Nature Calendar: May in the British Garden


A warm spell towards the end of the month usually confirms the arrival of spring, but there are often frosty nights to worry the farmer and gardener.


Tall, stately tulips are perhaps the most conspicuous of the many flowers to be seen in the garden in May; parrot tulips add a particularly exotic note to the spring border. Forget-me-nots are still in flower; jonquils and showy clusters of trollius now add their colour, and tall verbascums are beginning to bloom. Siberian wallflowers make a striking bedding plant, while the great buds of the paeonies are starting to burst. In the bog garden, caltha is in flower, and primulas are opening by the water side. London pride flowers now, and in the rock garden the lilac-coloured heads of Ramonda myconi appear.


Roadside grasses are growing fast and beginning to flower, including several species of brome grass, with their long, nodding panicles.

Ox-eye daisy, bush vetch and red clover are all in flower now, and on rougher ground birdsfoot trefoil can be found, with wild strawberry, scarlet pimpernel and mouse-ear hawkweed.

In the woods are bugle, early purple orchis and ransom; by streams, yellow flag and ragged robin; in wet meadows, the early marsh orchis; and in boggy ground, the cotton grass.


Among the last of the trees to break into leaf are beech, oak, ash and walnut. Latest of all is Catalpa bignonioides whose pale green heart-shaped leaves contrast with the colourful young foliage of various species of acer.

The hedges are now thick with hawthorn or May blossom, and horse chestnut, mountain ash and crab-apple are also in flower. In the garden, some of the pink tamarisks are already flowering freely, and berberis and Fabiana imbricata are in full bloom. Azaleas and rhododendrons make brilliant splashes of colour. Tree paeonies and laburnum are flowering, and lilac scents the air. Clematis montana and the delicate mauve or white flowers of wisteria decorate many walls. There are still pink buds on the pear trees, interspersed among snowy white blossom.


Birdsong is at its height, starting before dawn and dying down as the sun rises. At dusk there is another performance of lesser volume and shorter duration.

The last migrants arrive, including the tree pipit, the spotted fly-catcher and the turtle dove with its purring, monotonous song. Two other late arrivals, the nightjar and the grasshopper warbler, settle in the woods or on scrub heath-land. They can be heard there at dusk, with such residents as the pheasant, the tawny (wood) owl and the little owl. Snipe and woodcock frequent wetter places. In the garden, noisy, insistent young blackbirds, thrushes and starlings demand food from busy parents.

On the shore, many waders will still be passing, making for northern breeding sites; in their place, terns will be nesting.


More butterflies emerge during May, and the large cabbage white is particularly common in gardens and woods. Many small butterflies can be seen on close-cropped commons, including the small heath, common blue and small copper. The dingy and grizzled skippers are also there, though they might be mistaken for moths. The green hairstreak settles on bramble bushes; the wall butterfly rests on bare ground, stones and fences; and the pearl-bordered fritillary stays at the edge of woods and clearings.

Moths increase in number as the days lengthen and become warmer, and many are attracted to lighted windows at dusk. Beetles, too, fly at dusk, and that pest of woods and nearby gardens, the cockchafer, often comes indoors.

Dragonflies are beginning to appear, and already the four-spotted libellula can be seen near boggy areas. The much smaller damsel-flies emerge from lakes, ponds and streams, and range over a wide area. The most common are predominantly blue in colouring, among them the common blue damsel-fly, the common ischnura, and the common coenagrion. The larger red damsel-fly frequently accompanies them.


Rats frequent human habitation, streams and river banks in search of food. Unsightly hillocks may appear on lawns as evidence of the presence of moles, whose young are born this month.

Antlers cast by stags can sometimes be found in the woods.

16. February 2012 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Featured Articles, Garden Management, Gardening Calendar | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Nature Calendar: May in the British Garden


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