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Flowers of the forest

 Some flowers of Rockingham Forest 

by Jeremy Purseglove

One of the joys of the exceptional assemblage of ancient woodlands that we find in the Rockingham Forest is the marvellous range of plants and flowers, some of which you will never find in the average woodland plantation. This is one of the reasons why the forest is so exciting to visit and, therefore, so worth preserving.

We do not have space to illustrate all the flowers you will find here. Instead, on this page we have selected some of the rarest and most unusual ones. There are also three separate pages with the most striking and obvious species that occur in the different woodland and grassland habitats.  We have omitted trees, grasses, and flowerless plants such as horsetail.


I have tried to tell a story about each plant through the lens of science, folklore or poetry. Charles Darwin and William Shakespeare are equally well represented.


Happy flower hunting!

Flower etchings are by the artist, Robin Tanner (1904-1988) and are taken from ‘Woodland Plants’ by Heather and Robin Tanner, Impact Books, 1981.


Coloured botanical plates are taken from ‘Medical Botany’ by Stephenson and Churchill, 1834.

Unless otherwise indicated, photos are by Barrie Galpin.

Rare and uncommon plants

Species marked * are included in the Northamptonshire Rare Plant Register

Columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris *

It is always exciting to find a genuinely wild native flower that is also a familiar and much-loved garden plant. In early summer, wild columbines are among the glories of Bedford Purlieus, Easton Hornstocks, Collyweston Great Wood and Fineshade.


They are a clearer and brighter blue than the pink and purple ‘granny’s bonnets’ of cottage gardens. But they share the same charming characteristic: ‘of the shape of little birds’ wrote John Gerard in his famous herbal of 1597.

He was quite right. If you look at an individual flower from above, you will see five doves, beaks facing in, tails and wings spread out behind. Hence the local name ‘doves round a dish’ or columbine, from columba, the Latin for a dove. Once you look at them like that, you will never see them in quite the same way again.


Photo Phil Rothwell

Since it is without chlorophyl, this strange leafless saprophyte does not need sunlight and so grows only in the darkest shadiest corners of the Bedford Purlieus. The whole plant is underground except for the brown flower-spike, which in a seedling plant is not developed until the ninth year. The roots form a tangled ball, hence the ‘bird’s nest’ and they are strongly infected with mycorrhizal fungus, through which the plant obtains all the food it needs from the surrounding leaf mould. After flowering, the seed heads remain into the early winter

Bird's Nest Orchid, Neottia nidus-avis *

Photo Jon Pavey

Winter is the best time to enjoy this majestic plant. Its dark palmate leaves are offset by pale green bells, which are open between January and April. Chalk and limestone are what it loves. It still grows in the chalk hangers at Selbourne, Hampshire where it was admired by the 18th century naturalist, Gilbert White. In Bedford Purlieus it is a sure indicator of the most alkaline part of the wood, and it thrives among the limestone rocks of Spanhoe Quarry on the Bulwick Estate and near Ring Haw in Old Sulehay.


It is highly poisonous ‘occasioning violent catharsis, convulsions and death’ warns Stephenson and Churchill’s ‘Medical Botany’ of 1835. The seeds are often spread by snails.

Stinking Hellebore, Helleborus foetidus *

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Another garden plant found genuinely wild in Easton Hornstocks and Bedford Purlieus. It is an indicator of ancient woodlands, especially on limestone in the Cotswolds, and so here within the similar geology of the Rockingham Forest.


Always an unusual and exciting flower to find wild in England, on the continent it is far more widespread. On May Day bunches are always sold in the Paris metro, a symbol of summer arrived. In the mighty forests of Russia, a continuous carpet of lily of the valley with its swooning fragrance, poisonous berries and flowers like tiny white teeth, extends largely unbroken from the Moscow woods to the Pacific.

Lily of the valley, Convallaria majus *

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Photo Brian Laney

The time to hunt for the butterfly orchid is a late evening in early June, just when the Nightingale is beginning to tune up in the heart of woods. Then, if you do not at first see the pale spikes of flowers, ghostly in the gathering dusk, you may catch their alluring night-time fragrance, designed to draw in the pollinating moths.


They are found in woods throughout Rockingham Forest, including Fineshade and Rawhaw wood and the colonies expand in response to the light let in by coppicing. The elaborate waxy flowers are greener when growing in the shade. The Greater Butterfly is replaced by the Lesser in northern England.

Greater Butterfly Orchid,
Platanthera chlorantha *

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This elegant elusive orchid is found in shady corners of Wakerley Spinney and Bedford Purlieus. Like its larger and more sun-loving cousins, the Bee and Spider Orchids, the Fly Orchid’s flower resembles an insect to attract another to mate with it, thus ensuring pollination.


This was observed by William Turner in his herbal of 1551:
The flie seemeth so to be in love with it, that you shall seldom come in the heat of the day, but you shall find one close theron’.
The flowers are set at a rakish angle on the stem, just like a perching fly and even have a shiny glint of blue like a bluebottle. In 1929 the Cambridge botanist M.J. Godfery discovered that this mimicry is actually to attract two species of Digger Wasp, Argogorytes and the orchid produces a pheromone similar to that of the female wasp and so lures the hapless males to perform a phenomenon known as pseudo-copulation. This elaborate strategy has failed to make Fly Orchids especially common. In fact like many orchids, continuous evolution has made them over-specialised.

Fly Orchid, Ophrys insectifera *

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Yellow Star of Bethehem, Gagea lutea *

A real rarity and one of the specialities of Rockingham Forest. Its little yellow stars are found in early spring among the emerging bluebells in Fineshade, Wakerley Woods, Lynn Wood and Bedford Purlieus. Since it is easily overlooked, systematic searching has resulted in the discovery of many new English colonies in recent years. The Latin name comes from Sir Thomas Gage (1781-1820) who also gave his name to the Greengage

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Yellow Star of Bethlehem.jpg

This little annual or short-lived perennial is a member of the deadnettle family and like the rest of its clan is good for pollinating insects. It is found in dry grassy places in Corby, Yarwell and  Wakerley Woods. Its conservation status is classed as ‘Vulnerable’. 

Brian Laney's photo was taken near the railway line in Stanion Lane Plantation

Basil Thyme, Clinopodium acinos *

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Photo Alyson Freeman

Photo Brian Laney

Wall Bedstraw, Galium parisiense *

A little annual bedstraw, which is an urban specialist. Unglamourous locations for it include railway marshalling yards in Ghent and the concrete of a partially demolished sewage works in Tottenham. It grows on some verges in Corby in the north of Willowbrook East Industrial estate.

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Photo Alyson Freeman

Photo Brian Laney

Toothwort, Lathraea squamaria *

The pale ivory toothwort flowers appear in early spring on the roots  of Hazel, Willow and Alder, on which they are dependent for nourishment. This ghostly parasite, entirely lacking in chlorophyl is a scarce and local plant of old woodlands. Find it in Easton Hornstocks, Collyweston Great Wood, Fineshade and Wakerley Woods.

Photo Phil Rothwell

Knapweed Broomrape, Orobanche elatior

Lacking chlorophyl like Toothwort and of the same plant family, Orobanchaceae, this parasite feeds exclusively on knapweeds especially the Greater Knapweed (pictured on the right). So, the brown flower heads will tend to be found only on the sunny roadsides, quarries, and grasslands where the knapweed flourishes. Within England, Knapweed Broomrape occurs in  a broad band from south Yorkshire, through Lincolnshire and the midlands to the south coast.  The plant pictured here can be seen every year on the verge of the road leading from the A43 towards Wakerley Great Wood.


Herb Paris, Paris quadrifolia

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Photo Alyson Freeman

A secretive subtle plant associated with witchcraft; Herb Paris is found in Bedford Purlieus. With four symmetrical leaves facing each other and a poisonous black berry in the centre, it looks as if it were a product of formal geometry or a magic system of numbers rather than part of wild nature.


Because this symmetry was seen as neatly ordered rather than chaotic, it was a powerful herb to use against witchcraft, but you had to consume the berries in unequal numbers from such a plant of equality.  Par in Latin means not only ‘equal’ but a ‘pair’ and so the arrangement of the leaves suggested a pair of lovers and another local name was ‘Herb Truelove.’ It thrives in cleared coppice, as at Rawhaw Wood and it is the emblem of the recently formed National Coppice Federation.

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Photo Jane Powell


Deadly Nightshade, Atropa belladonna

This glamorous and magnificently malevolent plant is found in Fineshade, Bedford Purlieus and a number of other locations in the forest, including quarries. Quite different from the more delicate and less lethal Woody Nightshade with which it is often confused, this is a large chunky herb with dusky purple bellflowers and tempting lustrous black tomato fruits. Indeed, it is a relative of the tomato as along with the potato and tobacco it belongs to that most poisonous of plant families, the Solanaceae. ‘If you follow my counsell’, wrote Gerard, ‘deal not with it, being a plant so furious and deadly’.


In the classical world there were three fates, Clotho who spun the thread of your life, Lachesis who measured its length and Atropos who took her scissors to cut the thread and finish you off. In the Latin for Deadly Nightshade, Atropa takes its name from this the oldest and most fearsome of the Fates, while Belladonna, or beautiful lady, refers to the way that the juice of this plant was used as a cosmetic to dilate the pupils of the eye. Nineteenth century doctors learned how to extract the poison safely and so it became an indispensable drug for eye specialists. As a result, it is still found in old hospital grounds in Northamptonshire

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Butchers Broom, Ruscus aculeatus

Imagine if you had to store and sell meat before the days of refrigeration. The flies would have been a serious problem, but a bunch from this very spiny plant would have made a lethal fly swat. Hence the name. Butchers also used to place sprigs of it round their meat to keep rats and mice at bay. Another local name was Knee Holly, which well describes it. The dark green spiny ‘leaves’ are in fact flattened stems and Butchers’ Broom, along with Asparagus, is an unlikely member of the lily family. It does not occur north of the midlands so here, it is on the edge of its range. It grows wild in East Carlton Countryside Park. 

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Photo Alyson Freeman

Small Teasel, Dipsacus pilosus

The handsome Fuller’s Teasel is a familiar plant of open rough ground and even gardens, but Small Teasel is a smaller daintier version with round white flower heads and is much more of a woodland plant. Like its larger cousin, the seed heads attract birds such as Goldfinches. It is local and scarce through much of the East Midlands but is a real feature of the Rockingham Forest and also the surviving old woods of the Leighfield Forest in Rutland. It occurs in Fineshade, Wakerley Woods, and the woods within the Blatherwycke and Rockingham Castle estates.

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