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Why bees & biodiversity benefit from indigenous wildflowers

Hazel Sillver

20th March, 2012

Filling your garden with wildflowers helps honeybees and butterflies, and creates a relaxed mood. And, from the Easton Walled Garden to Sissinghurst, there's plenty of inspiration

Many of the wildflower areas that provide food for pollinating insects (such as honeybees and butterflies) have shrunk over the past few decades.  So far, we have lost 97 per cent of lowland semi-natural grassland, 20 per cent of chalk grassland and thousands of miles of hedgerow. This is the effect of intensive agriculture and, in urban areas, an obsession with neatness. The result is that some wildflower species and insects have become extinct.  ‘We need to fall in love with wild flowers, and those who have loved them in the past must rekindle their affections,’ says Sarah Raven in her beautiful new book Wild Flowers (£50, Bloomsbury). ‘It is not just about appreciating biodiversity and all that implies for a rich and healthy environment. It is also about us, and our connection to nature and the deepest possible delight that can be derived from feeling at home in a spectacularly flowery world.’

So what can you do to halt the decline in native fauna? For a start we can help by buying locally grown, organic food. This will attract insects and birds, and thus prevent the dreaded ‘Silent Spring' predicted by Rachel Carson in the 1960s.  But we can also plant wild flowers in our own gardens: native blooms such as cornflowers will fill our outdoor spaces with the mellow hum of bees, the flutter of butterflies and bundles of colour.

It’s a misconception that a garden full of wildflowers has to look like a field. Our native plants can be grown amid the most contemporary and slick of garden designs and even add to them. Wildflowers have a natural, easy beauty about them – perhaps simply because they’re meant to grow here. A spring garden of foreign flowers such as tulips and alliums isn’t as nourishing to the soul somehow, as one blooming with primroses, wild daffodils and wood anemones. It seems wildlife prefer wild flowers too. A recent study by ecologist Dr Kevin Matteson of Fordham University showed that bees prefer visiting native species. While some wildflowers are definitely not to be introduced (bindweed and ground elder for instance) because they will knit themselves through your entire garden, there are many that will add an abundance of beauty and butterflies to whatever your garden style is.

The contemporary wild flower garden
Modern garden design can (to some people’s eyes) be cold and severe – by adding wildflowers to it, the mood softens. In his 2006 Chelsea Savills garden, the designer Marcus Barnett planted a generous show of white foxgloves – the result was wholesome, soulful, beautiful and modern.  Other wild flowers that fit into a contemporary design include monkshood, white campion, teasel, fennel, wild parsnip and sea holly. If you’re partial to the modern trend for grasses, consider mixing them with evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), which flowers in bold splashes of canary yellow.

Wild areas
Creating a ‘wild’ area provides great contrast and relief (for adults and children), if the rest of the garden is neat. This can be in sun or shade:

The wild sunny garden: At Easton Walled Garden in Lincolnshire, roses grow amid a meadow. Create a smaller version at home with wild roses (Rosa canina or Rosa rubiginosa) surrounded perhaps by a sea of pink and blue wild flowers (such as knapweed, hoary plantain, soapwort, musk mallow, goat’s rue, meadow cranesbill, valerian and everlasting pea) and the wild grass Briza media.

The wild shady garden: At Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent the gorgeous lime green flowers of wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides) grow in the dappled shade of hazel trees. Create your own flowery sanctum under the trees. Other wild flowers that love semi-shade are nettle-leaved bellflower, scented violets, wild garlic, wood anemone, campion, foxgloves, primroses, ivy, lily of the valley, honeysuckle and of course bluebells. 

True blue: English bluebells
Come April, our native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) carpets deciduous woodland in a sea of blue and fills the air with perfume. Sadly it is under threat from the thuggish Spanish bluebell, which is unscented, paler blue and upright (where the English bluebell curves at the top). If you find the Spanish species in your garden, bin it, to prevent it hybridising with our native.

Mini meadow
Most of us don’t have our own meadows to skip through so why not create a miniature version instead? There’s no quicker way to fill a border with wildlife friendly, pretty flowers than to sow a mix of meadow annuals. At RHS Harlow Carr in North Yorkshire, a Pictorial Meadows mix of cornflowers, poppies, corn marigolds and other annuals has been planted to form dense borders of spectacular colour.  You can do the same with perennials, which will (eventually) bloom year after year. For example grow a border of yellow and pink meadow flowers to lure butterflies by planting bird’s foot trefoil, lady’s bedstraw, knapweed, clover and red campion. Create a mix of colours and forms you love. Sarah Raven’s book is useful because it has colour charts at the back.

The wider community
While our gardens are important food sources for pollinating insects, we must do all we can to encourage the wider sowing of wild flowers. Rural and urban areas contain vast stretches of unused land that could easily become beautiful sources of food for wildlife. Buy organic and consider writing to your local MP and council to encourage the sowing of wildflowers on village greens and in parks. In one part of Brighton, traffic islands have been sown with wild flowers, saving the maintenance cost of grass mowing and producing a glorious show that buzzes with wildlife.

The wildflower wishlist

Plant our 10 favourite wildflowers now; come summer, they will provide food for wildlife and make your garden look great

Dog rose (Rosa canina) has scented pink flowers. Mix with other natives (blackthorn, hazel, cherry plum, crab apple, spindle and hawthorn) to create a gorgeous mixed wildlife hedge.

Musk mallow (Malva moschata) has pastel pink flowers and musk-scented leaves.

Melancholy thistle (Cirsium helenioides) has purple pink thistle-like blooms. Not melancholy at all!

Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) The garden designer Dan Pearson sowed these either side of the gate at Home Farm. What could be more welcoming?

Tufted vetch (Vicia cracca) Mounds of indigo flowers that look fabulous in a relaxed border of pink roses.

White clover (Trifolium repens) Consider mowing your lawn a lot less, so that daisies and white clover can flower, providing splashes of white and essential food for honeybees.

Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) Woodbine grows in the dappled shade our woodland glades. The scent it releases at twilight is sublime.

Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) has piercing blue flowers that are breathtaking when planted in large clumps.

Cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus) The punchiest cobalt blue in the garden. Sow them with Briza media for a meadow effect or in front of delphiniums for a double blast of blue.

Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) Plant amid a lush sea of ferns in semi-shady parts of the garden, or amongst roses in sunny borders.

 

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