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Getting started with British wildflowers

Val Bourne / 31 December 2015

Gardening expert Val Bourne recommends the native wildflowers that can create a beautiful and wildlife-friendly garden.

Red campion
Red campion grows well in damp soil and provides long-lasting colour

Why choose wildflowers?

It’s an excellent idea to include some British natives into your garden because they have developed special links with our insect life, including our wild bees. However, we do not have an exciting flora in the United Kingdom, so don’t use them exclusively because introduced species can also be hugely valuable. The most commonly grown buddleja, for instance, B. davidii, is the best nectar plant for British butterflies and can attract twenty-two species in theory. And yet it was introduced from China circa 1890.

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Native hedges

Planting a native hedge made up of several British natives on the boundaries will make a huge difference to your bird life because the fruit will attract lots of British birds. The leaves and branches will also sustain many insects. Hawthorn (Crataegus) will attract 149 insects and it could be grown as single-species hedge or with other natives.

For more information, find out how to grow native hedges

Native bulbs


Native British bulbs also make a contribution and wild daffodils and bluebells are being propagated commercially these days. Narcissus pseudonarcissus, known as the Lent Lily, is a diminutive delicate daffodil (30 cm/ 12 in) with pale-yellow outers that frame a slender darker yellow trumpet. There are large colonies in Gloucestershire, close to Newent, and two villages (Oxenhall and Kempley) have Daffodil Days in mid-March and there are also daffodil trials through the Golden Triangle. Please note, it is illegal to lift bulbs in the wild.

The Tenby daffodil, Narcisus obvallaris, is a shorter all-yellow daffodil roughly nine inches in height (22cm ) found in the western half of Britain. This is the daffodil Worsdworth describes as the golden host. N. obvallaris will naturalise in grass and it can be left to seed. Both are best naturalised in grass and both take time to settle and flower. Leave the seed heads on because both species will self seed. Do not mow until the foliage has withered completely. Avon Bulbs sell both.

Find out how to grow daffodils


The English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non scripta) prefers the shade of trees and often grows under beech in damper soils, flowering just as the leaves emerge. The violet-blue colour and one sided flowers, which arch over in a graceful manner, are very different to the less-colourful upright Spanish bluebell planted in so many gardens.

They will hybridise, so if your garden has lots of Spanish bluebells it will be difficult to keep this species pure unless you deadhead your English bluebells. A hedge bottom that’s not too sunny is often a good place to grow bluebells and you can add May-flowering Red campion (Silene dioica) too, because it enjoys the same conditions. They seem to love growing together and you can buy them as plugs to save time.

Meadow plants

The trend for meadows and longer grass, mowed perhaps twice a year, will also provide opportunities for native planting. 

Most meadow can be added by planting plugs in autumn. However, the hemi-parasitic yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor), which feeds on grass roots and thereby thins out the coarse grasses to create more space for wild flowers, has to be seed raised from seed. Mow the grass short and rake over the soil with a metal rake, distressing the turf, and then sprinkle and walk the seeds in. It is an annual and will return if allowed to self-seed. One dark bee, name unknown to me, always visits this plant. Seeds are set by early August and they will disperse naturally.

You could also add plugs of perennial wild flowers such as Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) for its acid-yellow froth, the yellow legume Kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria), the purple Lesser knapweed (Centaurea nigra), Hop Trefoil (Trifolium campestre) and Cowslip (Primula veris). These are manageable survivors that provide lots of nectar followed by seeds on compact plants.

Find out how to create a meadow

Wildflower border

Sunny borders could accommodate taller meadow flowers such as Geranium pratense, Meadow Cranesbill, the blue button that pops up in verges. There are refined garden forms such as ‘Mrs Kendall Clark’, with lavender petals veined in white. The Meadow clary, Salvia pratensis, could also be grown but this is only questionably native: it may have been introduced. Blue flowers attract bees.

The Musk mallow (Malva moschata) is definitely a British native, with white saucers flushed in mallow-pink. A perennial, it’s highly popular with bees, and it sets lots of seeds and pops up unannounced. That may put you off! 

Another self-seeder is Jacob’s ladder, Polemonium caerulea, an upright mainly blue-flowered perennial with ladder-like leaves and saucer-shaped flowers. 

Knautia arvenis (Field scabious) is the pale-blue pincushion seen on verges in summer. All pincushion-shaped flowers are highly attractive to bees, as are thistles. 

Other natives include the frothy lime-yellow Lady’s mantle, Alchemilla mollis, and this is an excellent cut flower with every sort of summer performer and that includes roses and sweet peas.

Wildflowers for damp soil

Damp corners or dips in the ground are perfect for Ragged Robin (Silene flos-cuculi) a campion-like flower with ragged petals that normally come in deep-pink. This summer-flowering perennial is most popular with butterflies and long-tailed bees.

The Cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis) peaks in late April and early May in warm springs, when the cuckoo sings. It too prefers moist soil, with good light.

Finally, try to find room for a fragrant honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum, because the long trumpets sustain moths. The scent develops in the evening for that reason and after pollination glossy clusters of red berries appear. These are highly popular with thrushes and blackbirds. Good forms include the grey-leafed custard-yellow ‘Graham Thomas’, discovered in a Warwickshire hedgerow, and the rhubarb and custard-coloured ‘Serotina’.

Find out how to create a wildlife-friendly garden

Native woodland plants

Enhance your shady woodland patches with native wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides) and Stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus), both woodlanders. The former has good rosettes of evergreen foliage and crosiers of acid-yellow flowers. There is a beetroot-leafed form named ‘Purpurea’. The Stinking hellebore, not as bad as it sounds, has small lime-green flowers edged in maroon. Both will grow in deep shade, along with the fern Dryopteris filix-mas, the Male fern. This unfurls its crosiers at the same time as the bluebells.

Finally, the laurel spurge, one of our two native daphnes, is a lustrous evergreen that shines in winter. Its glossy foliage, rather laurel like is reflected in the Latin name of Daphne laureola. The other is the deciduous D. mezereum, an upright daphne that produces its flowers just before the leaves. Red berries follow and it’s not unusual to get a seedling or two, passed through the gullet of a bird.

The red fruits of yew, Taxus baccata, also produce seedlings as does Common box, Buxus sempervirens, when left unclipped. Both are native evergreens and Common box used to be found on most chalky hills until the fashion for box wood, almost certainly the hardest European wood of all, saw the trees felled for cabinets, boxes and printing blocks. Both are slow growing and both are topiarised to provide crisp winter features.

Find out how to create a woodland patch

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.