A perennial herb of open grassland, waysides, hedge banks, roadsides and rough ground on calcareous soils. In addition to such long-established populations, plants occasionally escape from gardens and give rise to casual populations which rarely persist for more than a few seasons. The seed is long-lived. Lowland.
The marked contraction in range of N. cataria shown in the 1962 Atlas has continued. In Northamptonshire it has declined as a result of hedgerow removal (Gent et al., 1995). Elsewhere, the intensification of agriculture and the growth of scrub have claimed many sites.
As an archaeophyte N. cataria has a Eurosiberian Temperate distribution; it is widely naturalised outside this range.