An annual or biennial herb of open or disturbed ground, especially cultivated fields. Other habitats include woodland edges, open grassland, hedges, scrub, roadsides, walls and quarries. 0-610 m (Nenthead, Cumberland), and exceptionally at 845 m on Great Dun Fell (Westmorland).
Despite changes in agricultural practice, the distribution of M. arvensis has remained stable since 1900, due in part to its flexible life history and seed longevity. The larger-flowered var. sylvestris is often mistaken for M. sylvatica, but such errors are unlikely to have affected the map.
As an archaeophyte M. arvensis has a Eurosiberian Boreo-temperate distribution; it is widely naturalised outside this range.