Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Showtime for Wildflowers

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

I was a botanist on a mission: find as many native plants as possible. With show gardens, a massive Floral Marquee and loads of nurseries, the RHS Malvern Spring Festival appeals to both the ordinary gardener and the plantaholic. It’s a good way of seeing what, horticulturally, is in vogue each year and I was there to discover how our native flora fares against the rest of the world.

A few years ago, there was a trend for native plants in “wildlife” gardens. Designers were using them as statements in their gardens, a way of challenging the norm. These days, our native flora is finding more of a natural home in the designs, being woven through the tapestry of the garden rather than a tick-box “this is our wildflower bit”.

So, winner of “Best Festival Garden” was an exquisite little formal garden by designers Ana Mari Bull and Lorenzo Volpini of LSV Gardens & Associates. Striking cloud-clipped hornbeam bushes lined a central path flanked by geometric blocks of planting, with native box alternating with softer ragged-robin, white wood crane’s-bill and tufted hair-grass. Mixed in with these were non-natives including dame’s-violet and snowy woodrush. I loved the way natives species featured strongly, but as an integral part of the design and not as a gimmick.

Ragged-robin (pictured left) was actually a bit of a star of the whole show. In the floral marquee, I found it featured it many nursery displays, the wild pink form sitting alongside the sublime white variety ‘White Robin’ and the double ‘Jenny’ (this one rather garish to my eyes, but fine if you like bright pink pom-poms). White was a theme too; Hardy’s Cottage Plants paired frothy woodruff with a white herb Robert under a canopy of solomon's-seal with its hanging ivory bells (pictured below right).

Not surprisingly, the fern nurseries drew heavily on our native fern heritage. In Fibrex Nursery’s bold display, it was good to see magnificent native royal ferns holding their own alongside tropical tree ferns. Beneath them grew a plethora of varieties of male fern, soft shield fern and lady fern, the latter including ‘frizelliae’ with its bizarre, tiny, alternating fronds.

I was particularly pleased to see the Alpine Garden Society display, one of their competitive events in which members growing skills are put to the test. Among the various categories I spotted dwarf birch ‘Glengarry’, several stunning pots of Dickie’s bladder fern (which originates from a single cave in Aberdeenshire) and, my personal highlight, a large clump of lady’s slipper orchid with a dozen pristine blooms.

For me, the show encapsulated the many ways in which gardeners engage with native plants. I loved the common alongside the rare, the formal alongside the informal, and the perfect alongside the imperfect. All were welcome and all had a part to play alongside plants from around the world.

We had a plant of bastard balm on the Plantlife stand at the show. It really drew an audience, its flowers looking like rude faces with pink tongues sticking out. Those that knew it were often surprised to learn it’s a rare native species and of our work to conserve it. This is the aim of The Wildflower Garden, to celebrate our native flora and make connections between gardens and wild flowers. Many of them are rather wonderful garden plants.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Why Our Road Verge Wildflowers are Worth Saving for Wildlife

Andy Byfield
Landscape Conservation Manager

For a few short weeks in May, the great outdoors turns a vibrant, almost claustrophobic green.  Oak, beech and sycamore are in fresh young leaf, whilst the grasses of pastureland and arable field alike seemingly burgeon before our very eyes.  With so much herbage all around, the environment should be in fine fettle, yet so often those same green fields are largely devoid of wildlife, save for a fine sward of ryegrass, and the occasional weed in a gateway.  Their former life and colour has literally been swamped by the repeated dosing of fertilisers and weedkillers.

At the same time, our best road verges give an inkling of just how colourful our countryside used to be. Down here in the south-west of England, a ‘technicolour dreamcoat’ of bluebell, red campion, greater stitchwort, buttercup and early purple orchid are at their glorious best as I write these words, and as the season progresses, so these will be replaced in turn by marsh orchid, ox-eye daisy and much else.  In fact, our verges can be seen as a microcosm of Britain’s hugely varied habitats and landscapes, providing dry and wet rocky outcrop, fine turf,heath, scrub and woodland, often in surprisingly short succession.

Thus verges in Hampshire harbour gleaming long-leaved helleborines and other woodlanders, mimicking the vegetation of nearby woodland; in East Anglia, the likes of rarities such as field wormwood, grape hyacinth and perennial knawel on Breckland verges are a reminder of the summer-dry continental climate of this peculiar corner of England; whilst globeflower, melancholy thistle and wood cranesbill crammed verges of northern England and Scotland are a glimpse of the former glory of our lost upland haymeadows. Apparently, roughly two-thirds of our flowering plants crop up somewhere or other along a wayside.  Its a sad fact, but as the wider countryside has lost its meadows and heathlands, so our verges become an ever more important haven for plants and animals, the unofficial nature reserves of cliché.

Of course, in the distant past – before my time even! – wayside verges were grazed by livestock and doubtless cut as a bonus crop of hay, yet in the sixties and seventies, I remember when the exuberant May-time verge-side herbage were routinely ‘dampened’ with a liberal dose of weedkiller.  In more enlightened times, the sprays have largely gone and the conservation movement has been effective in identifying special stretches as protected verges, perhaps to conserve some rare butterfly or orchid, or a particularly flowery grassland.  These latter efforts have unquestionably saved some of our finest surviving verge habitat, but it seems to me that the time has come to make sure that all verges are managed sympathetically, not just the best.  After all, the 2013 State of Nature report showed that 60% of our rarer plants and animals continue to decline, confirming the findings of Defra’s 2010 review of England’s wildlife sites, Making space for nature.

In it, the panel’s chair, Professor Sir John Lawton, commented that there “is compelling evidence that England’s collection of wildlife sites are generally too small and too isolated, leading to declines in many of England’s characteristic species”. According to Lawton, the solution lies in ‘bigger, better and more joined-up’ habitats for biodiversity, recognising the real benefits that ecological corridors could have in allowing nature to thrive.  I cannot think of any way of linking our landscapes together, than bringing good management to our stock of road verges.

The area of vergeland habitat in Britain is equivalent to the area of the Public Forest Estate in England – a thrillingly large resource if managed properly.  And there is plenty of evidence that with good management, verges can rapidly develop stunning, flower-rich habitats, with a bounty of insect life in tow, in a surprisingly short time under such management.

True, the budgets available to our highways authorities – the Highways Agency and the county councils – is more restricted than ever before, but sympathetic management could involve as little as shifting the mowing dates by just a few weeks.  It is great that Plantlife is relaunching its road verge campaign this month – and we’d love it if you join our campaign, alongside our generous celebrities, in encouraging our councils to cherish this invaluable wildlife resource.

Useful links:

Friday, 2 May 2014

The Wildflower Garden

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

Did you know that many of our garden favourites, like box (Buxus sempervirens) and Welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica) are also some of our rarest native plants?

It always amazes me that you can pop into almost any garden centre, DIY shop or nursery in the country and buy a plant of shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa), but this same species is a beautiful native wildflower restricted to just two small areas of Britain.

It was partly because of this that we decided to launch Plantlife’s Wildflower Garden. It aims to celebrate the rare and common native flowers we probably already grow, introduce you to a few new ones and also uncover the fascinating stories behind them (according to legend, for example, Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) grows from the blood of buried Viking warriors!) We want to celebrate our wild flowers and help you make the most of growing them in your own garden.

We’ll also help you select wild flowers suitable for your own garden and give advice on how best to grow them. You don’t need to let your garden become overgrown and tatty to enjoy wild flowers, they can be woven into the tapestry of all garden styles, from informal cottage to clipped and formal.

The subject is one close to my heart. As well as being Botanical Specialist at Plantlife, I’m also a passionate gardener. I inherited the gardening bug from my grandparents; one of my clearest childhood memories is of my grandmother discovering wild fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) in water meadows on the farm where I grew up. Back in her own garden she showed me the same flowers she’d planted in the lawn and the connection between garden and the wild has fascinated me ever since.

Watch out for regular updates as we go through the gardening year. We’ll be adding more plant profiles to the list and features with ideas and suggestions on how to make the most of wild flowers in your garden throughout the year.

So what are you waiting for? Why not sit back with a cup of tea and explore our native garden flora…