In today’s globalised world, we’re fortunate to have access to flowers and plants from all over the place.
The string of pearls from Southwest Africa, for example; or maybe the creeping fig from Southeast China. Years of cultural interplay and international shipping have given us easy access to these varieties, making it easy to bring the exotic and formerly unusual right into our homes.
Sometimes, though, it’s good to bring things back to long-established traditions. To tap into the types of floral display that would’ve been familiar to our ancestors many years ago: native British flowers that are attractive to look at and perfectly suited to our climate and growing conditions.
So, if you’re looking to pay homage to the flowers that have defined British beds for generations, this list is for you. Here, we spotlight six flowers that are native to our fine country, along with all the information you’ll need to get them growing in your gardens.
The common primrose is a familiar and beautiful sight in British springtime. Their simple white petals with a dab of yellow in the centre draw the eye and provide a subtle yet elegant backdrop for the spring palette. With a relatively early bloom, the primrose is a great way to extend the period of visual interest in your garden.
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) deem primrose to be worthy of the Award of Garden Merit (AGM): an accolade that demonstrates particular suitability to being grown in British gardens. Given the theme of this piece we’ve prioritised flowers in receipt of the AGM, as it’s a fine testament to their prestigious position in our gardening history.
Primrose enjoys full sun or partial shade, with any aspect except north-facing. They’re not fussy with soil composition, though will do best in acidic or neutral pH levels. Gardeners in the further reaches of the UK will do OK with primrose thanks to the flower’s H7 hardiness rating: indicative of an ability to weather even the most extreme European conditions.
Snake’s head fritillary
The distinctive lantern lilt of this flower establishes it firmly as one of our aesthetic favourites, and that’s before you even consider the stunning dappled pink-purple colour palette. In fact, this would be one of the flowers we’d be first to recommend for people looking to bring a touch of the exotic to their garden: the lamp-like appearance evoking something approximating traditional oriental ambience.
This flower is a fantastic demonstration of how a native British breed can function in a range of thematic displays. The moody colours and captivating shape will look great alongside a wide variety of other flowers, hailing from these shores or beyond.
For best results with the snake’s head fritillary choose a spot in full sun or partial shade. Any aspect will do, and they’re not fussy in terms of soil composition or pH. These flowers are slightly less hardy than the primrose but will still hold their own against all but the most severe of wintry conditions. The snake’s head fritillary is another recipient of the RHS Award of Garden Merit.
Lily of the valley
So many British flowers have a medley of names, derived from various regional labels that still compete for prevalence. Lily of the valley is a fine example of this: you’ll see it referred to variously as May lily, our lady’s tears, mayflower, mugget, conval lily, and more. And while there’s a lot of variety, you can see a common theme running through the names of late spring and femininity. Look at the flower itself and it’s clear to see why.
The dainty, almost bonnet-like shape of the flowers combined with their pure white colour brings to mind an image of a fairytale maiden: something distinctly evocative of our history.
To bring this intriguing flower to your garden you’ll need to find a spot in full or partial shade. Any aspect except south-facing is suitable, and you’re not limited to any specific soil pH. Avoid chalk- or sand-based soils where possible, and ensure good drainage. This flower has also been awarded the AGM by the Royal Horticultural Society, meaning three for three in this list so far.
Notable for its enticing, sweet smell, the humble honeysuckle is a long-standing favourite in British gardens. Boasting many varieties, this plant has a lot to offer to anyone with a green thumb.
The pinks, yellows, whites, and deep reds offered across the honeysuckle family make it a versatile and attractive choice; as does its ability to draw in bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects to your garden. The buzz of natural activity surrounding the stunning colour palette guarantees you’ll have something beautiful to look at in any bed featuring this flower.
Ideal conditions vary between varieties so make sure to check the specific growing instructions for your plant. In general though, honeysuckle is well-suited to British conditions and you shouldn’t have much trouble getting it established.
Rare is the flower whose bloom brings a touch of blue, and no list of British flowers would be complete without the striking colour of the forget-me-not. One of our favourite springtime scenes is a blanket of forget-me-nots spread out in a woodland clearing, and bringing this aesthetic to your garden – even with a much smaller spread – is something we highly recommend.
And if you’re like us, you’ll get the added benefit of remembering the famous musical mention of this flower each time you tend to them. A great example of how traditional British flowers have crossed the cultural barrier to become immortalised.
These flowers enjoy partial shade in any aspect, and like chalk-, clay-, or loam-based soil. Water well but ensure the soil has adequate drainage. In terms of hardiness, forget-me-nots can hold their own against all but the absolute worst of our weather: we’re talking freak winters in the northern reaches of Scotland where temperatures drop below -15°c.
For many years there was a bush outside the house a couple of doors along from me that erupted into a vibrant pink bloom every spring, and I had no idea what it was. Only after researching which flowers to bring into my garden did I discover that it was dog rose that I’d been looking at, and safe to say I’ve not looked back since.
As with lily of the valley, this is a plant that goes by many names. And to be honest, we can’t help feeling that dog rose – the most common – does the flower something of an injustice. Just take a look at the proud pink bloom offset by a zesty yellow centre and tell us that some of the other names – briar rose, bird briar, cat whin, or even canker rose – don’t speak more to the distinctive palette?
Whatever your thoughts on the name, this flower will make a fine addition to your British-themed floral displays. The colours are striking, the bloom is expansive. And who knows, maybe you’ll draw the eye of a budding gardener in your neighbourhood and inspire a future foray into writing about gardening.
Grow your dog rose in full sun in any aspect, and ensure moist but well drained soil. This plant isn’t fussy, so instead of worrying about growing conditions you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
While we live in an age where plants and flowers from around the world are within our reach, often at a moment’s notice, there’s something especially satisfying about keeping traditional British plants at the heart of our garden displays. Not as some lazy token of patriotism, nor as a slight on the botanical offerings of other countries; but rather as a reminder of our rich and beautiful floral heritage.
So, whether you opt for an all-British display, a mainly-British display, or use the odd British flower here and there as an anchor in something more exotic, we hope you’ve found inspiration in this article.
And should the six flowers above not tickle your fancy, remember that there are plenty more native British flowers ripe and ready for being grown in your garden. With this selection we covered a range of shapes and colours, but by no means is our list exhaustive.