Speedwells are very pretty little flowers, blue through to purples and almost white. There are lots of them, over 20 different species and lots live in disturbed or cultivated land, however there are 5 which you might find in woodlands. So I am going to deal with them in a similar way to how I approached the violets ie all in one hit. Wood Speedwell is one of the species with quite large flowers but even these are not huge. They make their ‘show’ by having several flowers and being quite bright. To many people they are just Speedwell and they perhaps are not aware that there are so many types. I find them all a bit of a nightmare but hopefully my ID chart which I will present below will help you sort them out. I have relied quite heavily on the Stace guide for the info so blame him not me if it does not work.
Before we get started a little anecdote. I recall a conversation I had with a student who was on a field course at the East Anglian Field Study Centre. I would point out at the outset that I only ever had one conversation like the one I am about to describe in 25 years of running the center.
It was a woodland day and we were at Thetford Forest. the particular study was to compare 5 areas of woodland, each with different ages of Corsican Pines, 3 year old 10, 20 30 and 40, (give or take) and to relate the light levels to the diversity of the field and ground layers. A good study because there are not that many species which grow under Pines especially when they are 20 and 30 years, so not too difficult for the students. Anyway it was lunch time and we were all sat around enjoying our sandwiches, crisps fruit, etc, when one student came up to me and asked if I could identify a plant he had found. That in itself was a fairly odd occurrence, anyway I went over to where it was growing and it was Speedwell. So I said ‘ That is Speedwell, scientific name Veronica.’ To which he said ‘Oh yes, I realised it was Speedwell but was wondering if it was Heath Speedwell or Wood Speedwell’. I was always honest with my students and so I said that I was not 100% sure but thought it was Heath Speedwell and that we would look it up when we got back to the centre.
Amazing…. as I said never before and never afterwards was that level of knowledge of wildflowers demonstrated by any of my students. Despite doing ‘A’ level Biology very few would have been able to identify more than 5 wild flowers, thinking about it even that would have been quite exceptional. His name might have been Clive Stace (junior)….. no I can’t remember his name.
Right before we get started we need to understand a little bit of terminology, (apologies to those of you who know this stuff) A petiole is the leaf stalk. A raceme is where flowers are arranged up a central stem and each flower will be attached to the main stem with its own little stem.
Here are the 5 speedwells that you might come across in a woodland with information about each one. As you will see there are far more similarities than differences and this makes identification quite difficult, well it does for me. So anything which is a specific character for a particular woodland species I have highlighted in green italics. Good luck.
Ivy-leaved Speedwell, Veronica hederifolia.
Flowers; Solitary, 4-9 mm across,
Stems and Petiole; both hairy
Leaves; Ivy shaped with 1 to 3 large teeth.
Habitat; Waste ground, open woods, hedgerows, walls and banks
Thyme-leaved Speedwell, Veronica serpyllifolia, sub species serpyllifolia.
Flowers; in racemes, 5-10 mm across pale blue with darker veins
Stems and Petiole; up to 30 cm high. no petioles
Leaves; oval to elliptical, non hairy,
Habitat; Waste and cultivated land, paths and lawns,open grassland, woodland rides and mountains.
Germander or Birds-eye Speedwell, Veronica chamaedrys .
Flowers; in racemes, 8-12 mm across, bright blue, with a white ‘eye’
Stems and Petiole; up to 50 cm high, petioles short (5 mm) or absent and
stems with two opposite lines of hairs.
Leaves; triangular to oval serrated and hairy
Habitat; Woods, hedgerows and damp grassland.
Heath Speedwell, Veronica officinalis.
Flowers; in racemes, 5-9 mm across, lilac
Stems and petioles; up to 40 cm high, hairy all over, petioles present…. just!
Leaves; oval to elliptical mildly serrated and hairy.
Habitat; Open woods, banks, grassland and heathland.
Wood Speedwell; Veronica montana.
Flowers; in racemes, 8-10 mm across, lilac o blue.
Stems and petioles; up to 40 cm high, hairy all over, petioles 5-15 mm long.
Leaves; oval to broadly oval, deeply serrated and hairy.
Habitat; Damp woodlands.
So as you can see there are some definitive distinguishing features but not that many and for Wood and Heath Speedwell nothing 100% you just have to look at a combination of flower size and colour along with leaf shape…. all of which can vary in any species and often do.
Here is a slide show of some more with their names to hopefully familiarise you with them.