When is a Wildflower Meadow not a Wildflower Meadow?

I’ve written before about Nigel Dunnett, whose garden I admired at Chelsea. Nigel came up with the idea of the “pictorial meadow”:

Pictorial Meadows are colour-themed seed mixtures that create beautiful, impressionistic plantings. They were originally developed as a means of introducing cost-effective, simple-to-maintain vegetations for urban public spaces, combining great public appeal with high wildlife value. They are now used in a very wide range of situations, from private gardens through to major public parks.

Pictorial Meadows are designed first and foremost for their visual effect: creating waves of vivid impressionistic colour. They function and work like their natural counterparts, but are not intended to be exact copies of meadows that are found in the wild, and contain native wildflowers, but also non-native and garden plants to enhance the aesthetic appeal. They are therefore intended for use in parks, gardens, urban greenspace, and not for the open countryside.

They’re a great success, and provide nectar and pollen for a wide range of pollinators too. There’s been enormous interest hereabouts in a nice project down the A303 – South Petherton “wildflower meadow” – where a local landowner has brought together a collection of annual wildflowers from across the world to create a lovely kaleidoscope of colour. It’s not as blousy as the “meadows” at Butterfly World (illustrated), but very much in the mode of Pictorial Meadows.

This is not what Nigel Dunnett understands to be a wildflower meadow, though:

Pictorial Meadows create sumptuous visual effects; they are formulated primarily for their harmonious and impressionistic colour associations rather than attempting to copy the species compositions of meadows that might be found in the wild.

A “wild” meadow is what the ecologists would call “unimproved grassland”, which according to the Grasslands Trust is where:

Cover of wildflowers and sedges is generally over 30% excluding White Clover, Creeping Buttercup and injurious weeds. Typically there will be a diverse range of grass species which may include Blue Moor- grass, Crested Hair- grass, Heath- grass, Meadow Oat- grass, Sheep’s Fescue, Tor grass, Upright Brome, Quaking- grass and Yellow Oat- grass as well as the more common grasses of semi improved grassland above.

Is this just a semantic difference? If people are planting attractive flowers which are good for wildlife, isn’t that a good thing? Yes, of course, but they have begun to think that this constitutes a traditional wildflower meadow – or perhaps a wildflower meadow should be full of sunflowers! I’m not sure myself how to label these different styles. Does this confusion matter? Yes it does, as it will mean folk will create and value fields of sunflowers rather than try to make more difficult but much more ecologically important meadows. Contrary to Nigel’s advice, odd manufactured meadows are starting to pop up in the countryside. A proud landowner around the corner showed me a beautiful meadow last year which consisted entirely of North American annuals. Lovely, but really not very helpful. We have already forgotten what our meadows should look like, so sites like that and the one at South Petherton were met with a chorus of approval.

Why are traditional meadows more important than this? Pollinators like bees and butterflies will find an extended supply of pollen and nectar at South Petherton, which is great, but where will these and other insects overwinter? What do the butterfly and moth larvae feed on? What about animals further up the foodchain? Our native fauna have a series of complicated and exclusive long term relationships with our native flora, which means that a diverse wild meadow can support a fantastic number of animal species. Its plants are also an expression of local biodiversity; no site is going to look alike, and even individual species are going to be subtly different.

These native species have increasingly been relegated to “habitat restoration schemes”. Why not include them in people’s gardens to improve the gardener’s own habitat?! Pictorial Meadows are a brilliant practical solution for urban areas where easy establishment and maintenance and quick results are required. Gardeners and small landowners, on the other hand, are (potentially!) more skilled and patient, and appreciative of the more subtle effects of the flora, and of their associated fauna. We must persuade this vast army of the attractions of using native perennials and grasses in both formal and natural planting schemes, alongside non-natives or in “traditional” meadow areas, at the pond edge or by the patio. Let’s liberate our native plants from “wildlife areas” and think about using them as beautiful flowers and grasses in the formal elements of gardens. By clever landscaping we can create areas with very different characteristics on the same site and, consequently, very different and gorgeous looking areas – but that’s another story, and one which we’ll be illustrating at Hookgate Cottage.