Flowers of Europe

Compared to the continents with a warmer climate, Europe is poor in plant species. However many of the flowers of this region have great charm and delicacy and their comparatively small stature sets them apart from flamboyant tropical blooms. There are no real desert areas, and although the winter can be very cold in northern and central Europe, there are seldom long periods of drought and the spring and summer climate encourages the growth of plants from north of the Arctic Circle right down to the Mediterranean.

The flora of mountain areas in central Europe has a great affinity with the far north and many of the arctic flowers grow also in the Alps. The greater amount of summer light in the north compensates for the short growing season and the plants in Lapland consequently complete their annual growth cycle much more quickly than those growing further south. Although the arctic and alpine regions are by no means barren of vegetation, the range of plants is limited to those which can survive very low temperatures. Mosses, lichens, birch and willow scrub, heather, moss campions, mountain avens and arctic cinquefoil, cloudberries, cranberries and cotton grass are some of the plants that survive under these harsh conditions, protected to some extent by the snow which covers them before the really severe cold sets in.

The European climate is much milder along the Atlantic seaboard, especially in Britain and Ireland, than it is for example in Germany, Poland and Russia. The influence of the Ocean, which does not become icebound like the Baltic, and the warmth released by the Gulf Stream, gives a milder winter. In consequence one also gets a landscape that is more green all the year round than east of the Rhine, or along the Mediterranean coast where the hot summer dries up the grass and wild flowers by July. In the extreme south of Europe there is instead a season of late autumn flowers. This is almost a dress rehearsal for spring, which of course begins several months earlier than in the north.

The flowers that one finds in different parts of Europe depend very much on the soil. For example the flora of the chalk and limestone areas is richer and more varied than that of the poor sandy soils or the acid peats. The pine, spruce and birch woods of the north, the deciduous mixed woods of Britain and Central Europe, the beechwoods on the chalk, each have their own flora. The blue hepaticas, the almond-scented Linnea borealis, the delicate pyrolas or wintergreens, and the low bilberry and cowberry shrubs and heather, are typical of the conifer woods of central Finland, Sweden and Norway. Further south their place is taken by white windflowers, spotted orchids and lilies of the valley. English woods are noted for their primroses and bluebells, violets and bramble blossom, while in Europe there are different kinds of anemones, hellebores, columbines and honeysuckles. In the dry pine and evergreen oak woods of southern Europe one finds an undergrowth of lavender and cistus shrubs, brooms, terrestrial orchids and wild cyclamen.

The flowers of the alpine slopes, such as the bright blue gentians and the pink primulas, the dwarf rhododendron, saxifragas and campanulas, are famous for their beauty, and in those places where natural meadows still exist there is a host of wild flowers which like to grow in the open in full sun. They belong to many different botanical families and have descendants or close relatives which have been grown as garden plants in Europe since the middle ages or earlier. Spring and autumn crocuses, lilies and ox-eye daisies, mallows, campions and meadow-sweet, knapweed and hawkweeds, along with many more well-loved flowers, are part of the European summer. In intensively cultivated areas most of these flowers have disappeared from the fields, but they are still found along boundary ditches and hedges, and along the margins of woods. Clovers and vetches abound on open downland, drainage ditches are often golden with marsh marigolds in the early spring, or thickly overhung with comfrey in summer, and many a cliff or limestone quarry is draped in pink when the valerian comes into bloom.

The charming briar roses and the big white convolvulus which scramble over hedges and fences, are a lovely sight, while the minor roads are fringed by the creamy or white flower heads of the various umbelliferous plants like hedge parsley, wild parsnip and the poisonous hemlock. Many an eyesore in waste places is hidden by such flowers as toadflax, mulleins, teazles, thistles and ragwort, as well as others which are often looked upon as weeds. Nevertheless they play their part in healing man-made scars very successfully, just like the willowherb.

The Mediterranean seaboard, where frost is a rare occurrence, has a different flora from the rest of Europe. Dwarf wild irises abound, there are scarlet anemones, wild stocks, scillas, narcissus of many kinds, several pink and blue species of convolvulus, a number of spurges, stately fennel plants and beautiful asphodels. In Greece these tall flowers grow among the ruins of ancient temples and towns, together with scarlet anemones and poppies, little terrestrial orchids, several kinds of viper’s bugloss and the classical acanthus, whose decorative leaves were used as the motif for the tops of Corinthian pillars.

In all the Mediterranean countries and islands, including Portugal, the resinous smell of the pine trees and the fragrance of blue lavender and rosemary blend with the aromatic scent of the cistus bushes, whose masses of white, rose red or pink flowers open in succession each morning and shed their petals by the late afternoon. In Spain too, the landscape is often dominated by low spreading shrubs of yellow rock roses and many different kinds of broom. Herbs like thyme, sage, basil and savoury grow on the stony hillsides beside Mediterranean heaths and fritillaries, bright blue lithospermum and anagallis, and numerous terrestrial orchids.

All over Europe many naturalized plants have gained a foothold and it is often difficult to tell for certain whether a flower or a shrub is truly indigenous or not. Sometimes it is obviously out of place, as in the case of the cacti and agaves along the Mediterranean coast of Europe, but the almond tree has been there so long that few people even think of it as originally having arrived from the near east. The citrus family is now also so well distributed all over the world that its ancient homeland, south-east Asia, is all but forgotten.

Ramonda nathalie

Family Gesneriaceae

The charming ramondas are shade-loving plants which normally grow in rock crevices, in ravines and on slopes facing north. They are intolerant of direct sunlight and need moisture combined with sharp drainage. Their European distribution is curiously interrupted. The Ramonda nathalie species is found in Northern Greece and in Serbia. Ramonda serbica, whose flowers have blue anthers-instead of yellow ones, is a native of Serbia and Albania and the species, Ramonda myconi which is a larger plant with pale mauve flowers, only grows in the Pyrenees and has long been in cultivation as a garden plant.

Blue Gentian

Gentiana clusii

Family Gentianaceae

People tend to associate the gentians especially with the Swiss Alps, but they are also found on many other mountain ranges both in Europe and in Asia. The brilliance of their blue colouring varies, but it is always beautiful. Many of them are not easy to please in a garden and this fact provides a challenge which alpine enthusiasts are eager to accept. Gentians need as much sunshine as possible, but they also need constant moisture. This is provided in their native habitat by the melting snow which trickles through well-drained stony soil to keep their roots watered.

Wild tulip

Tulipa bakeri

Family Liliaceae

Most of the wild tulips are natives of Turkey, Afghanistan and Persia, but they also occur in Greece and on some of the Mediterranean islands. There are at least four endemic species on the island of Crete, and all of them are very beautiful plants. There is one which grows in rich ploughland amid the White Mountains at the western end of the island. It spreads by long fleshy roots called stolons. The Cretans like to eat boiled tulip bulbs, and they often find their way into the local food markets at the time of the spring ploughing.

Red valerian

Centhranthus ruber

Family Valerianaceae

One of the most impressive floral displays of England is produced by this bold plant, which clings precariously to the white chalk cliffs by the sea. It also grows in the shingle on the beach, in railway cuttings or old chalk pits. In its native Europe it is widespread and since reaching England it has found localities that suit it in places where few other plants can gain a footing. It is grown as a decorative plant in gardens, and in Italy and Sicily the young leaves are served in salads, in spite of their rather unpleasantly pungent smell. The plant is variable and there are forms with pink, red or white flowers.

Iris filifolia

Family Iridaceae

This beautiful wild iris with the yellow flecks on its crested falls is one of the narrow-leaved irises which spring from a bulbous root. Many of them grow in Spain. The bulbous irises form two distinct groups, the short-stemmed ones like Iris histrioides and Iris reticulata, natives of Turkey and the Caucasus, and the taller ones are a near relative of the cultivated Spanish, English and Dutch irises. These are derived from Iris xiphiodes and Iris xiphium, both natives of Spain.

Madonna lily

Lilium candidum

Family Liliaceae

This classic flower which in the Christian church became an emblem of purity associated with the Virgin Mary, is a native of the Balkans, but it has also been found growing wild in other parts of Europe. It is quite likely that it was distributed and planted by the Romans who used the bulb medicinally for healing wounds. The Madonna lily is noted for its strong scent and has always been a cherished garden plant. Like all the lilies it has an indefinable aristocratic air of quality which sets it apart from more common, gaudy flowers.

Mountain Primula

Primula hirsuta

Family Primulaceae

The primulas of the central European mountains are nearly all low in stature, and have unusually large flowers. This endearing characteristic has made them very popular among people who make collections of alpine plants, either out of doors or growing in pots in alpine houses. Many of these primulas can grow quite happily with the minimum of soil, as long as the crevice in which they have rooted can provide them with moisture. The long damp periods of the mild English winter does not suit them very well and they prefer to be covered in snow during their dormant season.

Pasque flower

Pulsatilla vulgaris

Family Ranunculaceae

The pasque flower, so called because in central Europe it usually flowers at Easter, is known in various forms throughout most of Europe. It grows in the far north, in Finland, and also in Italy, and it is thought that it may have been introduced to Britain by the Romans. The great charm of this plant lies in the silky hairiness of the stems and young leaves when the flowers first push up through the soil with bent heads. The colour of the flowers varies quite considerably in different forms, from pale lilac through rosy mauve to purple. They make good garden plants if left undisturbed.

Blue pimpernel

Anagallis linifolia

Family Primulaceae

This little southern European plant rivals the blue of gentians and forms quite large hummocks which show up brilliantly against the often rather stony ground where it grows. Its narrow leaves are a dark, dull green and as the flowers begin to fade they turn crimson. It belongs to the same genus as the scarlet pimpernel, a weed from the arable land of Europe and also now of America. The clear scarlet flowers, which are sometimes blue instead, close quickly if the sun disappears behind clouds, and this has given the plant the name of poor man’s weather glass.

Ferula ferulago

Family Umbelliferae

The ferulas are to a great extent natives of Southern Europe and belong to a group of plants which include several with medicinal uses. Their leaves are cut into fine, almost thread-like segments, and the tiny yellow flowers are gathered in clusters on numerous thin stalks which spring from one point at the top of the tall stems. In spite of these massive heads of bloom there is a light and graceful quality about the plants which makes them very distinctive, and well-grown plants in full bloom stand out boldly in the landscape.


Halimium allysoides

Family Cistaceae

The halimiums are a group of small, spreading shrubs with yellow flowers, found wild only in southern Europe round the Mediterranean, and in Spain and Portugal. As their common name implies, they are dependent on the sun like their larger relatives, the cistus species. The buds will only open in sunny weather and each individual flower lasts but a single day. The leaves are often grey and the shrubs are able to grow on very hot, dry hillsides, exposed to sea winds and strong sunlight. Several species have been brought into cultivation, but they need a warm sunny climate to thrive.

Yellow asphodel

Asphodeline lutea

Family Liliaceae

This typical Mediterranean flower is also known as king’s spear, or in southern France as baton de Jacob. It differs from the white asphodels in having leaves all the way up the flowering stem, which grows about three feet tall. The numerous buds in the flower spike open in succession so that there is never as colourful a burst of bloom as one expects, but nevertheless it is a beautiful and interesting flower. The ancient Greeks used the roots for food and the plant was often mentioned in Greek literature but it does not take kindly to cultivation in colder climates. The yellow bog asphodel of Northern Europe is a different plant.

16. October 2013 by admin
Categories: Featured, Flower Garden | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Flowers of Europe


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