“A Flower for Wharfedale”

The search for our own floral emblem

Many of us, in these difficult and strange times are seizing the opportunity for some ‘green therapy’. The countryside after all, is nature’s antidepressant, good for both your body and soul. It costs nothing and is free of any unwanted side effects. 

It is 75th years ago – just after the Second World War when Wharfedale Naturalists was formed to enjoy and record the wildlife of our area. We want to combine our anniversary with celebrating the rich botanical flora of our dale. We would like you to join us and choose a wild flower, which can become our very own Floral Emblem for Wharfedale.

It is not going to be easy to single out one flower above all others: our valley has such variety. The River Wharfe flows for 65 miles from the confluence of Green Field and Oughtershaw Becks deep within the Yorkshire Dales National Park, winding its way south-east to meet the River Ouse near Cawood. The uppermost part of the valley is known as Langstrothdale, until it reaches the picturesque hamlet of Hubberhome, after which we enter Wharfedale proper. Wetherby is traditionally seen as the foot of Wharfedale, as it enters the Vale of York before joining the River Ouse.

How have others fared in the past in their quest for a floral emblem? Is there help at hand?

All the home nations have their chosen plant; England’s Rose and Oak, Scotland’s Thistle and Scots Pine, Wales’s Daffodil and Leek and Ireland’s Shamrock or Clover Leaf.

The conservation charity Plantlife, launched the County Flower Campaign in 2002 to mark The Queen’s Golden Jubilee, asking people to vote for a wild flower, which they felt best represented their county. There were some excellent choices. Kent celebrated its Oast houses and association with the brewing industry with the hop. Herefordshire opted for mistletoe, which grows on the apple trees of the county’s many orchards. London, remembered the blitz and chose the Rosebay Willowherb or Fireweed, which flourished amongst the bombed ruins.

Yorkshire has one of the oldest floral emblems, The White Rose of York. Its origins date back to the fourteenth century, and Edmund of Langley, the first Duke of York who selected it for his heraldic shield. When King Henry VII of England ended The War of the Roses, he symbolically united the white and red roses to create the Tudor Rose, which is now the heraldic emblem of England.

The rich variety of our wild flowers is rooted in the rocks beneath our feet, giving Wharfedale its many different appearances. They quite literally colour the view. The millstone grit of Lower Wharfedale gives us the moors and crags above Ilkley and Otley. The carboniferous limestone of Upper Wharfedale has its pastures, meadows and amazing limestone pavements. Both formed respectively from huge river deltas and shallow tropical seas over 300 million years ago, as the land, which became Yorkshire straddled the equator. Add into the landscape mix the till of glaciation 12,000 to 18,000 years ago, the rich fertile alluvial soils of the valley floor, and the introduction of sheep by humans into our landscape. A kaleidoscope of different habitats is produced each with their own distinctive floral beauties.

To make your decision easier we have short-listed just ten plants. There will be arguments about what is included and what failed to make the cut. Our endeavour has been to include both the common and the rare, flowers which cover our woodland floor, decorate our hedgerows and verges, survive on the wind-swept moors and those that remind us of high summers spent in the upper dale.

Let me introduce you to the top ten choices:

Gorse or Furze (Ulex europeus)

Few think of Gorse as a spring flower, but April is just when it is reaching a crescendo in a blaze of golden yellow, covering the lower slopes of our moors, with that faint smell of coconut. However, do not just enjoy this plant in spring, but stand quietly in the centre of a thicket on a warm summer’s day and listen quietly for the repeated “clicks”, as the pods crack open releasing their seeds. In fact whatever month of the year you pass a gorse bush – even in the depths of winter – there are likely to be a few random blooms in flower, hence the expression “When Gorse is in flower, kissing is in season”. Click HERE to vote.

Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata)

Is there a North-South divide? There is botanically. The warmer south and cooler north. There is also a West-East divide, the wetter west and the drier east. The North of England has fewer flowering plants than the south, but that does not mean we still don’t have our own magnificent flora. Throughout the UK, Cow Parsley grows along the roadside, however here in Wharfedale it is often replaced by Sweet Cicely, one of those Northern beauties I alluded to earlier. We are fortunate and much the richer to have its subtle creamy-white flowers and green fern-like leaves often with a drystone wall as a backdrop. The colour and the name ought to be patented, and therefore expect to find it in the next Dulux or Farrow & Ball colour charts! It not only looks good, but like fennel and dill, it also smells and tastes good with, the flavour of aniseed. Click HERE to vote.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpura)

In early summer, it has to be the Foxglove. Growing rapidly and shooting skywards like a rocket taking off it produces a spike of pink-purple flowers. The scientific name is well chosen from the Latin digitus meaning finger or digit. The tubular flowers are just the right size to fit over the end of a small finger. The flower is also an excellent fit for a bumblebee and these insects are the main visitors and pollinators. It brings a smile to my face, and I am sure to your face too, to see a chubby bumblebee visiting and feasting on the nectar and collecting pollen. It combines both the sight and sound of early summer into one joyous moment. Click HERE to vote.

Heather (Calluna vulgaris, Erica cinerea & E. tetralix)

If the Foxglove is the purple of early summer, then Heather has to be the purple of late summer, when it paints our moorlands in a blaze of colour. It is also the time when local beekeepers will move their hives up to the moors for that much sort after ‘heather honey’. These upland areas also provide nesting sites to some of Wharfedale’s iconic birds, the Curlew, Golden Plover, Skylarks and the Meadow Pipit often unexpectedly fostering a cuckoo chick. For me, Heather will forever remind me of my father who regularly placed a sprig through the radiator grill of our ancient Austin A30 for luck, although the RAC or AA badge would have been a better investment!  Click HERE to vote.

Lady’s Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium calceolus)

It may seem odd including a flower that few people have seen in the wild. Following the loss in 1956 of a population of Lady’s Slipper Orchid on a site near Leyburn that fell pray to collectors, our colony in Wharfedale became the only surviving native colony in the UK. Its precise site remained a secret and was guarded by a stalwart group of botanists, so it is a flower we can rightly be proud of in Wharfedale and one we can call our ‘very own’. It once grew in profusion throughout limestone woodlands of Northern England with records detailing large bundles of the flowers being sold in Settle market in the 18th century. There is fortunately a happy ending to this story. Using micro-propagation techniques pioneered by Kew Gardens, it has now been re-introduced into 16 sites in The Dales, and is doing well and no longer on life support. Click HERE to vote.

Bird’s-eye Primrose (Primula farinosa)

More frequently seen than the Lady’s Slipper Orchid is the more common and much appreciated Bird-eye Primrose. If you have not seen this splendid member of the Primula family in the wild, then I encourage you to head to Upper Wharfedale in May or June (when circumstances permit), and seek it out, you will not be disappointed. But it is the places where Bird’s-eye Primrose grows that make it such a beguiling flower. It is to be found in short damp grassland and flushes, often abutting limestone pavements. It has Yorkshire Dales written all over its coral-pink flowers, so not surprising to learn that in the past its proponents suggested that it should replace the white rose as the old West Riding’s county flower. Click HERE to vote.

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna)

Favourite spring flower? It has to be Lesser Celandine, which carpets and colours our woodland floors and hedge banks in a glorious haze of yellow. I am in good company; it was also William Wordsworth’s favourite, who wrote three poems about this magnificent spring messenger. Forget about the daffodil! Sadly for Wordsworth, the stonemasons asked to engrave a celandine on his memorial stone, carved a Greater Celandine by mistake, a completely different species belonging to the poppy family. Ensure that you admire these splendid flowers on a sunny, dry day as the petals close at the first sign of rain and also in the evening. Click HERE to vote.

Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

The Bluebell is the United Kingdom’s favourite wild flower, having had the most votes cast in ‘Plantlifes’ County Flower Campaign of 2002. That doesn’t mean we have to follow suit in Wharfedale, but we do have some extremely fine bluebell woods. I always make a date in May to visit one. That carpet of intense blue under the opening leaf canopy is one of greatest woodland spectacles. It is also a British specialty, with the UK being home to 50 per cent of the world’s population. Bluebells do not propagate like daffodils, which produce daughter bulbs, but by seed. Each seed takes five years to grow into a flowering plant, with bulbs lasting up to 60 years. So hopefully it will remain a British specialty for many years to come. Click HERE to vote.

Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

I am rather a fan of the bilberry, which is often over-looked. Almost everyone’s attention is turned to heather, its Ericaceous big brother. Unlike Heather it is deciduous, during winter, the bare green twigs looking rather forlorn and sad. But in spring it produces these amazing bright lime-green leaves that are quickly followed by delicate small pink urn-shaped flowers. These develop into small blue-black berries with a grape-like bloom. You can always tell when they are ripe and ready to pick; the wood pigeons droppings turn purple! Sadly bilberry picking is not as popular as it once was. I blame the arrival in our supermarkets of the large but less tasty American blueberry. Fortunately the French, keener foragers than we British, still take to the hills with their traditional coarse-toothed metal combs (the peigne) to harvest those delicious small black berries. Click HERE to vote.

Bloody Cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum)

Imagine a warm summer’s day walking in Upper Wharfedale. What could possibly be better? I am back in time, 350 million years ago to be precise, my feet paddling in a tropical sea for what will become the limestone, which makes up the Clint and Gryke of our limestone pavements. It is home to one of the most attractive geraniums, the bloody cranesbill. Forget about all those cultivars in the garden centre. This is the real McCoy. You cannot miss its deep magenta flowers against the light grey of the rocks. It is not just one of my favourite flowers of the upper dales; it is also much loved by both short and long-tongued bumblebees for its nectar and pollen. Sit for a moment on a Clint, water bottle in hand, as you stare into a Gryke and behold nature’s own miniature botanical garden. Click HERE to vote.


This is where we are asking for your help. You have been to the hustings, and each of our ten plants has had its say. The choice is yours. Do you choose your personal favourite flower or one that you think represents the very essence of Wharfedale? Whether the dale is your home, place of work or somewhere you come to walk, cycle, or picnic, we would like to hear from you.

You can vote in one of two ways and have until Thursday 18th June.

  • Using either the Wharfedale Naturalists website.
  •  Or alternatively just text your chosen flower (Gorse, Cicely, Foxglove, Heather, Lady’s Slipper, Birds-Eye, Celandine, Bluebell, Bilberry or Cranesbill) to 07854 888206.

Many thanks for taking the time to read about some of our favourite plants and hopefully feel encouraged to vote.

We will announce the chosen winning flower in The Ilkley Gazette and Wharfedale Observer as soon as the votes have been counted.

One final thought:

Wharfedale Naturalists is a thriving Society that provides memorable wildlife experiences in its Programmes throughout the year and gives financial support to conservation initiatives across Wharfedale. Membership is only £12.50 per year (£1 under 18; £5 adult full-time student) so why not join us by visiting www.wharfedale-nats.org.uk or ring the President, Peter Riley, on 862916, for more information.

Ian Brand