Spring wildflowers of south Purbeck

Cowslips at Spyway, Dorset

The early spider orchid is the herald of spring at Spyway when wildflowers begin to peek through the grass and the clifftops come into their own.

If one plant is the emblem of south Purbeck it is this, the first to flower of our native orchids and one of the best loved.

Around three quarters of the UK population of this nationally rare orchid can be found here.

Look for it in April and early May between Winspit and Dancing Ledge when it appears in large numbers, as many as 20,000 in a good year.

Nothing is more emblematic of south Purbeck in spring than the early spider orchid
The early spider orchid
Nothing is more emblematic of south Purbeck in spring than the early spider orchid

Between 7-12cm tall, the teardrop-shaped flowers are reddish-brown with a velvety texture said to look like the body of a spider.

The early spider appears on the logo of the Dorset Wildlife Trust and attracts orchid lovers from far and wide, but it is not the only rarity blooming on the cliffs around Dancing Ledge.

Early gentian

The striking purple flowers of early gentian begin to appear in May and last until early June.

They are often found in large groups, but even so this tiny plant can be difficult to find, partly because the star-shaped blooms only open fully in bright sunshine.

Early gentian is unique to Britain, where it is found mainly in southern England, and the Dorset population is one of the largest, along with that of the Isle of Wight.

It is closely related to the autumn gentian which, as its name suggests, appears later in the year.

Early gentian flowers appear like tiny purple stars
Early gentian flowers
Early gentian flowers appear like tiny purple stars

Other wildflowers to look out for in April and May include cowslips (main picture), early forget-me-not and horseshoe vetch.

South Purbeck is such a wonderful place to find wildflowers because of the way it has been farmed for centuries.

No fertilisers are used and hardy breeds of cattle like red Devons and Herefords graze the coastal meadows in comparatively small numbers.

The result is a much more diverse range of plants than would typically be found in more intensively farmed areas.

We are working with our farming tenants to ensure this delicate balance is preserved so that it can be enjoyed by generations to come.