Nature Profiles

Flora of Dorset


Downland & Meadow Plants

Early Spider Orchid (Ophrys sphegodes)

Durlston Country Park

Dorset is the British stronghold of this small, fairly unassuming orchid, where it still flowers in fairly large numbers along coastal cliffs near Swanage. 

Flowering is earlier than all other British orchids, peaking in late April.



Green-winged Orchid (Orchis morio)

Durlston Country Park

Unlike the Early Spider Orchid, this species is more adaptable, and can be found in unimproved damp meadows, as well as chalk downland.



Autumn Lady's Tresses (Spiranthes spiralis)

Fontmell Down NR

Southern England represents the northern limit of this species' range, although there are scattered colonies as far north as the Isle of Man. 

It is an orchid of dry, calcareous grassland with a short turf.  Despite their unique appearance among British orchids, individual plants are easily overlooked since the flowering stems are often less than 10cm tall. 

Many downland habitats in Dorset have colonies of this attractive plant.



Frog Orchid (Coeloglossum viride)

Fontmell Down NR

I've described this inconspicuous grassland orchid in the Flora of Hampshire section of the site.



Greater Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera chlorantha)

Powerstock Common NR

This beautiful orchid is something of a habitat generalist in Dorset, just as at home on calcareous grassland as in woodland. 

The species is described in the woodland plants section below.



Common Twayblade (Listera ovata)

Powerstock Common NR

This common orchid is described in the Flora of East Anglia section of the site.



Common Spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii)

Powerstock Common NR

This elegant grassland orchid is described in the Flora of Derbyshire - the White Peak grasslands part 2 section of the site.




Autumn Gentian (Gentianella amarella)

Fontmell Down NR

This little purple-flowered gentian is widespread on the chalk downland of Dorset. 

I've described the species in the Flora of Derbyshire - the White Peak grasslands part 1 section of the site.



Chalk Milkwort (Polygala calcarea)

East Weares, Isle of Portland

This common downland plant is described in the Flora of Hampshire section of the site.

Pink-flowered form



Yellow Iris (Iris pseudacorus)

Powerstock Common NR

A common statuesque plant of wet ditches and woodland edges, Yellow Iris cannot be mistaken for any other British plant. 




Horseshoe Vetch (Hippocrepis comosa)

Isle of Portland

This common downland plant is easily found in Dorset, and can be distinguished from the superficially similar (but larger) Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria) by its pinnate, narrow-based, hairless leaves and hairless flowerheads.

Although common on chalk downland in southern England, Horseshoe Vetch is uncommon nationally; it is very rare in northern England and Wales, and absent from Scotland.

Horseshoe Vetch is a very important plant for Dorset's wildlife.  It is the larval foodplant for several Lycaenid butterflies - the Chalkhill Blue, Adonis Blue and Silver-studded Blue.



Heathland Plants

Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)

Arne RSPB Reserve

The commonest of the British sundews, this plant can be found in many acidic bog habitats across the country.

Hartland Moor NNR



Intermediate Sundew (Drosera intermedia)

Studland Heath

The second most widespread sundew, D.intermedia has distinctly teaspoon-shaped leaves, unlike the round leaves of the previous plant, and the  club-shaped leaves of the much rarer D.anglica

Intermediate Sundew is local, but widespread on the Dorset heaths, although like its relatives, it has become much less widespread due to habitat destruction.


Hartland Moor NNR



Cross-leaved Heath (Erica tetralix)

Arne RSPB Reserve

I spotted these dew-covered heather flowers one very chilly morning while moth trapping at Arne. 

Erica tetralix looks markedly different to the more familiar heathers in Britain on account of its densely hairy leaves, which give it a greyish appearance from a distance.



Bell Heather (Erica cinerea)

Stoborough Heath NNR

Bell Heather is described in the Flora of Ben Lawers section of the site.



Bog Myrtle (Myrica gale)

Studland Heath

In boggy areas of heathland this greyish-leaved shrub forms low thickets.  The leaves are strongly aromatic when crushed, hence the common name. 

Bog Myrtle is most abundant in western and northern Scotland, and absent from most of England and Wales, except for remnant areas of wet moorland and heathland.



Dyer's Greenweed (Genista tinctoria)

Powerstock Common NR

Dyer's Greenweed is so named because it was used in former times for dying cloth a vivid yellow colour. 

It is a fairly common plant of heaths and other grassy habitats and can be recognised by its deciduous non-spiny, lanceolate, hairy-margined leaves and flowers which occur in racemes, rather than singly (as in the similar-looking Gorses). 

Dyer's Greenweed is widespread in suitable habitat in England and Wales, but largely absent from Scotland, found no further north than the Edinburgh area.  A procumbent coastal subspecies, littoralis, is found in Cornwall and Devon.




Blue Fleabane (Erigeron acer)

Arne RSPB Reserve

It's a terrible photo, but illustrates the essential features of this very unprepossessing daisy. 

It is fairly widespread in grassland habitats in southern and central England, with scattered population further north as far as the Grampians in Scotland.



Yellow Bartsia (Parentucellia viscosa)

Arne RSPB Reserve

Related to plants such as Yellow Rattle, Yellow Bartsia is an annual hemiparasite, obtaining some of its nutrients from surrounding plants. 

It is an uncommon plant of damp pastures on sandy soils, most common along the south coast of England (especially Cornwall), but with scattered populations as far north as the Moray Firth in Scotland.



Heath Spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata ssp. ericetorum)

Powerstock Common NR

This common orchid is described in the Flora of Hampshire section of the site.



Heath Milkwort (Polygala serpyllifolia)

Studland Heath

Although very similar to Common Milkwort, this species is easily distinguished by its very different habitat preferences - Common Milkwort is found on calcareous soils, and Heath Milkwort in acidic grassland.



Marsh St John's-wort (Hypericum elodes)

Studland Heath

As its name suggests, this plant is very much a resident of damp heathlands, and other wet acidic habitats such as the margins of bogs.  It is easily recognised by its woolly, almost circular opposite leaves and typical yellow Hypericum flowers. 

It is very much a plant of western Britain, with most populations in Wales, Cornwall and western Ireland.  It occurs in scattered populations elsewhere, such as the Dorset heaths and New Forest, as well as other sites in England and western Scotland.




Dodder (Cuscuta epithymum)

Arne RSPB Reserve

Dodder is a parasitic plant that forms sprawling red patches which cover other heathland plants.  Its leaves are small red scales on the stems, and, as the plant contains no chlorophyll, it must obtain all its nutrition from its host plants such as heather. 

Dodder is the only member of it family amongst the British flora, as is very much a speciality of the southern heath, where it is often common and conspicuous.  Nationally it becomes scarce north of the M4 corridor, and in the last 100 years has disappeared from Scotland and northern England.



Lesser Bladderwort (Utricularia minor)

Hartland Moor NNR

The bladderworts are unusual carnivorous plants named for the air-filled bladders on the stems which trap insects to supplement their 'diet' in the nutrient poor bog habitats where they are found.  There are six species in Britain, all aquatic plants with ferny, underwater leaves, and yellow flowers which stand clear of the water on spikes. 

Lesser Bladderwort has distinctive small, pale yellow flowers which allow easy separation from other members of the family.  (Apologies for the terrible photo - a better one will be taken in the future!)



Nordic Bladderwort (Utricularia stygia)

leaf detail, Hartland Moor NNR

This species has larger, brighter flowers than U.minor, and is part of the U.intermedia aggregate of three very similar species. 

Its occurrence on the Purbeck heaths is very unusual, with the nearest neighbouring populations being in the Galloway Hills in south-west Scotland!  The species is relatively widespread up the west coast of Scotland as a whole.



Juncus acutiflorus (Sharp-flowered Rush)

Studland Heath

This common rush can be found across the British Isles, in a wide range of habitats.  As its name suggests, it has distinctively-shaped flowerheads, although this photo illustrates these features poorly (sorry)! 

The name comes from the sharply-pointed tepals, which surround the flowers.  The fruit is also pointed. 

Thanks to Fred Rumsey for the ID.



Molinia caerulea (Purple Moor-grass)

Studland Heath

Another terrible photo, I'm afraid!  I've included it here for record purposes only. 

As its common name suggests, this grass is especially common, and often dominant, in moorland habitats in Britain's north and west.  It is equally at home in mountain habitats, or lowland heaths (as here). 

Purple Moor-grass is a variable species in terms of size, ranging from diminutive tufted plants to robust forms with leaves over 50cm long and flowering spikes over 1m tall.  The common name derives from the purple colour of the flowerheads, which lend a purple tinge to moorlands in areas where the plant occurs in high numbers. 

Thanks to Fred Rumsey for the identification.



Bog Asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum)

Studland Heath

A common bulbous perennial of bogs and heathland.  The yellow flowers mature into orange, pointed fruits after pollination.



Bog Pondweed (Potamogeton polygonifolius)

Studland Heath

This is a common plant of acidic bogs and shallow ponds throughout much of Britain, and is easily recognised with its characteristic leaves, although other Potamogeton species can look similar.

Thanks to Fred Rumsey for the ID.



Woodland Plants

Greater Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera chlorantha)

Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

A beautiful orchid of grasslands and woodlands, Greater Butterfly Orchid is fairly common in Dorset, and southern England as a whole, on calcareous soils. 

In woodland habitats, the white flowers seem to glow in the dim light, as they stand on tall stalks above the surrounding green vegetation.



Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)


Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

The familiar Bluebell needs little introduction!  Throughout Britain many people know of a bluebell wood near them, but from my (limited) experience, Garston Wood is the most stunning I have ever seen.  An evening walk here in May is an unforgettable experience, the air heavy with the scent of many tens of thousands of bluebells.  The plants carpet the floor of the woodland, mixed in some areas with great numbers of Ramsons - it's a bit like walking through a sea of blue and white!





Ramsons (Allium ursinum)


Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

This familiar plant of damp woodland is widespread in Britain, and when growing en-masse it presents a stunning spectacle, as at Garston Wood (see below).





Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum multiflorum)

Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

Characteristic of dry, ancient woodlands on calcareous soils, this attractive plant is a welcome sight when in flower in late spring and early summer.




Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris)


Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

Well-known to gardeners in its many cultivated forms, Columbine is relatively uncommon in the wild in Britain. 

It can be found in lightly shaded habitats on calcareous soils, such as woodland edges and scrub.  Within populations there are some colour variations, although most plants are the familiar deep purple-blue colour. 

The plant is commonest in southern Britain, although it can be found as far north as the Orkney Islands. 

pink-flowered form


Columbine foliage with morning dew



Wood Spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides)

Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

The sight of an ancient woodland carpeted with bluebells and wood spurge in May is one of favourite spring sights, and definitely worth the trip to southern England to enjoy. 

Wood Spurge is a fairly tall plant, growing to nearly a metre tall, and is common in the right habitat. 

Nationally, it has a predominantly southern distribution, with other scattered occurrences from the Midlands northwards.



Lesser Stitchwort (Stellaria graminea)

Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

This common woodland species is described in the Flora of Derbyshire - the White Peak woodlands section of the site.



Yellow Archangel (Lamiastrum goleobdolon)

Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

A stingless relative of the nettles, Yellow Archangel is a common woodland plant in England and Wales, but rarer in Scotland.  It grows on calcareous or nutrient-rich soils.



Bugle (Ajuga reptans)

Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

Bugle is a very important plant in Dorset's woodland as a nectar source for butterflies, especially several fritillaries.  Although the flowers are usually blue-purple, although white-flowered forms are occasionally seen, as here.



Common Twayblade (Listera ovata)

Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

Common Twayblade is fairly frequent in Garston Wood, growing along the woodland rides alongside Common Spotted, Early Purple and Greater Butterfly Orchids. 

The species is described in the Flora of East Anglia section of the site.



Corn Mint (Mentha arvensis)

Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

A common plant of various lowland habitats, Corn Mint can be recognised by its dense, whorled inflorescences in the leaf axils.  Individual flowers are bell-shaped with short triangular calyx teeth.  These features distinguish it from the rather similar hybrid M. x verticillata (Whorled Mint), of which M.arvensis  is one of the parents.



Wild Basil (Clinopodium vulgare)

Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

I've described this plant in the Flora of Hampshire section of the site (where it was growing just over the county border at Martin Down NNR). 

Thanks to Fred Rumsey for the identification.



Hedge Woundwort (Stachys sylvatica)

Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

The deep red flowers with white markings identify this common woodland nettle relative.  When bruised, the foliage gives off an unpleasant scent. 

Hedge Woundwort is common throughout much of the British Isles in damp, grassy habitats.



White Dead-nettle (Lamium album)


Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

Easily recognised by its hairy, white flowers and unspotted leaves, White Dead-nettle is a common and beautiful woodland plant. 

The name Dead-nettle derives from the nettle-like leaves which are stingless.




Common Cow-wheat (Melampyrum pratense)

Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

There are 4 Cow-wheat species in Britain, and all are annual semi-parasitic herbs.  This is by far the commonest species, and is of note as the foodplant (in its Kent colonies) of the nationally endangered Heath Fritillary butterfly. 




Bush Vetch (Vicia sepium)

Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

The commonest legume to occur in woodlands, this scrambling plant is common throughout the British Isles.

The only other woodland-dwelling Vicia is V.cracca (Tufted Vetch), but that species has downy stems, very different from the hairless stems of Bush Vetch.  Bush Vetch also bears its flowers in short, rounded, few-flowered racemes, quite unlike the long, many-flowered racemes of Tufted Vetch.



Wild Angelica (Angelica sylvestris)

Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

This statuesque umbellifer is a typical plant of damp woodlands and meadows.  It can be distinguished from similar tall species by its purplish hollow stems and small individual flowers which have short incurved petals and lack a calyx.





Common Dog-violet (Viola riviniana)


sepal details, Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

The commonest of Britain's Viola species, this plant blooms throughout spring in a variety of habitats, from woodland to grassland. 

It is similar to the closely-related Early Dog-violet (V.reichenbachiana), but has a curved spur on the lower petal and strongly-branched dark purple veins near the centre of the flower (on the lower petal).  The sepals are long and pointed, helping to distinguish this species from the Hairy Violet (V.hirta), and the appendages at the base of the sepals are large and square, unlike the much smaller appendages of V.reichenbachiana.




Wood Anemone (Anemone sylvestris)

Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

This early-flowering woodland perennial is described in the Flora of Derbyshire - the White Peak woodlands section of the site.



Primrose (Primula vulgaris)

Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

One of Britain's most familiar woodland plants, this species is described in the Flora of Derbyshire - the White Peak woodlands section of the site.



Butcher's Broom (Ruscus aculeatus)


Garston Wood RSPB Reserve

An unusual spiny shrub of dry southern woodlands, Butcher's Broom is easy to recognise.  What look like spiny leaves are in fact flattened, modified stems used for photosynthesis - the actual leaves are tiny papery scales, not visible in these photos.  The insignificant flowers are followed by bright red berries, which persist on the shrub for some time.




Coastal Plants

Portland Spurge (Euphorbia portlandica)

Broadcroft Quarry, Isle of Portland

Strictly a coastal plant, Portland Spurge can be found around the south and west coast of Britain, from Sussex to Galloway, but it is totally absent in the east.  It is also found around all of coastal Ireland. 

Visually it is very similar to the more widespread Sea Spurge (E.paralias), which has fleshier, blunt leaves and smooth seeds.



Sea Spurge (Euphorbia paralias)

Church Ope Cove, Isle of Portland

Common around the southern and western coasts of Britain, Sea Spurge can be recognised by its fleshy leaves which lack a prominent midrib.  The species is abundant on the coastal cliffs of Portland, where plants are often small, due to the consistently dry conditions.




Sea Campion (Silene uniflora)

Ferrybridge, near Weymouth

Common on the shingle of Chesil Beach, this widespread coastal species can be recognised by its erect, single flowers (hence the Latin name) and small, rather fleshy leaves.



Thrift (Armeria maritima)

Durlston Country Park

This familiar plant of sea cliffs can be seen around almost all of Britain's coastline, where it turns grassy slopes and ledges pink in early summer.  The plant can also be seen inland at a few sites, especially on mountain ledges in western Scotland; in mainland Europe A.maritima ssp.alpina is a common plant of limestone mountains.



Danish Scurvygrass (Cochlearia danica)


The most common coastal Scurvygrass, C.danica can be recognised by its ivy-shaped, stalked stem leaves.  Its flowers are also slightly smaller than those of C.anglica, which is more of a saltmarsh plant.

Thanks to Fred Rumsey for the identification.




Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

Chesil Beach

A very common plant across Britain, Ribwort Plantain grows in open, dry habitats (including garden lawns).  It has typical Plantago inflorescences, and narrow lanceolate (hence the Latin name) leaves on short stalks.



Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum)

Church Ope Cove, Portland

A coastal plant with a mainly southern distribution in Britain, Alexanders is very common around the cliffs of Portland, especially in areas where scrubby vegetation dominates.

It can be recognised by its yellow flowerheads and oval, toothed leaflets and black fruits.  The rather similar Wild Parsnip (Pastinacea sativa) has pinnatifid leaves and greenish fruits.



Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum)

Church Ope Cove, Portland

A fleshy-leaved umbellifer found around much of the southern half of Britain, Rock Samphire grows on cliffs and in shingle.  In summer it bears flat umbels of yellow flowers.

Thanks to Fred Rumsey for the identification.