In Search of the May Lily

Mark Dinning DWT Botany Group, News

The Search Goes On
June 2016, I was lucky enough to find myself at the confluence of the Nookton and Beldon Burns. My journey that day hurried me a little too speedily along the footpaths leading to the moors above Blanchland. From what I briefly saw at this tranquil spot I knew I must find time to return to enjoy the many plants seen on my journey that day. It was with great pleasure then that in May 2017 I found myself back at the same spot and this time in some great company.
On the same morning that the Trust ran an outing up to Cow Green in Teesdale, ten eager botanists set out in search of the May Lily (Maianthemum bifolium) along the Nookton Valley. County Durham has a significant proportion, more than 25%, of the national distribution of this rare species. On this occasion it proved to elude all ten searchers, but there were plenty other treats in store.

Richard & Lesley search for the May Lily.

An ancient woodland site, now mainly conifer plantation with areas of broadleaf woodland further up the valley there was plenty ancient woodland flora on show, with; bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella), great wood-rush (Luzula sylvatica), hairy wood-rush (Luzula pilosa) ramsons (Allium ursinum) and dog’s-mercury (Mercurialis perennis). The highlight in the woods was a fantastic show of Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris).

Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris) cover an extensive area of bank side.

After an energetic few hours searching for the May Lily lunch was taken but not before a new tree to the group slowed our crossing of the footbridge over the Nookton Burn.

Red Berried Elder (Sambucus racemosa)

Red Berried Elder (Sambucus racemosa). This species was introduced as early as the 16th century to the UK and is quite widely cultivated. Most of its spread as a garden escape took place in the 20th century. A deciduous shrub it is now established in woodland, shrubberies, hedges and waste ground, it’s also planted as game cover in parts of northern England and Scotland.

Into the fields we ventured, where the footpath led us through an unmanaged field. Drawn to a small pond where marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) was on show the group got to work identifying pondweeds (bog pondweed (Potamogeton polygonifolius)) and horsetails (Equisetum palustre, growing in the pond, and Equisetum sylvaticum in woodland nearby). A beautiful bank of primroses (Primula vulgaris) caught our eye and led us to the colourful wild pansy (Viola tricolor).

(Above and below) The group stop to examine the stipules on the wild pansy


Wild Pansy (Viola tricolor)


Common dog violet (Viola riviniana) the other Violaceae spotted on the walk

Leaving the meadow behind we gained height following the footpath to emerge in another field, this time above the lichen covered tree tops.

Numerous lichen species were present on the trees

A number of spikes of Adder’s-tongue fern (Ophioglossum vulgatum) were present here.

Adder’s-tongue fern (Ophioglossum vulgatum)

An unusual fern, it grows in old grasslands, on hillsides, along woodland rides and on sand dunes. It usually appears between May and August, spending the rest of the year underground as a rhizome. It is considered a good indicator species of ancient meadows.

To finish there was just time to compare speedwell’s.

(Left to right) Germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys), Thyme leaved speedwell (Veronica serpyllifolia) Heath Speedwell (Veronica officinalis)


Slender speedwell (Veronica filiformis)

Click here for more information on the Durham Wildlife Trust Botany Group or see events page for a list of upcoming events. Please email to register your interest.

Mark Dinning
Senior Reserves Officer at Durham Wildlife Trust

Mark coordinates our Community Conservation project, offering training and support to volunteers in species surveying. Mark is responsible for developing site management plans for our reserves, based on the findings from our survey work, to guide the practical work delivered by Reserves Officers and volunteers. To register your interest in community conservation please email