|Field-Layer: Ferns, Flowers and Herbs
|Many flowering plants occur in the field-layer. These may be shade tolerant species, or they may
grow, flower and reproduce before the trees open their leaves in Spring, in temperate forests. For
example, bluebells will form beautiful blue carpets on deciduous woodland floors in May and April.
Many flowers grow at the more brightly lit edges of woodland, including many umbellifers, or along
the edges of trackways and in clearings. Where woodland gives way to meadow, herbaceous
flowering plants are plentiful, some of these are discussed on our page about woodland and
meadow flowers. The white flowers of wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) may carpet temperate beech
woods in May. Other common woodland herbaceous flowers include: wood spurge (Euphorbia
amygdaloides), dog's mercury (Mercurialis perennis), wood anemones (), oxlips (Primula elatior)
and wild arum (Arum maculatum). Vines, including ivy (Helix) will scramble across the woodland
floor, and climb up the trunks of trees.
Above: beneath the field layer is the ground layer.
Learn more about flowers of wood and meadown, such as
the wild arum (left).
Fungi are also commonly found in the field layer.
Conifers and beechwoods often have sparsely vegetated
field-layers, since pine needles contain chemicals that
retard the growth of potential rivals, whilst beech trees are
very effective at screening out the sun and absorbing
moisture from the soil, leaving little for other plants to grow.
Some trees produce chemicals specifically to retard the
growth of nearby plants, for example the walnut tree
(Juglans) secretes a chemical from its roots called juglone
which inhibits the growth of nearby plants. juglone is also
found in smaller concentrations in shed plant parts,
including walnut shells.
Horsetails, similar to ferns in that they are another archaic line of spore-forming plants, often grow
beside rivers and streams or in other damp or marshy places.
Above: Mercurialis perennis, Dog's Mercury, a common herbaceous perennial of temperate
woodland floors. This plant has an interesting form of seed dispersal dependent on woodland
Herbaceous flowering plants
Ferns are seedless plants which disperse by means of spores and whose life-cycle alternates
between a diploid sporophytes (shown here) and a much smaller haploid gametophyte
(alternation of enerations).
Above: an unfurling fern frond.
Wild arum, Arum maculatum, has an
extraordinary pollination mechanism
dependant on insects, read about it in
The types of flowering herbs you may find
on a woodland floor depends on
geographical / climatic region, the age of the
woodland, conservation practices, the
micro-habitat (such as light levels, whether
in a woodland clearing, along a woodland
path or in deep shade), the presence of
competitors and the soil type. Finally, of
course it depends on the time of year as
many plants which share a habitat avoid
competition and/or utilise different insect
pollinators at different times of the year.
Here we illustrate a few herbs from an
ancient woodland, primarily of beech,
growing on calcareous soils in Southeastern
Plants which depend on insects with good colour vision, such as bees, for pollination tend to
be large, showy and brightly coloured so as to catch the insect's attention and advertise
potential rewards in the form of sugary nectar. Alternatively, some flowers offer oils instead of
sugars and some, such as the Early Purple Orchid cheat and offer little or no reward.
Above: The Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) occurs in a wide
range of habitats, but prefers calcareous soils. It may found in open
meadows or in the better-lit areas of woods, such as this one, which
belongs to a colony growing in a mixed wood of mainly beech and
hornbeam. Learn more about orchids. This orchid tricks insects into
pollinating it, since it offers no nectar as a reward. However,
experienced bees learn not to bother with it!
A wide variety of lamiates (labiates, Lamiaceae) can be found in
woodlands. Lamium album (White Deadnettle or White Archangel) is
often found on the edges of woods and in better lit areas, whereas
Yellow Archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon, Yellow Deadnettle) occurs
also in the depths of woods.
Below: the Wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca).
Woodland grasses are an important component of the woodland
ecosystem and lack showy flowers since they rely on wind pollination.
Certain other flowering plants also rely on wind pollination. The Herb
Paris (Paris quadrifolia), below, is thought to be a plant which evolved
from an insect-pollinated ancestor to become primarily wind pollinated.
The petals and smaller than the sepals and are not brightly coloured.
The yellowish stamens and purplish-brown ovary adds most of the colour
to the flower.
Herb Paris (Paris quadrifolia) is an indicator of ancient woodland.
6 June 2015
4 July 2015
Below: the Bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, covers deciduous
woodland floors in flowers primarily in late April and early May, before
the trees have unfolded their canopy of leaves. Most individuals are
blue or lilac, but much rarer white mutants and pink intermediate forms
also occur. This plant is a member of the lily family (Liliaceae). This
perennial grows from a subterranean bulb each spring, but is easily
damaged and destroyed by trampling. It also prefers areas in woodland
where the shade is not too intense.
What flowers you see depends very much on the time of year. In winter,
as early as January, you may see the white Snowdrops (Galanthus
nivalis). By March, the primroses and celandines may carpet the wood.
Bluebells are at their flowering peak from mid-April to mid-May, along
with Wood Anemone and the Early Purple Orchid. Though a few may
flower as late as early to mid-June, by this point most are starting to
swell their fruit, green capsules with triple symmetry (trimerous) which
become as large as an inch in diameter (about a couple of cm). At this
time the Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza mascula) below, will be in
full bloom. This tends to occur in the more brightly lit areas of the wood,
such as alongside trackways.
The flowers support a large insect population. Insects may feed on the
pollen, nectar and sometimes other secretions, such as oils. Hopefully,
at least some of these will effect successful pollination. Click on the
photo of the Common Spotted Orchid above and see if you can find a
visiting insect which may be a potential pollinator. These orchids are
pollinated by a wide range of insects, but beetles are thought to be
especially important. Each flower has a tube or spur, which in other
orchids may hold nectar, however, the spur of the Common Spotted
contains no nectar. It appears to trick insects into visiting it whilst offering
no reward! However, it may offer a small reward in the form of sugar-rich
papillae or other secretions (certainly insects can spend quite a long
time head down in the flowers). Either way its reward seems somewhat
stingy, nevertheless pollination is efficient. It is possible that insects are
tricked a few times but soon learn not to bother, but by then pollination
may have been achieved!