Wild Flowers in the Garden
I studied Horticulture in the late 50s at the same time as my sister was studying Botany at the university. My reference to some plants as weeds to be destroyed always led us into friendly banter. When I think of wild flowers now I get a mental picture of our beautiful countryside in those days, covered in an abundance of delicate flowers with subtle hues. I remember the rich variety of plant, bird and butterfly species that we used to enjoy as children in the hedgerows, woods and meadows when we cycled for miles around the district. I once collected and pressed over 100 wild flower species for a natural history competition at school. They all came from just one rural roadside in our village. In those days it wasn’t illegal to gather wild flowers but we were well trained and only picked from situations where there were plenty more of the species. Sadly it is a much more limited range that is found today.
There are some wild flowers that I still think of as weeds when growing in the garden which I feel to be a nuisance and important to remove as soon as possible but others I really welcome. With the loss and threat to so many of our native species many gardeners have developed their own beautiful meadows and we are encouraged to turn barren waste areas into wild flower areas for bees, butterflies and other insects. Without any conscious intention to create a meadow but because particular kinds of plant fulfil a special function for me I find I include a surprising number of plants in our garden that may not necessarily be native to our shores but are generally thought of as wild flowers. Some I have deliberately imported but others have just appeared and I’ve allowed them to stay. I will touch on here just a few that I am happy to keep in our garden.
I have a few native bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta but it’s a difficult task to keep them from hybridising with the Spanish ones in neighbouring gardens. I remove the flower buds from any of the latter that appear in our garden even if I don’t always manage to dig them up these days. I find annual poppies of all sorts irresistible. A few years ago I obtained a number of species from the HPS seed exchange. Most were Papaver somniferum in reds, blacks, purple and pink, single and double. I was thrilled with the results and so were the bees. The plants left their legacy behind in the form of seeds which mainly chose to grow in the vegetable beds where there is more bare soil. I always find it hard to pull up poppies but occasionally I carefully dig a few up to replant in a more convenient space, that is, if I can find one in our somewhat full flower beds. Our asparagus bed which I try to keep well hand weeded is a particular target for self sown seeds and I often transfer welcome species from there to other places. I always like to have some blue cornflowers to intermingle with the poppies. What can be lovelier than the combination of red poppies and blue cornflower. Corncockle, Agrostemma githago is another pretty plant associated with cornfields that I don’t like to be without. I like their soft mauve and hairy geranium-like flowers as well as their seedcases.
Silene dioica, red campion can be seen in early spring in woods, hedgerows, sand-dunes and on mountains in many parts of the country. My sister gave me a plant a number of years ago and I loved its beautiful splash of strong pink flowers that opened in spring before many of our perennials were ready to bloom. It was disappointing that it never produced new seedlings. Eventually I read that they were dioecious, meaning that the male and female flowers form on separate plants. I would need another of the opposite sex in order to get some young. The female flower can be recognised by its five styles growing from the central stigma and by their lack of stamens which are only found on the males. You may need a strong lens to see these fine details. If I had taken note of the plant’s specific name with its meaning I would have recognised the reason why my first plant hadn’t produced young. ‘Dioica’ means two houses, so named because of the need for two in order to breed. By chance, soon after I made this discovery I saw some red campion plants advertised so I bought some. Fortunately they turned out to include males of which I was in need. I’m anxious to grow some Silene latifolia subsp. alba, white campion. It is also dioecious and it hybridises with the red kind to produce plants in a range of shades from white to pink. In addition to that they have a mild evening scent which attracts moths, in particular the elephant hawkmoth.
Because of its vicious nature, Urtica dioica is not always easy to see as a thing of beauty. However, when it comes into flower I am occasionally stopped in my tracks to admire its stateliness when covered with grey flowers and pretty serrated leaves. It too is dioecious. The male flowers carry bent stamens which straighten up when mature, scattering the pollen on to the neighbouring female flowers. Nettles have been used in so many ways through the ages that I can only scratch the surface with just a few here. The acid which causes them to sting is contained within the hairs whose tips break off when touched. These stings have been used in different ways through the ages to cure rheumatism. I deliberately keep a patch in our garden for butterflies and other insects. When we moved here there were no nettles in the garden so my sister gave me a few plants which I initially grew in a tub! They soon broke out of there and spread rather further than intended. They are the only food plant of the Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral and a main food plant of the Peacock, Comma and Painted Lady butterflies. They are attacked by the nettle aphid which supplies food early in the year for hoverflies and ladybirds. I guess lacewings as well. The generic name Urtica gives rise to the name urticaria for the skin complaint commonly known as nettle rash.
Nettles only grow where there has been human habitation even if only many hundreds of years ago. The presence of people brings fertility, in particular the phosphates that nettles need. Animal manures, graveyards and bonfires all provide it and residues remain in the soil for a remarkably long time. I only once tried making a nettle soup feed for plants. The revolting smell of the final liquid was too much for me. Even if I was prepared to stomach it I knew my husband wouldn’t be and the neighbours probably wouldn’t have been too happy either! The brew is easy to make. You just soak a few nettles in water for a couple of weeks. You can add to the range of minerals by including some comfrey and/or borage. The resulting liquid then needs to be diluted to the colour of weak tea in order to be fit for use.
I grow Chelidonium majus, greater celandine, for its yellow juice. It’s a poisonous plant and I’ve used it as a homeopathic remedy for digestive problems. Despite the common name, greater celandine is not related to the lesser one but is a member of the poppy family. The name is said to originate from the Greek word for swallow, possibly because it flowers at the time when the swallows arrive. Alternatively, it could be due to a belief that when a swallow had a blind baby it used the sap to restore its sight. Ants feed on oil contained in the seed, a useful way of carrying the seed further afield.
When my honesty, Lunaria biennis, developed white blister disease in our last garden I needed an alternative food plant of the orange tip butterfly, Euchloe cardamines. The annual, ragged robin, Lychnis flos-cuculi, filled the bill. Alternative common names are cuckoo flower and bachelor’s buttons. The latter was given to a number of wild flowers. In the sixteenth century young girls would pick some of the so-named flowers before fully open to tuck under their aprons. They would give each the name of an unmarried local boy and the first that opened would either indicate the boy sweet on the girl or the one she fancied and would marry. I expect many of our members remember playing similar kinds of games. At school we played with the prune stones in our puddings or the petals of daisies in the field. We would recite as we counted each petal of the daisy, “He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me”. The words falling on the final one would tell us whether our current sweetheart loved us or not.
An abridged version of an article first published in the Correspondents’ Group Newsletter
© Copyright for this article: Monica Meeneghan
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2014. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.