How I learnt to identify wildflowers

Kerry has been a member of the Grow Wild team for over three years and is a fount of knowledge for the entire team when it comes to wildflower identification. Here Kerry shares with us how she learnt to identify wildflowers and her top tips for you to get started with wildflower ID.

How I learnt to identify wildflowers

Cowslip wildflowerCowslip (Primula veris)

I’ve always loved being outside, so taking photos of plants and mushrooms became a favourite hobby as soon as I was old enough to borrow my dad’s camera (nearly all of the photos accompanying this blog were taken by Kerry when out hunting wildflowers). If you spend enough time looking at wildflowers, you’re going to get curious about exactly what it is that you’re looking at.

Many of the UK’s wildflowers are easy to recognise with a bit of practise and getting to know their names can tell you all sorts of secrets about the plants themselves.

If you want to know your cowslips (Primula veris) from your cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), here are my top tips on getting started with wildflower identification.

Get outside

Red campion wildflower in graveyardRed campion (Silene dioica)

Taking notice of the wildflowers around you is a great first step. Look out for any you already know. Maybe you recognise daisies (Bellis perennis) from making daisy chains or dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) from ‘telling the time’ by blowing seeds from their seed heads?

If you’ve grown a patch of wildflower seeds or have wild spaces in your garden, this could be a great place to start. I’d also recommend taking a walk in any local woodlands, nature reserves or parks with natural areas near you.

Some of the best places to find wildflowers can be roadside verges (watch out for traffic) and old churchyards. These spaces can be ideal for grassland wildflowers as they’re mown infrequently and are rarely disturbed.

Once you start looking, you’ll be finding wildflowers everywhere!

Get equipped

Wild carrot wildflowerWild carrot (Daucus carota)

A wildflower guide is going to be invaluable in helping you learn, so take some time to find out what kind of guide will be best for you. Have a think about size; would you prefer a pocket-sized guide you can carry with you at all times or a comprehensive wildflower encyclopaedia to cover every plant in the UK? Do you find illustrations or photographs easier to work from?

If you can, borrow a wildflower guide from a friend or your local library to try it out beforehand. When you’re ready to buy, try to choose the most recent edition as plant names and distributions (where they are found across the UK) change over time.

I find wildflower illustrations easiest to work with, so I love The Wild Flower Key by Francis Rose and The Collins Wild Flower Guide by David Streeter. Simon Harrap’s Wild Flowers is a good one if you prefer to work with photographs and also includes handy maps of where each plant is found.

The Field Studies Council produce waterproof fold-out charts tailored to specific places, such as woodlands or grassland. These are a durable and easy-to-use option, but they won’t cover the same range of plants as a wildflower book.       

If you prefer to use an app or a website, there are plenty to choose from. Again, it’s best to experiment with a few to find the ones which you enjoy most.

The iNaturalist app  is a popular choice as it can help you to identify plants, but also record and share what you’ve found with a community of scientists and enthusiasts around the world. 

If you have a camera, snapping a photo of plants you’re finding tricky can be very useful. Try to capture a clear image of the full plant, as well as images of the plant’s leaves and flowers, fruits or seeds, as these features are all important for identification.

A 10x hand lens (something like this) is also useful for examining the small details which separate similar kinds of wildflowers.

Learn to love Latin

Common knapweed with a beeCommon knapweed (Centaurea nigra)

I thought that the scientific Latin names for wildflowers were going to be complicated and difficult to use, but now I find them much easier to use than common names.

The trouble with common names for wildflowers is that they vary from place to place, and many different plants may share the same common name. ‘Sage’ and ‘Salvia’ can both refer to several plants, including both a common culinary herb and a plant with psychoactive properties, so it’s important to know exactly what salvia you’re dealing with!

This is where Latin or scientific names come in. Each individual type of plant has a globally unique two-word name. The first name refers to the plant ‘genus’ and the second to the ‘species’.

When thinking about the difference between ‘species’ and ‘genus’, I find it helpful to think about squirrels. The scientific name for grey squirrels is Sciurus carolinensis, for red squirrels it’s Sciurus vulgaris. The first word (the genus) tells us that we’re talking about squirrels and the second word (the species) tells us which kind of squirrel we’re talking about.

The vulgaris in the red squirrel’s Sciurus vulgaris also introduces us to another benefit of scientific names – they can tell us things about the plant or animal we’re looking at. Vulgaris means ‘common’, so we know that red squirrels were considered a common species when they were named.

Another species name which pops up frequently is officinalis, as in Betonica officinalis (betony), which means the plant was considered useful in medicine or herbology.

Species names can also tell us where the plant may be found, the arvensis in Knautia arvensis (field scabious) means ‘field’; or can relate to the plant’s appearance, the nigra in Centaurea nigra (common knapweed) means dark or blackish, and often relates to purple flowers.

Primroses (Primula vulgaris)

The Dave’s Garden ‘botanary’ is a great resource for exploring the meaning of Latin names: https://davesgarden.com/guides/botanary/

When you find a new plant, you might realise its leaves or flowers look like those on a wildflower you already know. The genus of the wildflower you already know is a great place to start looking for your new plant.

Primroses (Primula vulgaris) and cowslips (Primula veris) are both sunny yellow flowers found in woodlands near where I grew up. When I recently came across a strange wildflower that looked like a primrose flower on a cowslip stalk, I looked up the primula genus and found the new wildflower right away – it was an oxlip (Primula elatior).

Even if you never use them out loud (there are plenty I still mispronounce), getting familiar with the scientific names of wildflowers makes identifying them easier and quicker, and is well worth the effort.  

Watch out for ‘aliens’

Corn poppyCorn poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

If you’ve checked every page of your wildflower guide and you just can’t work out what plant you’ve found, you might be looking at a non-native or ‘alien’ plant. From buddleias to rhododendrons, the UK has many plants which have hopped the garden walls to grow wild. In this case, I usually snap a few photos and ask a friend who loves gardening if it’s something they recognise. You can also check the RHS plant finder to see if you’ve found a garden plant.

To get to grips with what it means for a plant to be native, check out our ‘Alien invaders or home grown thugs’ blog post.

Keep looking

Bee orchidsBee orchid (Ophrys apifera)

Bee orchids (Ophrys apifera) are beautiful. Delicate, pale-green stems hold up to ten flowers, each with three lilac petals surrounding a lip which looks like a furry brown bee.

I’d never seen a bee orchid when I first heard about them, but I hoped I would get the chance when I worked on a project at university which took me to nature reserves all over the county. Bee orchids had been found at many of them, but I didn’t have any luck myself.

The next summer, I visited even more nature reserves during their flowering season of June and July, hoping to track one down. I went to woodlands, wetlands, wildflower meadows and sand dunes – anywhere that local nature blogs had reported finding them. I got plenty of fresh air and saw lots of great wildflowers, but still no bee orchids.  

The following year I spent in Australia. One day in June, I got an email from my parents back home. They had found a bee orchid, barely 100 metres from our front door! I couldn’t believe that I’d scoured the county only for them to turn up just down the road.

I finally got to see them for myself when I was back in the UK and have been lucky enough to see them every year since. If there’s a flower you’d really like to find, the best thing to do is keep looking!

Get together

Joining the Grow Wild team has brought many opportunities to learn more about wildflowers. I’ve been able to work alongside Kew’s expert botanists, volunteer for seed collecting projects and even dissect flowers under a microscope on the ‘Introduction to Botany’ training day.

Taking a course, joining a wildflower group or volunteering on a project is a fantastic way to meet likeminded people and learn from the experts. Wherever you are in the UK, connecting with other people who share your passion for plants is going to take your wildflower identification skills to the next level.

To find opportunities near you, take a look at:

The Field Studies Council run training courses around the country: https://www.field-studies-council.org/learn-with-us.aspx

Botanic garden training courses, such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’s short courses: https://www.kew.org/learning/short-courses

The Online Atlas of British and Irish flora has maps showing where plants have been found before. It also includes notes on their usual habitat: https://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/

Look out for local wildflower sites and groups in your area. Are there any spaces listed near you on the Grow Wild map? https://www.growwilduk.com/visit-volunteer/project-map

Happy wildflower hunting!