Field Madder

The books say that Field Madder flowers until October, but it is often still hanging in there into November on The Lizard.

Photo: Steve Townsend

Scientific name: Sherardia arvensis

Other common names: Blue Field-madder

What to look for:

  • Family: Bedstraw (Rubiaceae)
  • Flowers: Four to eight small (2 to 3 mm across) four-petalled flowers grow together in terminal heads, pale pink to mauve in colour, and funnel-shaped.
  • Leaves and stem: In bedstraw fashion, leaves are in whorls. There are four leaves in a whorl lower down the square stem, and five to six higher up. Each leaf has bristly prickles near the edges.
  • Length: Stems are 10 to 30 cm long.
  • Where: Wasteland, grassland, sand dunes, verges and arable fields, usually on basic to neutral soils.
  • When: Flowers appear from May to October.
  • Habit: Prostrate.

Field Madder was once more common in Britain than it is now. It is one of the many plants that were losers in the increasing agricultural intensification of the second half of the twentieth century. This annual plant with its small pretty pink-mauve flowers is however still locally common in many areas, in particular the more southern parts of Britain. It is rarer in Scotland, where it is included on the Scottish Biodiversity List. Globally, the natural range of this annual member of the Bedstraw family covers most of Europe and the north of Africa, and into Asia. Field Madder relies on flies for its pollination.

Like the other Madders (Madder – Rubia tinctorum; Wild Madder – Rubia peregrina), the roots of Field Madder were used in the Middle Ages to make dye. Field Madder makes a pretty rose-pink coloured dye, compared to the brighter red of Madder.

Did you know…?

…The genus name Sherardia is given in honour of James Sherard (1666–1738), an English botanist. Field Madder is the only species in this genus.

…Field Madder has become naturalised in North America and Australia.

More information and references:

Johns, Rev. C. A., 1908. Flowers of the Field. George Routledge & Sons, London.

Mabey, R., 1997. Flora Britannica. Chatto & Windus, London.

Rose, F. and O’Reilly, C., 2006. The Wild Flower Key, 2nd edition. Frederick Warne, London.

Stace, C., 2010. New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Published: November 2014
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Steve Townsend