‘And that will be England gone, the shadows, the meadows, the lanes….. all that remains for us will be concrete and tyres’
On holiday recently, passing mile upon mile of road-side verges sprayed with weedkiller, I couldn’t help thinking of these ringing words from Philip Larkin’s disturbing poem ’Going,Going’. Even back in 1972 he was warning of the way we are trashing our environment. Those sprayed verges are understandable as part of essential high-way maintenance yet, in a way, deeply disturbing. With the road-sides looking like a ‘scorched earth’ policy it raises the question ‘Where have all the wild flowers gone?‘
Where have all the wildflowers gone?
97% of our traditional wildflower meadows have gone. They have been replaced by arable, grazing pasture, or silage, which is so much easier to produce than hay, which was always so susceptible to wet weather conditions. The result, regrettably, is that these intriguing, quaint names have largely faded from our countryside vocabulary:
Ragged Robin, Rest Harrow, Shepherd’s Purse, Sheep’s bit Scabious, Lady’s Bedstraw, Cuckoo Flower, Jack by the hedge , Self-heal, Bird’s foot trefoil, Traveller’s Joy/Old Man’s Beard.
These charming unsung hidden gems, are forgotten treasures, full of the memories of the past. These plants have been around for centuries and we should treasure them as the old poets did.
‘To me the meanest flower that blows Can give thoughts too deep for tears‘ – Wordsworth’s ‘Ode to Immortality’
Creating Wildflower Meadows
This year’s ‘Spring Watch’ emphasis on field margin and verge flowers and the benefits they bring was encouraging. It’s so good to see the efforts some farmers are making to encourage wildflowers on their field margins and hedgerows.
Miriam Rothschild led the way with her pioneering fields of wildflower meadows. She developed a wildflower seed mixture that was mischievously called ‘Farmer’s Nightmare’! Under her inspiration, HRH Prince Charles has also become an advocate of the cultivation of these traditional flower-rich ‘meads’. There’s a photo in my copy of the book on the Highgrove estate of the Prince helping to operate the horse-drawn hay cutter in one of the meadows in his grounds.
‘Crown’d with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With bur-docks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn.’
Shakespeare’s King Lear (4.4.2-6)
Farmer’s nightmare indeed!
In the gardens at Great Dixter, Christopher Lloyd maintained a number of wildflower meadows and, after several decades, they now have a rich variety of flora. Seeing the uncut front grass, a visitor to Dixter once commiserated with Christopher on his not being able to employ help cutting the front grass! But that’s just the point, wildflower or flower -rich grass does not need cutting except for once a year!
For those gardeners trying to create wildflower meadows, Christopher’s inspirational book ‘Meadows’ is essential reading. Many of the old traditional meadows, now completely lost, took several centuries to develop their once rich flora!
My own experiment with ‘Pictorial Meadow’ mixtures (including some of the traditional annual weeds of corn crops) has been most encouraging. These mixes were widely used in the 2012 Olympic Park in East London and in roadside verges in several major towns and cities in the UK
In the Western Isles of Scotland where crofters have preserved the old practice of hay meadows, it’s fascinating to see the Corncrakes breeding successfully. Wouldn’t it be rewarding to see this very rare bird returning to other parts of Britain where it was once common.
‘Weeds’ are Wildflowers
Trained, as a horticulturalist, to combat weeds I’m now trying to value them (within reason!). They were here long before me – I play host to them — so why not get better acquainted with them. Each has its own charm and significance.
The following make an attractive garden display: Valerian , Chicory, Meadow Cranesbill, Evening Primrose, Teazle.
Even the humble dandelion, the bete noire of many gardeners, is a fine plant in flower and with its seed head ‘clocks’, the delight of children. For the gardener’s peace of mind they can be deadheaded to prevent the seeds spreading.
Each in its Place
Each wild flower has its own particular specific insect pollinators. The foxglove is designed for bumble bee access, while smaller insects are kept from raiding the nectar by small hairs. The nettle acts as host plant for 4 common butterflies. Just two examples of intimate and intricate niches and relationships all fitting together as so often in the natural world.
‘See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon was dressed like one of these‘
The words of Jesus in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’.
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Next post will, I hope, include more vibrant colour from my cottage garden in high summer.
Lesley sent me this photo with her comment. See below.