A Guide to the Wildflowers of our Ancient Woodlands

Walking through the woodlands of Britain in any season is always an uplifting experience as they are amazing ecosystems which support and protect many species of flora and fauna.

Ancient woodland, which now covers only 2.5% of the United Kingdom,  is a particularly unique and valuable habitat which is irreplaceable once lost.

Woodlands evolve with the seasons providing year round interest and diversity. The early spring woodland floor greets you with low growing, dainty flowers often in shades of yellow and white.

As spring draws to an end the bluebells steal the show, carpeting the woodland floor and filling the air with their divine fragrance.

Read More: Rare Wildflowers: Britain’s Most Mysterious Plants

When late summer begins to merge into autumn, the character of the woodland has changed once more and you may find yourself brushing shoulders with imposing, bronzed bracken fronds. 

Take a trip through the woodland seasons with this guide and discover which wildflowers may greet you during your rambles.


The snowdrop and primrose

Our woodlands adorn

And violets bathe mid the weet

O’the morn”

(Robert Burns, 1794)

One of the joys of early spring is tracking the emergence of wildflowers in woodland. It’s  a delightful sequence beginning with the low lying flowers soaking up the full availability of the unfiltered sunlight.

Like an orchestral symphony, the wildflowers build and grow, finishing the season with a spectacular peak performance of opulent bluebell carpet intermingled with red campion on the approach to summer.

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata, Violaceae family)

This beautiful little woodland plant is one of the earliest to flower, producing gorgeous scented flowers from February onwards. Heart shaped, green leaves with striking purple flowers intermingle with other early arrivals in patches on the woodland floor.

white Sweet Violet

This ancient woodland indicator displays five oval petals ranging in colour from white to blue to violet, exuding a most delicious scent. 

Sadly, this exquisite little flower is becoming an increasingly uncommon sight in our woodland. This is thought to be due to an increased interest in foraging in recent times.

Violets produce a gorgeous coloured syrup, much sought after for adding to gin and other cocktails.

Read More: A Guide to the Wildflowers of Britain’s Meadows

There are lots of uses for this lovely plant. The scent is used in perfumery and violet has traditionally been a popular confectionery ingredient. Medicinally, violet is still used by modern herbalists for pain relief, viral infections and to promote sleep.

The roots of violets contain potent chemicals which have demonstrated promising anti cancer effects.

Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa, Ranunculaceae family)

An early spring flower found below the leafless woodland canopy, the wood anemone displays delicate, star shaped flowers above finely cut leaves.

This ancient woodland indicator is delicate in appearance and habit, being a slow spreading species relying on its root system to spread as the seeds are almost all infertile. 

wood anemone
The plants start blooming in spring, March to May in the UK  soon after the foliage emerges from the ground. The flowers are solitary, held above the foliage on short stems, with a whorl of three palmate or palmately-lobed leaf like bracts beneath.

Wood anemone is commonly known as ‘windflower’, this is thought to be in homage to the Greek wind god Anemos who sent anemones to herald his arrival in early spring.

This is a fairly toxic plant with an unpleasant taste. Old herbals remind us that wood anemone did have some traditional value as a remedy for leprosy and an interesting ‘pick me up’-

The leaves stamped, and the juice snuffed up the nose, purgeth the head mightily; so doth the root, chewed in the mouth, for it procureth much spitting and bringeth away watery and phlegmatic humors and is therefore excellent for the lethargy”

(Culpepper, 1794)

Cowslip (Primula veris, Primulaceae family) 

This pretty little plant displays a cluster of nodding, yellow scented flowers emerging on the top of tall green stems which arise from a rosette of crinkled green leaves. The cowslip was once a common sight throughout England.

Sadly its decline began back in the 1930s as farming practices began to change and it is now a relatively rare sight. 


Found in open woodland, cowslip is another plant indicative of ancient woodland and the loss of this habitat will be a factor in its decline. 

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Cowslips are the county flowers of Northamptonshire, Worcestershire and Surrey and have delighted people for many years as a welcome sign of spring.

Traditionally cowslip flowers have been scattered along church paths for weddings and woven into garlands to celebrate mayday.

And I serve the Fairy Queen 

To dew her orbs upon the green, 

The cowslips tall her pensioners be.

In their gold coats spots you see

Those be rubies, fairy flavours;

In those freckles live their savours.

I must go seek some dewdrops here,

And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.”

William Shakespeare ‘A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream’

Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum, Amaryllidaceae family)

Wild garlic
Wild garlic has been credited with many medicinal qualities and is a popular homeopathic ingredient. It is often used for treating cardiovascular, respiratory, and digestive problems, as well as for the sterilisation of wounds

This inhabitant of ancient woodland fills the spring air with a glorious garlic scent. Wild garlic or ‘ramsons’ emerge on the woodland floor in March.

The slender green leaves arise from their bulbous base and cover the ground in a delicious, damp mass, eventually producing pretty, white flowers that appear aloft forming a six petalled, stellar posy.  

The folk name ‘ramsons’ is thought to have developed from the Saxon word hramsa which means garlic.

Read More: Early Spring Plants

Wild garlic has been enjoyed as a food flavouring for many centuries, being known to have been enjoyed by the Celtic Britons.

Wild garlic is delicious to eat as a herb having a multitude of culinary uses including wild garlic pesto, wild garlic butter and capers made by pickling the seed heads..

An early reputation was gained by this herb as a healing herb or ‘herba salutaris’. Wild garlic is a detoxifying spring plant with anti-inflammatory properties and cardiovascular benefits in common with other members of the allium family.

Oxlip (Primula elatior, Primulaceae family)

Oxlips flowering
Oxlips are native to nutrient-poor and calcium-rich damp woods and meadows.

Rarer than the cowslip, oxlip has a paler yellow flower seen from April onwards and is much more elusive. Oxlips are found in damp and often ancient woodland in the east of England.

This pretty plant relies on ancient woodland and due to the rarity of this, oxlips  are very nearly a threatened species. 

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Oxlip has deeper yellow flowers than its more widely recognised cousin which face in different directions.

The leaves are however, similar in shape. Much like cowslip, the name relates to their habit of growing in boggy pastures where cattle graze.

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis, Asparagaceae family)

Lily of the Valley.
Lily of the Valley. Beautiful pearls of springtime. Image Credit: Jonathan Billinger

Flowering from May, this is a stunning woodland plant with exquisite flowers and scent to match. White bell shaped, elfin hat-like flowers appear on spikes above long green leaves which are not to be confused with those of wild garlic.

This beautiful plant inhabits shady, damp woodlands and is another of the ancient woodland indicators. 

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Lily of the valley has been an important medicinal herb in history and even today the plant is used to help those with heart trouble. This action is due to the presence of the toxic cardiac glycosides.

Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta, Asparagaceae family)

Wonderful carpet of English Bluebells
Wonderful carpet of English Bluebells

Bluebells emerge on the woodland floor, between the roots of old trees and beyond, spreading rapidly via underground runners.

From early spring their fresh green leaves emerge like players on a stage taking their position in preparation to give the most spectacular performance throughout April and May.

These breathtaking displays never disappoint with the vivid purple-blue hues of the nodding clusters of bell shaped flowers combined with the heady, intoxicating scent.

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There can be nothing quite as magical and evocative as an ancient bluebell wood in full bloom.

The bluebell is a perennial bulb which begins to emerge from its underground dormitory in late winter and soon claims the entire woodland floor.

It is deservedly much loved and valued being protected under the Countryside Act of 1981. 

Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella, Oxalidaceae family)

 wood sorrel
The flowers have five petals, which are usually fused at the base, and ten stamens. The petal color varies from white to pink, red or yellow

This very delicate plant, often sought by foragers, has fresh green clover-like leaves and dainty, papery flowers appearing in May.

Wood sorrel flowers are white with a distinctive lilac veining which makes them stand out against the bright green leaves. All parts of wood sorrell are edible and the flavour is sharp and sour, reminiscent of apple.

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Wood sorrel can tolerate very deep shade and thrive in coniferous plantations; it seeks to live mainly in damp, shaded woodland.

The leaves and flowers act like weathervanes, folding closed before rainfall and also at night.

Red Campion (Silene dioica)

red campion
red campion

Red campion is a common sight throughout the countryside from late spring onwards, often mingling with the last of the bluebells and stitchwort to create stunning, fairyland- like combinations.  

This well loved perennial plant displays rose-red, five petalled flowers with a particular cut out look to them.

Campion is a great plant for wildlife being pollinated by both bumblebees and hoverflies and with a long flowering season from May to July, often repeats flowering during the autumn. 

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This plant has a reputation in folklore as a fairy plant which guards their honey stores.

Reputedly people became wary of using campion for fear of evoking fairy wrath. Red campion was once used medicinally as the seeds were crushed and used as a remedy for snake bites. 


Tis the first rose of summer that ope’s to my view,

With its bright crimson bosom all bathed in the dew;

It bows to its green leaves with pride from its throne,

‘Tis queen of the valley, and reigneth alone”

(Robert Gilfillan,1835)

The canopy in the woodland is rationing the light available to summer’s most glamorous stars. Now filling the air with their exotic perfumes are honeysuckle and rose, highlighted by shafts of golden sunlight streaming through the trees.

Summer in the woods is heaven and can be a refreshing retreat on the hottest days

Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus, Moschatel family)

Guelder rose
Guelder rose.The showy white flowers are sterile, their purpose being only to attract insects to the smaller fertile flowers in the centre. The red berries which follow are generally considered poisonous to humans, although they can be eaten in limited quantities, usually cooked into a jelly – they are not toxic to birds, who distribute the seed

This large shrub has a simple leaf structure and produces lovely creamy white flowers in early summer. The flowers are in intricate lace like patterns with small flowers surrounded by larger ones.

Guelder rose prefers damp ground and is yet another indicator of ancient woodland. The large leaves display a striking range of colour throughout autumn.

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One of the national symbols of Ukraine, guelder rose takes its name from the Dutch province of Gelderland where its relative the ‘snowball tree’ is popular.

Guelder rose is commonly used in modern herbal medicine as an antispasmodic which gives it the folk name ‘cramp bark’. The bark can be used for cramps, spasms, convulsions and fits. 

Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum, Caprifoliaceae family)


The scent of honeysuckle is mesmerizing on a summer’s eve, winding its way through trees and shrubs then descending in trails of glorious trumpet flowers from June onwards.

These heavily scented tubular flowers appear in an array of pastel colours from cream, turning yellow through to orange with an added flush of pink. 

Honeysuckle supports many species including bumblebees and butterflies, also providing shelter for birds and small mammals. The wonderful flowers attract the elephant hawk moth which then in turn become food for bats.

Read More: Ancient Pine Resin Uses for Bushcrafters

The red berries produced after flowering are enjoyed by many wildlife species in the autumn months. 

The leaves were used medicinally in small doses as a purgative remedy and the flower for coughs- 

The oil made by infusion of the leaves, is healing and warming, and good for the cramp and convulsions of the nerves”

(Culpepper, 1794)

Dog Rose (Rosa canina, Rosaceae family)

Flowering Dog Rose
Flowering Dog Rose in hedgerow along bridleway, Shalford

The dog rose is covered in delicate pink blossoms which are subtly scented borne from scrambling thorny foliage and a common sight in woodland throughout the summer.

This is the most abundant wild rose and a prolific climber capable of reaching the top of the tallest trees. The name transports us to the medicine of Hippocrates. It was believed that the root of this rose could cure the bite from a rabid dog.

Read More: Forest Law Was Hated by the Medieval Commoner

One of the dog rose’s nicknames is ‘witches briar’ as it was believed to have magical powers synonymous with love and good fortune. 

The large red hips of the dog rose shine out brightly from early autumn, these are perhaps the most useful part of the plant as they contain large amounts of vitamin C and can be drunk as tea or made into jam or jelly. 

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea, Plantaginaceae family) 

Common foxglove
The name is recorded in Old English as ‘foxes glofe/glofa’ or ‘fox’s glove’. Over time, folk myths obscured the literal origins of the name, insinuating that foxes wore the flowers on their paws to silence their movements as they stealthily hunted their prey.

The foxglove produces showy spikes of tubular purple flowers rising tall above thick, soft leaves. Foxgloves often appear in clumps and are a stunning sight to encounter in woodland.

The cavernous flowers of this plant are often frequented by long tongued bees and their buzzing echoes around the flowers all summer.

Various theories around the etymology of the name exist with no definitive interpretation being agreed upon. What is certain is that the name dates from the Anglo-Saxon period but whether or not it has anything to do with foxes seems something of a mystery.

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Some think the fairies quite literally have their hands in this as it comes out of folk’s glove meaning ‘fairies glove’. Another notion is that it is derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘foxes-glew’ meaning fox music.

Whatever the etymology of foxglove it has been a significant medicinal plant in the history of medicine giving us the drug digoxin which is one of the oldest medicines still used in cardiology today. 

Rosebay Willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium, Onagraceae family)

Rosebay Willowherb
Rosebay Willowherb

This beautiful plant is the most showy of the willowherbs, so much so it has been placed in a different genus from the others.

Most are in epilobium but the distinguished rosebay, ‘formerly- known- as-epilobium’ has been marked out as distinct. The leaves are spiraled rather than whorled but are willow like and opposite as is typical of its former genus.

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The rose pink flowers are veined with deeper pink and are produced in spectacular spires, reminiscent of larkspur, making rosebay rather more glamorous than its modest relatives.

Medicinal uses of this willowherb include decocting the root for digestive disorders and making preparations from the leaves to be drunk as tea. 


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;”

(John Keats, 1820) 

With increasingly chilly morning air and rising mists, autumn’s palette renders even the most humble brambles strikingly beautiful with rich colours.

Most of the flowering plants have given their best show and we now move into a different stage, mostly one of fruits and seeds.

Some wildflowers are late bloomers providing interest and contrast in the beautiful autumn woodscape .

Giant Bellflower (Campanula latifolia, Campanulaceae family)

Giant Bellflowers
A bright array of purple and white Giant Bellflowers

This tall perennial flowering plant can be found in woodland in autumn, with bell shaped flowers usually purple/blue but can also be seen in white.

The giant bellflower forms large clumps and has a long flowering season making them a very welcome sight in the less floral autumn woodland.

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This is an attractive plant which is widely grown in gardens with many cultivars all of which are bellflowered. As the name suggests this woodland dweller is the biggest and boldest of the lot.

Ivy (Hedera helix, Araliaceae family)

On level ground they remain creeping, not exceeding 5–20 cm height, but on suitable surfaces for climbing, including trees, natural rock outcrops or man-made structures such as quarry rock faces or built masonry and wooden structures, they can climb to at least 30 m above the ground

The much maligned and underrated ivy plant is a late bloomer, providing interest and much needed nourishment until winter. Ivy is evergreen, woody and pervasive with an ability to cling and climb its way through trees and any other structures it encounters.

Ivy plants produce many flowers once mature, these appear in umbels and are an unshowy yellowy green colour. 

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Ivy is incredibly important to wildlife as shelter and food. During its flowering period it will be alive with insects drawn to its abundant, sweet scented flowers. 

Ivy is often considered a harmful plant to other trees. This is not justified as ivy is self-sustaining and in no way parasitic, only relying on other plants for support.  


And though the distant hills are bleak and dun,

The virgin snowdrop, like a lambent fire,

Pierces the cold earth with it’s green-streaked spire

And in dark woods, the wandering little one

May find a primrose”

(Hartley Coleridge, 1842)

Early winter in the woods may be an opportunity to gather natural festive decorations such as pine cones and berried holly or logs for cosy fires.

Following the festive period we enter January which often feels bleak,cold and rather lifeless.This time of year is perhaps when our desire to get out in the woods is at its lowest but nature rewards us if we venture out with glimmers of hope and the promise of spring.

Hope begins to push its way through the cold, hard ground with the first wildflowers of the year, these brave little souls whose apparent delicacy (with the exception of dog’s mercury) very much belies their hardiness. 

Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis, Amaryllidaceae family)

Most species flower in winter, before the vernal equinox (20 or 21 March in the Northern Hemisphere), but some flower in early spring and late autumn.

Not a true native but snowdrops are now well established and naturalised in our woodlands since the late 18th century.

They are a most welcome sight from January with their bright green leaves and stems with bell shaped, creamy white flowers.

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Snowdrops appear to be flowering increasingly early but this is weather dependent. In the mildest winters they have been found flowering as early as November.

Synonymous with hope but once considered a harbinger of death, the snowdrop has provided us with an important drug for the management of Alzheimer’s disease. T

he toxic bulbs contain the alkaloid galantamine which is the source of this widely used medication.

Primrose (Primula vulgaris, Primulaceae family)


The primrose is a cheerful winter flowering woodland plant that can flower from as early as December. A cluster of pale yellow flowers appear above a neat rosette of crinkled leaves.

The name derives from the latin prima rosa meaning first rose of the year. This is rather perplexing as primroses bear no relation to the rose family. 

Both the leaves and flowers are edible and primrose flowers have traditional use in medicine as wound healers. 

A valuable wildlife plant providing a rich source of nectar for pollinators including butterflies such as brimstone, tortoiseshell and the rare Duke of Burgundy. 

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna, Ranunculuaceae family)

Lesser celandines
Lesser celandines

An early flowering, jolly plant with bright yellow, star shaped flowers, lesser celandine is an obvious buttercup relative, having much the same luminescent quality to its radiant flowers arising from the heart shaped leaves.

This plant likes to colonise damp woodland paths from January and is very important to the emerging pollinators when there is little else about. 

In herbal medicine lesser celandine is also known as ‘pilewort’, a name gained from its traditional use for this troublesome condition due to its astringent action. 

Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis, Euphorbiaceae family)

Dog's mercury
Dog’s mercury. According to Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23 – AD 79), better known as Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, naturalist, philosopher, naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire and personal friend of the emperor Vespasian, the plant is named after Mercury, the messenger of the gods.

Competitive marauder of ancient woodland with large, long pointed oval leaves producing small green flowers which are either male or female, dog’s mercury flowers from February and is somewhat homely, almost fitting into the ‘neither use nor ornament’ category.

This plant enjoys the shade and quickly consumes ground, providing useful cover for ground nesting birds such as the woodcock.

Dog’s mercury is a very toxic plant which has proven itself fatal to both humans and animals, being especially potent in its fresh state.

This distinctive plant possesses an unpleasant smell and is neither of benefit medicinally or as foodstuff as the name implies. The use of ‘dog’s’ refers to this lack of value with the word being associated with impurity and even Culpepper calls dog’s mercury “a rank poisonous plant”.

Dog’s mercury, although not widely celebrated, does produce a dye which depending on method gives us a wide range of colour, this is attributed to the constituent hermidine.

Woodland is a very special habitat, relied upon by many species of plants, insects, birds and mammals.

The protection of our few ancient woodlands is particularly vital to ensure we do not lose anymore of our rarer wildflowers which have developed over centuries in the rich soil. 

The woodland scene is a great representation of the transformative power of the seasons, demonstrated most beautifully throughout the year in a glorious evolution of scent, colour and form.

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