Growing wild flowers

08 July 2019

There’s been some discussion in various local Facebook groups recently about the wild flowers that have been planted on road verges, particularly prompted by Rotherham’s planting eight miles of pictorial meadows (i.e. flowers that aren’t necessarily native to the UK, but which fit in American native species like phacelia, gillia and Californian poppies. One discussion (I can’t find the thread again – Facebook discussions can be very transitory!) asked Central Beds council why they didn’t do it, to which they replied, amongst other things, that they did help us (South Beds Friends of the Earth, the Greensand Trust, and Leighton-Linslade Town Council) to create 19 bee-friendly areas around the town. It’s nice to have the appreciation! but of course these areas are only part of the story, and probably aren’t what most people have in mind when they think of the large areas of planting along roadside verges.

In SBFOE’s bee-friendly sites we’re trying to provide food and nesting sites for bees and other pollinators, rather than producing a colourful display – we do try to do both, of course, but the focus is different. We need a framework of permanent planting, with patches of the bright cornfield annuals that many people think of as ‘wild flowers’. And this is where it starts getting complicated. Those cornfield annuals only flower for a few weeks a year, and if we want them to set seed so there will be flowers next year, we have to leave the dying stands for a couple of months after that. That can look very untidy and people can feel it looks unintended, as if we haven’t bothered to weed it.

And those roadside verges and similar beds can take a lot maintenance, even if they do save on mowing costs. In many places, the grasses and oxeye daisies begin to overwhelm all the other, weaker, annuals like poppies and cornflowers, so that by the third year or so you just have long grass with white daisies in – like the verges and banks around new roads. And docks and thistles creep in and often take over – they’re very valuable in terms of wild life, but perhaps not what many people want to see.

You can extend the idea of ‘wild flowers’ from ‘UK native flowers’ to ‘something that looks natural, like a wild flower’, or ‘native to other countries in the northern hemisphere’, like the phacelia, gilias and Californian poppies that make many ‘cultivated meadows’ look so good.

And here’s a photo of one of our sites – the grassy bank along Soulbury Road. Photo courtesy of Brian Snowdon.

Photo courtesy of Brian Snowdon