Chalky environments in Britain usually occur on grassy hills, where the underlying rock is composed of chalk, a type of limestone, and the soil is generally poor, thin and quite alkaline. These areas provide a specialised environment that is host to many native wildflowers which are specific to the calcareous soil that is found there. Many of these flowers will only grow in these particular conditions, and thrive because they are adapted to the alkaline soil and because the grassland is grazed and kept clear of scrub. The flowers described below are some of the most commonly found and are given by the common names followed by latin names in brackets.
Cowslip (Primula veris)
A pretty primula with a cluster of deep yellow flowers on top of a long stalk, and typical wrinkly oval-shaped primula leaves that grow out from the base of the plant.
Bird’s-Eye Primrose (Primula farinosa)
Closely related to the cowslip, the bird’s-eye primrose has a similar structure, but has an umbel of smaller rose-pink flowers on a long stalk, and smaller leaves.
Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)
The harebell has a delicate nodding blue bell-shaped flower hanging from a slender stalk, growing to between 15-20 cm tall, and with narrow green leaves growing from the stems.
Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris)
Another nodding bell-shaped flower, growing on a solitary stalk. The flowers are purple to pink, and patterned with a snakeskin like pattern (it is sometimes called the “snake’s head fritillary”) and very pretty. It grows from 20-40 cm tall and the leaves are long and thin.
Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis)
A small white-flowered lily that grows from a creeping rhizome. The flowers occur in one-sided racemes, and it has oval glossy dark green leaves. Usually found nearer woodlands than on grassy downs, but also fond of calcareous soils.
Small Scabious (Scabiosa columbaria)
A deep purply blue flower with a 2-3 cm multi-petalled floret on a long slender downy stem. The upper leaves are narrow, while the lower leaves are lobed.
Most orchids prefer boggy or woodland environments, but there are some species that grow well on chalky grasslands in Britain – mainly the pyramidal shaped orchids that have tall spikes of flowers growing on a long stem. The early purple orchid (Orchis mascula) is sometimes found on grassy banks and woods, and is a deep pinkish-purple. The lady orchid (Orchis purpurae) is sometimes found in southern England, however it is quite rare. It grows up to 45 cm tall, with long oval leaves, and showy deep purple spurred flowers.
This is just a small selection, but there are many other varieties of beautiful chalkland flowers to be found.
Rose, F. (1981). The Wild Flower Key: British Isles-N.W. Europe. Frederick Warne, published by Penguin Books, London.