A Dozen Flowers To Spot While Hillwalking

© Sarah Stirling
Like many hillwakers, I spent years wandering around the hills appreciating the wonderful environment but not really knowing much about the geology, fauna and flora around me. In more recent years I began to wonder just what it was I was seeing, hearing and smelling while out in the mountains, and eventually wrote a book called Nature of Snowdonia. I found that learning about the upland environment greatly increased my enjoyment of a day out in the hills, and it gives me great satisfaction to be able to name and chat about the nature encountered when out and about.

Wild Flowers in Wales
© Sarah Stirling

Many of the upland areas we walk through have been greatly affected by years of grazing sheep or by management for sporting interest, but there is still plenty of flora to see and appreciate in the hills today. In this article I will introduce you to twelve of the commonest flowers encountered while hillwalking on the acid uplands of the UK. The dozen I have selected should all be in flower in summer and, while the example photographs are all from my home in North Wales, they can all be spotted in the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands and indeed most other areas of acid upland from Cornwall to Kerry and across to the North Yorkshire Moors. A word of warning though, it is usually illegal to pick these flowers and the background medicinal and dietary information has been included as a matter of interest rather than recommendation.


(Pinguicula vulgaris, or Tafod y gors in Welsh)

Butterwort is a low, sticky perennial which grows in sunny nitrogen-deficient bogs. It has a beautiful blue flower which can grow about 12cm above the starfish-like leaves. To supplement its diet, it traps insects on its sticky leaves and digests them. It is one of the two common insectivorous plants to be found around our uplands (the other being sundew). Its leaves were once used to curdle milk and in Wales it has been used as a purgative. The name, Tafod y gors, translates as tongue of the bog.

Common dog violet

(Viola riviniana, or Fioled gyffredin in Welsh)

The dog violet is a beautiful little flower often found in woodlands and common in grassy mountain places. It has another Welsh name: Sanau'r gwcw, which translates as the cuckoo's socks as the plant flowers around the time the first cuckoos are heard. Ancient folklore suggests that it is unlucky to pick these flowers in small bunches and that bringing a few into your house would stop your hens laying. In parts of Wales, the flowers were once collected and made into a treacle by adding water and sugar. This was once considered to be an unrivalled cure for colds, coughs and chest complaints.


(Pedicularis sylvatica, or Melog y cwn in Welsh)

Lousewort is a small, semi-parasitic perennial which grows in damp and boggy places, often hiding in the grass. Once spotted, several more can be seen in the same area. It was once thought that grazing animals could catch liver-fluke from this pretty little plant; it is now known that fluke and lousewort flourish in similar locations.

Heath speedwell

(Veronica officinalis, or Briwydd wen in Welsh)

Heath speedwell only grows in dry, grassy places. However, it does flourish on the slopes above Llyn Teyrn, on Snowdon, and around the head of Cwm Idwal. It has a characteristic hairy stalk ringed with delicate lilac flowers. The low-growing plant achieves no more than 20cm in height. A bitter tangy tea can be made from this flowering herb or the dried leaves can be added to tea blends. They have been used to treat kidney complaints, haemorrhages and skin diseases although even modern herbalists would agree that it has been superceded by modern drugs.

Wood sorrel

(Oxalis acetosella, or Suran y coed in Welsh)

Wood sorrel looks very much like clover until the bonny little flower appears, when it is then confused with the Snowdon lily! It is usually found in shady areas under rocks and grows to no more than 7–8cm high. Wood sorrel is, as its name suggests, a woodland indicator species. Where wood sorrel is found there were once trees; otherwise it grows in an environment of shade and shelter similar to woodland. The leaves, when fresh, taste like a strong green apple. They should be eaten sparingly, however, as they can bind up the calcium in the body leading to a nutrient deficiency.


(Polygala vulgaris, or Amlaethai cyffredin in Welsh)

Confusingly, Milkwort's flowers come in blue, mauve, pink or white! The very small flower is common in both calcareous (lime rich) and acid (lime deficient) grassland areas. Although rarely growing above 15cm tall, it can reach 30cm tall. The leaves can be used as a tea substitute. Milkwort is thought to have sweat-inducing and diuretic properties. Its name comes from the belief that it can increase the milk flow in nursing mothers, although this is unproven.

Scurvy grass

(Cochlearia officinalis, or Llwylys cyffredin in Welsh)

Scurvy grass is widespread in coastal areas but is less common in the uplands. It has heart-shaped leaves and white flowers with four widely-spaced petals growing to a height of 20cm. Welsh shepherds are reputed to have eaten the leaves of this plant at one time as a vegetable to ward off scurvy, in a similar way to sailors. It can be seen in the upper reaches of Glyder Fawr, close to where the Idwal stream starts.

Wild thyme

(Thymus polytrichus, or Teim gwyllt in Welsh)

Wild thyme is very common in dry grassy areas, forming low-lying mats with short flowering stems and hairy leaves. Pick a few leaves and eat raw in salad or add as a flavouring to cooked food. If you choose to dry the leaves, pick them in early summer just before the flowers open. An aromatic tea can be made from the leaves or dried flowers. The leaves, and especially the essential oil contained within them, can be used as an antiseptic, antispasmodic, deodorant, disinfectant and sedative. The essential oil from the leaves can also be used in perfumery and soaps and the dried flowers can also be used to repel moths from clothing.


(Menyanthes trifoliate, or Ffeuen y gors in Welsh)

Bogbean is a very distinctive plant with spectacular flowers that project, along with the leaves, about 30cm above the water in ponds all around the hills. The roots can be cooked but must be treated to get rid of an acrid taste, which involves drying it out thoroughly, grinding it into a powder and then washing it in running water. Unfortunately, this treatment will also remove many of the vitamins and minerals contained in the root. The powder has been used for making famine bread, but the root can be used as an emergency food when all else fails! The bitter leaves can be used as a substitute for hops in making beer. Bogbean is closely related to the gentians, which are famous bitter herbs used as a digestive and general body tonic. This plant can be used similarly as it is anti-inflammatory, astringent, cathartic, digestive, diuretic and hypnotic, but it can irritate the digestive system of patients with gastric inflammation or infections. All parts of the plant are medically active, but the leaves are the part most commonly used. These are best used dried as the fresh plant causes vomiting. It is also believed to be a good remedy for rheumatoid arthritis, especially when this condition is associated with weakness, weight loss and lack of vitality. Note that excess doses can cause vomiting.


(Potentilla erecta, or Tresgl y moch in Welsh)

This small yellow flower with four petals is a walker's constant companion in the hills from April until October. Tormentil is that little yellow flower seen in every grassy area on the hill. It is usually quite low on the heavily grazed hillsides, but can reach a metre in height in longer grass as it strives for sunlight. Although it looks a bit like a buttercup, it is actually a member of the rose family. Despite the fact that a tea can be made from its roots, this is not a particularly edible plant. However, its medicinal properties are legendary. It is well known for being a highly astringent herb which has been used to cure fever, diarrhoea, burns, cholera, dysentery, sore throats, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, mouth ulcers, infected gums, piles, inflamed eyes, chapping of the anus, cracked nipples, bed-wetting by children and toothache. Its Latin name, however, suggests other properties!


(Drosera rotundifolia, or Gwlithlys in Welsh)

A little beauty with gorgeous sunshine-like leaves with sticky globules used to catch insects. Like butterwort, this is a way of supplementing the diet of the plant which grows in nitrogen-deficient boggy areas, and can be used to curdle milk. The juice from the leaves is supposed to cure warts, corns and bunions. However, if the plant is ingested for one of its many other medicinal properties such as curing whooping cough, chronic bronchitis and asthma, it can discolour your urine! The Welsh name translates as 'sun sweat'.


(Sedum rosea, or Pren y ddannoedd in Welsh)

A strange succulent plant which is very susceptible to grazing, this arctic-alpine is confined to rocky ledges away from sheep and goats where it grows up to 30cm high. It has a wide range of medicinal properties, most interestingly as a stimulant which can be used to combat stress. Ddannoedd means toothache in English, providing a clue to one of its past uses in Wales.

About Mike Raine

Mike Raine  © Mike Raine

Mike Raine is and MIC who works full time as a Senior Instructor at Plas y Brenin. Getting on a bit now he prefers to stay in Wales all year round these days rather than go chasing off to Scotland or the Alps. This means he is well placed to enjoy magnificent conditions when they do occur in the Principality.

Mike's book Nature of Snowdonia is published by Pesda Press and available from their website.

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13 Jul, 2011
could we have more of things like this, maybe some common birds as I often struggle to identify birds from their outline.
18 Jul, 2011
I'm glad you said that, as I was planning to follow this up with one on birds and one on trees! Sarah
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