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12 uncommon and rare woodland flowers

With curious life cycles, secretive habits and rather particular needs, these woodland wildflowers are among the most difficult to find and endangered flowering plants in the UK. They're also some of the most fascinating.  

Ghost orchid (Epigogium aphyllum)

Few people have ever seen the UK's elusive ghost orchids (Photo: blickwinkel / Alamy)
Few people have ever seen the UK's elusive ghost orchids (Photo: blickwinkel / Alamy)

One of the UK’s rarest plants. Unlike most plants, the ghost orchid doesn’t use sunlight to produce food, instead relying on a special kind of fungi. It has no leaves or chlorophyll, emerging from the soil only to flower and seed. It’s also pale, diminutive and can wait more than 30 years between flowering. It’s no wonder it’s so difficult to find.

Habitat

Shaded woodland well matched to its name.

Status

Declared extinct in the UK in 2005 until rediscovery at a single site in 2009. Its elusive nature could mean that small populations lay undiscovered elsewhere.

Not to be confused with

Broomrapes or other orchids.

Crested cow-wheat (Melampyrum cristatum)

Crested cow-wheat is related to the much more common yellow rattle (Photo: Frank Teigler / Alamy)
Crested cow-wheat is related to the much more common yellow rattle (Photo: Frank Teigler / Alamy)

An unusual-looking flower with an interesting life cycle. It’s semi-parasitic, exploiting a number of host plants to top up food reserves. Cleverly, it tricks wood ants into dispersing its seeds by mimicking their cocoons. With a sweet treat attached as an added incentive, the ants happily transport the seeds back to their nests.

Habitat

Ancient woodland rides, hedge bases, roadsides and field margins.

Status

Once widespread thanks to favourable coppicing regimes, but now rare and in decline.

Not to be confused with

Purple cow-wheat, a very rare grassland relative.

Lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus)

The striking lady's slipper orchid has been coveted by admirers for hundreds of years (Photo: Stefan Huwiler / Alamy)
The striking lady's slipper orchid has been coveted by admirers for hundreds of years (Photo: Stefan Huwiler / Alamy)

A uniquely-shaped and aptly named flower – its scientific name means ‘shoe of Venus’. It relies on a close relationship with a special type of fungi to help germinate its seeds, restricting it to undisturbed soils where the fungi can be found.

Habitat

Broadleaved woodland, particularly on limestone. The plant has been reintroduced at a few carefully chosen sites.

Status

Once fairly common across northern England, but pushed to the brink of extinction by Victorian gardeners and modern-day flower collectors.

Not to be confused with

Bee or spider orchids.

Red helleborine (Cephalanthera rubra)

It's thought that only 30 individual red helleborine plants survive in the UK (Photo: blickwinkel / Alamy)
It's thought that only 30 individual red helleborine plants survive in the UK (Photo: blickwinkel / Alamy)

This orchid’s purple-pink flowers don’t produce nectar, instead coaxing in pollinating insects with colours attractive to certain types of bee. Unfortunately, these bees are themselves a rare commodity – in fact they’re not found in the UK. Botanists continue to investigate how the plant reproduces in the UK, hoping to solve the mystery and find a way to encourage its spread.

Habitat

Shaded broadleaved woodlands where there isn't too much competition from other plants. Likes chalky, free-draining soils.

Status

Classified as critically endangered in the UK and vulnerable across its range in Europe.

Not to be confused with

Dark-red helleborine.

Lady orchid (Orchis purpurea)

Many of the UK's wild orchids are named for the quirky shape of their flowers (Photo: Alamy)
Many of the UK's wild orchids are named for the quirky shape of their flowers (Photo: Alamy)

Named for the shape of its flowers which resemble bonneted ladies in spotted ball gowns, complete with arms. The plant can be 10 years old before it flowers for the first time. It’s slow to spread to new woods and is vulnerable to dense shade and deer browsing, but unlike some orchids it can multiply by forming extra tubers.

Habitat

Prefers beech, ash and hazel woodland and chalky soils.

Status

Rare in the UK, but where it is found it can appear in significant numbers.

Not to be confused with

The much shorter burnt-tip orchid.

Spreading bellflower (Campanula patula)

The understated spreading bellflower could be easy to overlook (Photo: Frank Teigler / Alamy)
The understated spreading bellflower could be easy to overlook (Photo: Frank Teigler / Alamy)

Named after the spread-eagled nature of its flower petals. This plant needs disturbed, sunny woodland soils in which to germinate its seeds, a habitat very much in decline. The careful management of woodlands through coppicing and thinning could be key to the survival of this delicate wildflower.

Habitat

In sunny spots at the edges of woodland.

Status

Classified as endangered and at high risk of extinction in the UK. Occurs in low numbers at a limited number of sites.

Not to be confused with

Other similar-looking bellflower species.

Spiked star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum pyrenaicum)

The spiked star-of-Bethlehem is often found growing with bluebells (Photo: Paul R Sterry / Alamy)
The spiked star-of-Bethlehem is often found growing with bluebells (Photo: Paul R Sterry / Alamy)

The plant’s star-like white flowers are said to resemble its famous biblical namesake. It’s also known as Bath asparagus after the English city where it was once harvested and eaten like its more familiar vegetable relative. It’s thought that in recent years numbers may have declined as a result of the loss of mature elm trees to Dutch elm disease.

Habitat

In woodland, scrub or hedgerows.

Status

Uncommon but with relatively stable populations.

Not to be confused with

The very similar drooping star-of-Bethlehem.

Yellow bird’s-nest (Monotropa hypopitys)

Yellow bird's-nest is thought to be under-recorded and easily overlooked (Photo: Bob Gibbons / Alamy)
Yellow bird's-nest is thought to be under-recorded and easily overlooked (Photo: Bob Gibbons / Alamy)

A ghostly, parasitic plant that emerges from the soil only to flower. Instead of leaves or chlorophyll, it hijacks nutrients from a special kind of fungi, which itself has borrowed them through a close relationship with nearby trees. It’s also known as Dutchman’s pipe thanks to the shape of its nodding flower head.

Habitat

Damp or scrubby woodland.

Status

Uncommon. Its complex relationship with fungi makes the species vulnerable to decline. 

Not to be confused with

Broomrape species.

May lily (Maianthemum bifolium)

Records show that May lily has been considered a rare plant since Victorian times (Photo: Paul R Sterry / Alamy)
Records show that May lily has been considered a rare plant since Victorian times (Photo: Paul R Sterry / Alamy)

Also known as false lily of the valley. The plant’s single stem of white flowers, which typically appears in May as the name would suggest, turns to red berries after pollination. While toxic to humans, these berries are designed to tempt hungry birds which then unwittingly spread the plant’s seeds in their droppings.

Habitat

Prefers woodland with acidic soils, surviving well in woodland replanted with conifers.

Status

Rare, with only small, isolated populations remaining.

Not to be confused with

Lily-of-the-valley.

Wood calamint (Clinopodium menthifolium)

Wood calamint is the only plant to be found on the Isle of Wight and nowhere else in Britain (Photo: FLPA / Alamy)
Wood calamint is the only plant to be found on the Isle of Wight and nowhere else in Britain (Photo: FLPA / Alamy)

Named for the minty scent given off by its leaves. Only five patches of the plant remained in the 1950s until the efforts of local conservationists helped protect it from further loss. Today thousands of flowers appear each summer along a road verge bordering a woodland on the Isle of Wight.

Habitat

Grows at the edges of woodland and prefers chalky coils.

Status

Incredibly rare in the UK but otherwise found across Europe.

Not to be confused with

Common or lesser calamint.

Bastard balm (Melittis melissophyllum)

The fragrant bastard balm produces plenty of nectar for pollinating insects (Photo: Martin Fowler / Alamy)
The fragrant bastard balm produces plenty of nectar for pollinating insects (Photo: Martin Fowler / Alamy)

A shade-loving plant that thrives in coppiced woodland. It was traditionally used to treat melancholy as well as a number of other complaints. Its strong scent and distinctive flowers are very attractive to bees, which are guided to nectar by the bright pink tongue of each flower. In England the flowers are otherwise mainly white, but elsewhere they can be completely pink.

Habitat

Ancient woodland, scrub and beneath hedges. 

Status

Scarce and under threat from overgrazing and too much shading from unmanaged trees.

Not to be confused with

Plants from the deadnettle family.

Spiked rampion (Phyteuma spicatum)

Spiked rampion may have been introduced to the UK for its medicinal properties (Photo: Bob Gibbons / Alamy)
Spiked rampion may have been introduced to the UK for its medicinal properties (Photo: Bob Gibbons / Alamy)

Also known as ‘white Rapunzel’, this was the plant stolen by the long-haired heroine in the famous fairytale. It was grown for hundreds of years as a medicinal herb, and its edible roots are still eaten today in some European countries. It relies on woodland coppicing to provide the light it needs to thrive.

Habitat

Shady woodland edges, hedgebanks and road verges. Garden escapes have been known establish themselves.

Status

Critically endangered.

Not to be confused with

Cultivated varieties found in gardens.

Changing land use and farming practices, the pressures of climate change and other human influences put small and fragile populations of plants at risk of extinction. But with careful woodland restoration and protection of the last remaining fragments of the UK's ancient woodland, there is a future for rare and specialist plants like these.