Common Whitlowgrass (Erophila verna) growing beside the River Tees, January 2021. The plants in this photo were no more than 5cm tall and about the size of a 5p piece from leaf-tip to leaf-tip. (photo © Colin Conroy)

January is not normally month that people associate with wildflowers in the UK. However, in most of the country, especially in urban areas which tend to be a bit warmer, there is no month of the year when at least a few species can’t be found in bloom – you just have to look a bit harder as they are often quite small.

This month I am going to talk about a tiny little white flower called Common Whitlowgrass, which grows in open dry ground over most of the country. Despite the name it is not a grass, and instead belongs to the Cabbage family. Like all members of that family, it has four petals arranged in a cross-shape (hence the name ‘Crucifers’ which is sometimes used for this family), although, as Kevin Widdowson’s beautiful photo shows, the petals of this species are so deeply divided that it can sometimes appear to have eight instead of four.

I normally think of Common Whitlowgrass as a flower of early spring. Both parts of the scientific name (Erophila verna) refer to the season but in two different languages – erophila means ‘spring lover’ in Greek and verna comes from the Latin word for spring. However, I don’t think I have ever seen it flowering in January until this year when I found a patch of it next to the riverside footpath near the Newport Bridge in Middlesbrough on the 16th of January.

Rue-leaved Saxifrage (Saxifraga tridactylites) on Borough Road, Middlesbrough, March 2019. (photo © Colin Conroy)

Although the plant can grow to as high as 25cm (about 10 inches), it is normally much smaller than that and doesn’t often grow taller than 10cm (about the length of my index finger), and sometimes even shorter. Because of its diminutive size it can often go unnoticed but sometimes where there is a lot of it, it will catch your eye as a white haze spreading over a patch of waste ground.

The English name Whitlowgrass was used in the past for several different inconspicuous plants which were thought to be a cure for the painful finger infection known as a whitlow (I had to look it up as you don’t really hear people talking about them these days).

There are several other little white flowers that can be found along path edges and similar places, many of them also in the Cabbage family. Two of the commonest are Shepherd’s-purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) and Thale Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) and although both are usually bigger and more scraggly than Common Whitlowgrass, another useful feature to look at is the shape of the seed-cases (the fruits of the plant) if there are any visible – Common Whitlowgrass has flattened egg-shaped fruits whereas Shepherd’s-purse has heart-shaped ones and Thale Cress has long thin pods. Another superficially similar, but unrelated, species which is starting to become established in the pavement cracks of Middlesbrough’s streets is Rue-leaved Saxifrage (Saxifraga tridactylites). This species, which in more wild places is usually associated with calcareous habitats such as limestone grassland, likes the lime in the cement and paving stones of urban areas. It is easily told from the other three species as it has five petals (instead of four) and distinctly three-fingered leaves.

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Main photo: Common Whitlowgrass flowers showing the deeply divided petals (photo © Kevin Widdowson, used with permission)

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