At our meeting on 17th June David Bevan, London Secretary of the Wildflower Society, spoke on the subject of wild flowers in the garden. Starting as garden designer David has spent most of his working life as a nature conservation officer with Haringey council. He defined his subject as British native wild flowers; plants that were growing in Britain before this country was cut off from the continent about seven thousand years ago. Only about one per cent of the 70,000 plants listed in the RHS Plant Finder come into this category.
David began by arguing why we should grow native wild flowers in our garden. The natural habitat of wild flowers has been drastically reduced by intensive farming methods. Fields are much larger with proportionally less land left as uncultivated margins, hedges have been grubbed up or are much narrower and woodland areas are much smaller than they used to be. The result is far fewer flowers and the extinction of many species. Growing wild flowers in the garden can help conservation of species and has sometimes led to the reintroduction in the wild of lost species. It is not just the plants that are preserved. Many insects and birds depend for their existence on specific wild flowers and if the flowers are lost the wild life is lost too.
The talk then continued with illustrated descriptions of a number of native wild flowers that can be grown in gardens and the insects that depend upon them; particularly the butterflies. David listed these according to the habitat where they are found in the wild; grassland (meadows), woodland and wetland. We cannot hope to truly replicate these habitats in the garden but we need to imitate them as closely as possible.
Beginning with grassland plants David emphasised that neatly manicured lawns are no good for wild flowers. A wild flower grass area should be cut only once a year at the end of August or September when plants have set seed. A problem in gardens is that the soil is generally too fertile and the grass, nettles and dock will outgrow the wild flowers. The drastic solution is to strip off the top soil and, at the least, wild flowers should be started off in seed trays or containers and planted out when they have a chance of competing with the grass. A further problem for us in our part of Bedfordshire is that most wild flowers prefer chalk or acid soil and they don’t grow so well on clay. Meadow flowers that David illustrated, together with the caterpillars and butterflies, that depend upon them were native wild daffodils (they naturalise very readily), ladies smock, plantains, lesser knapweed, cowslips, birdsfoot trefoil, fleabane, pulsatilla, ragged robin, fritillary, pheasants eye and, teasels. Michaelmas daisies although not strictly native are an excellent source of nectar.
Many of the woodland plants that David described are already familiar in our gardens where thy grow close to trees and shrubs. These included bluebells (native English not Spanish hybrids) wood anemomes, green hellebore and stinking hellebore, foxgloves and, violets. Rosebay willow herb is the essential food of the elephant hawk moth but it is an invasive plant.
Concluding with plants for ponds and bog gardens David mentioned the value of emergent flowers in ponds for damsel flies and dragon flies to climb up as they emerge from their larval state. Good plants for wet areas are flowering rush, marsh marigold, purple loosestrife, floating marsh pennywort and, greater spearwort.
Our next meeting will be the AGM on 15th July. The meeting will include a talk by a representative of the charity Bedford Garden Care which will be followed by a generous interpretation of cheese and wine.