Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex

Wildflower Navigation Tips

The perfect antidote to the cabin fever that comes from being cooped up writing about the Arctic, it turns out, is to go for a walk to investigate the wildflowers. Which reminds me, would you like know what the perfect antidote for seasickness is?

To stand under a tree.

There are many good websites that will tell you about the preferences of garden flowers, their love of direct sun or tolerance of full shade (the RHS website is one of them), but predictably few resources for the preferences of wildflowers. Which leaves it to natural navigators to investigate these trends.

On my recent walks a few preferences were clear: common poppies, red clover and many other red, yellow and orange flowers were enjoying the sunshine of a south-facing bank. I thought I noticed the sky-blue chicory showing a strong prefence for the south-facing (north) side of a tractor’s lane. If you look at the first picture of the track, you may just pick out the blue dotted along only the left-hand side (we are looking near east). The senses do need fine-tuning to spot these asymmetries.

It is a bit clearer if you look more closely at the two pictures that show the sides of the lane individually. But just as I began to celebrate this discovery, I noticed a fair few chicory flowers on the north-facing side of a bank. Such a tease is nature!

No chicory on north-facing side of track


Chicory on south facing side of track

There were three slightly more dependable and interesting trends too.

The first was the most widely known: many plants, wildflowers included, show their appreciation of the sunlight by growing towards it. This tendency is called phototropism.

Have a look at the final picture, of Enchanter’s Nightshade, breaking out of a bright patch in a shady woodland, and making a bid to reach the sun itself. We are looking east in this picture.

The second trend I have often noticed is for their to be a distinct breakdown amongst certain wildflower families. To the casual walker and observer, many wildflowers within the same family look alike – indeed they do to many wildflower aficionados too. But a few notable differences are there to be found. It appeared to me that Selfheal and Hedge Woundwort, two flowers with very different names, but of common ancestry in the Dead-nettle family, seemed to have staked out different sides of the country lanes. The Hedge Woundwort showed a distinct preference for the south-facing side, leaving the Selfheal to take up position on the north-facing side.

The third trend is purely speculative at this stage. One little natural navigation trick can be remembered this way, ‘Sweet is south’. All fruits that contain a lot of sugar need to get that energy from somewhere, hence we tend to find grapes, peaches & Co. on south-facing slopes. Something I have noticed recently is that a lot of the flowers that contain an interesting or rich scent seem to be on the south-facing side too: wild majoram and wild basil (see top photo) being two of the more dependable ones at this time of year. As I say, this is only a theory at the moment. Shoot it down by all means!

If it proves to hold any truth it will be another beautiful way for us to follow our noses.