 cm and usually either has white or pink petals.

However, some varieties may have flowers with shades that get as dark as purple.

It is a delicate flower that easily drifts in the wind when dry and so is able to spread across meadowlands easily.

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As belied by its name, it is the most prolific of orchids in Britain so its carpet like swathes of white or pink are a common sight in meadows and pastures.

The other part of its name comes from its spotted leaves, which are green and have oval shaped purple spots.

Greater Butterfly Orchid

Platanthera chlorantha, commonly known as greater butterfly-orchid
Platanthera chlorantha, commonly known as greater butterfly-orchid

Only insects with a long proboscis, – an elongated sucking mouthpart, can get to the sweet nectar of the greater butterfly orchid.

This is because its flowers sit upon a long and slender spur that holds the nectar in its depths.

A mainstay of old meadows and across Britain, the greater butterfly orchid’s sweet scent is a particular favourite with night flying moths.

Common Knapweed

lesser knapweed
Lesser Knapweed, photographed on Crock Point, North Devon, on the South West Coast Path. Julie Anne Workman – CC BY-SA 3.0

Another variety of wildflower that can usually be found in British meadows, common knapweed is a firm favourite of many species of butterfly such as meadow brown. Its purple-pink flowers are almost thistle-like in appearance.

Meadow Saxifrage

Saxifraga granulata, commonly called meadow saxifrage
Saxifraga granulata, commonly called meadow saxifrage

A species that flowers in early spring, meadow saxifrage is identified by its long stems and white flowers.

The plant’s magnificence is quite short-lived however, and all that is left after a couple of months are tiny bulbs called bulbils that will then germinate again at the beginning of spring the next year.

Wood Cranesbill

clustered bellflower
Campanula glomerata, known by the common names clustered bellflower or Dane’s blood.

Another early spring bloomer, wood cranesbills flower a little earlier than most meadow wildflower species including their cousin the paler blue meadow cranesbill.


Filipendula ulmaria, commonly known as meadowsweet or mead wort.

An edible wildflower known for the fresh, distinctive aroma from which its name is derived, meadowsweet is a perennial wildflower that looks similar to and is a cousin of, elderflower.

In addition to being an edible flower, meadowsweet is also thought to have healing properties and was used as an ancient herbal remedy for pain relief.

Pyramidal Orchid

Anacamptis pyramidalis, the pyramidal orchid
Anacamptis pyramidalis, the pyramidal orchid, Credit: Photo by Ramin Nakisa CC BY-SA 3.0

Although its flowers look in no way like a triangle, pyramidal orchids do have blooms that create pyramid-shaped clusters at the end of their long, slender stems.

This variety of British orchid can usually be found in meadows that have a more alkaline soil percentage and in areas of milder weather.

Cuckoo Flower

Meadow cuckooflower
Photo Credit: Reinhold Möller CC BY-SA 4.0

Also known as milkmaids or lady’s smock, the cuckoo flower is a familiar sight on the grassy verges of Britain’s motorways as well as wetland meadows.

A lovely bunch of pale pink flowers will bloom at the tip of a long stem making these pretty little things stand out even in busy spring meadows.

Lady’s Bedstraw

Lady bedstraw
In medieval times they dried the plants and would use them to stuff mattresses – the plant gives of a coumarin aroma (think vanilla) and this acts as a flea repellent. The flowers were also used to coagulate milk in cheese manufacture and, in Gloucestershire it was used to colour the cheese double Gloucester.

Known to dominate undisturbed grasslands, Lady’s bedstraw is a delicate yellow flower that blooms between June and September in grasslands and meadows.

Lady’s bedstraw features long stems that hold up dozens of tiny yellow flowers that grow in clusters and fill the air with a honey-like scent.

The species is so prolific and can grow so densely that it completely covers the grass in yellow. Lady’s bedstraw produces a sweet scent when in bloom and the distinctive smell of freshly cut hay when dried.

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The curiously named flower is said to get its honorific from a more practical source.

Lady’s bedstraw was once traditionally used to stuff straw mattresses, presumably for its scent, which were also used by women in labour. It is thought the flowers’ name may be derived from this.

Yellow Rattle

Rhinanthus minor, known as yellow rattle,
Rhinanthus minor, known as yellow rattle. Credit: AnRo0002 –

Yellow Rattle is actually a flowering parasitic plant that attaches itself to grasses in wildflower meadows and appears between May and September.

However, because yellow rattle then slows the growth of more rampant grasses it is helpful to weaker species of wildflower that thrive when there is less competition.

This species of wildflower is identified by its serrated leaves, stems with black spots, and its inflated green-stemmed yellow flowers.

Once viewed as a sign of poor soil conditions, nowadays yellow rattle is used to help turn grasslands back into meadows.

This is because as mentioned above, it will throttle grasses and allow the more dainty and traditional wildflowers to flourish once more.

Red Campion

red campion
Silene dioica, known as red campion

Easy to spot even in a wildflower meadow densely populated with other colourful species, red campion is an attractive and distinctive wildflower with a downy stem.

The flower’s stem also secretes a gummy substance and it has hairy leaves that grow in pairs.

Red campion grows medium to tall in height and stands out because of its attractive pink blooms. It is a firm favorite with a variety of woodland insects and meadow butterflies. 

A brownish protective sheath, or calyx, forms the tube like base from which the flower’s five pink-red petals grow.

 Red campions can be both perennial and biennial and are also a dioecious species, which means that their male and female flowers grow on separate plants.

In the past they were strongly linked with mysticism and their seeds were once traditionally used to treat snakebites.

 In popular folklore, the flower was said to protect fairies and guard bee’s honey to keep them from being discovered.

Red campion is also considered to be an indicator of ancient woodland and so is a welcome sight wherever it can be found.

Clustered Bellflower

clustered bellflower
Campanula glomerata, known by the common names clustered bellflower or Dane’s blood.

A vibrant perennial that brings splashes of eye catching lilac to springtime grasslands and meadows, the clustered bellflower is an early bloomer that is as vigorous a grower as it is colorful.

Its flowers flourish at the top of strong leafy stems that also feature lance-shaped green leaves with serrated edges.

The blooms explode in clusters of up to fifteen upwards-facing, vibrant, purple-blue flowers.

The bellflower is another aggressive species that can easily colonise large swathes of grassland, particularly in rich soils.

Although they do require consistent moisture, clustered bellflowers thrive in both the shade and sunny environments and will still do well in medium or well drained soils.

Although greatly depleted from the vast swathes of wildflowers at the peak of their splendor, there are still many places in Britain where natural and man-made meadows can be seen.

Lowland meadows are at their best at the end of June and some of the most impressive examples can be found in parts of Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Dorset, and Somerset.

The best time to see hay meadows in full bloom is towards the end of July just before the hay is cut.

For those that want to see more moisture loving wildflowers such as Lady’s smock and meadowsweet in their natural habitat, parts of Wiltshire still feature ‘’old land’’ wetland meadows.

And all in all, this shows that preservation efforts are keeping the complete destruction of wildflower meadows at bay for now.

In addition, as attitudes to the environment and the climate have improved, concerted efforts are now being undertaken to preserve what’s left of Britain’s meadows and the rich and diverse wild flora that call them home.