Wild About Wildflowers

by our Permaculture Consultant, Lauren Lochrie of Herbal Homestead

The following information has been adapted from the websites and sources noted at the end. 

Why wildflowers matter

“Wildflowers and wildflower-rich habitats support insects and other wildlife.

In the UK, we need a wide range of wildflowers to provide pollinators (bees and other insects that pollinate plants) with local food sources across the seasons – including times when crops aren’t producing flowers.

Many of our favourite fruits, vegetables and nuts rely on insect pollination. For example, in the UK strawberries, raspberries, cherries and apples need to be pollinated by insects to get a good crop.”

– Grow Wild website

A wildflower meadow is a beautiful way to bring a breath of countryside into your garden. They are ideal for areas of the garden that are difficult to cultivate, or, because they are fairly simple to install and manage they are good for gardeners who would like to reduce maintenance of their gardens.

Over the years, the introduction of monoculture type farming practices coupled with the harsh maintenance of road verges has led to a reduction in the natural habitats of many seed eating birds, small mammals and insects. Therefore, by creating an area of wildflower meadow at home, the gardener can play an important role in the conservation both flower and animal species that are threatened by this destruction of their natural habitats.

Wildflowers provide lots of things that insects need: food in the form of leaves, nectar and pollen, also shelter and places to breed. In return, insects pollinate the wildflowers, enabling them to develop seeds and spread to grow in other places.

The insects themselves are eaten by birds, bats, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals, all of whom contribute to the cycle of life. Wildflowers can also be really helpful to keep soil healthy. When wildflowers become established and spread their roots, they stabilise the surrounding soil.

This means that when there is a lot of rainfall, or irrigation in fields used to grow crops, soil particles and nutrients stored in the ground stick around and the soil stays healthy. This is especially important on hillsides, where sloping ground is easily washed away if there aren’t root systems to hold the soil in place.

Without plants like wildflowers that stabilise the soil, nutrients can get washed away into nearby water systems. This causes a problem called ‘eutrophication’, where algae spread and can make the water toxic to marine animals.

Native or non-native?

Native wildflowers have grown and evolved for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years here in the climate and environment of the UK. This means that they have evolved alongside other native wildlife and organisms, often benefiting each other.

For example, many native wildflowers have flower shapes, sizes, colours and the time when they bloom that are attractive to UK pollinators. Some insects, such as some bumblebee species, are very picky about where they get their food and need certain UK native wildflower species to survive.

Native wildflower species have also adapted to environmental conditions here in the UK, so they can be easier to care for than non-natives.

There is nothing 'wrong' with non-native wildflowers, but they can have a negative impact on the native wildflowers that are already growing here. For example, if new species bring diseases, or are competitive for resources like water, space or pollination by insects, the native species can suffer.

Non-native species can also be very difficult to remove once they have developed self-sustaining populations. Therefore, if they are allowed to grow and spread, they can out-compete native plants and threaten local wildflower populations.

Non-native species can ‘hybridise’ (cross-breed) with natives, which over time can dilute the adaptations that natives species have evolved, losing the benefits that a native species provides.

This is the case with the UK native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and the introduced Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica). It is now rare to find areas where only the UK native species of bluebell exists.

Pollinator friendly mixes!

Pollinator seed mixes often have a selection of annual, biennial and quick growing perennial wildflowers (which will come back each year) to choose from. So, think about what you’d like to achieve (short and long term) and take notice of the percentage of wildflowers and grasses contained, as well as the species benefits. Grasses are also flowering plants that are beneficial and are found naturally in wildflower meadows.

Annual mixes usually produce a short-lived patch of wildflowers that will provide a nectar source for moths, butterflies, bumblebees and honeybees. Consisting of bright coloured flowers, they are sown in spring for flowering in the summer of the same year or sown in autumn for flowering the following year. These will need resown each year (in spring or autumn).

Such annual flowers are usually considered agricultural weeds and were common in wheat and barley fields. Nowadays, they are usually eradicated by herbicides.  

For longer lasting and self-seeding/ lower maintenance, wildflower meadows - you may prefer mixes that contain only biennial and perennial wildflowers to create areas with a range of plants to attract wildlife from bees, moths and other pollinators as well as other wildlife such as Goldfinches - which will keep coming back each year.

Some mixes combine all three (annual, bi-annual and perennial) wildflower seeds to increase biodiversity and flowering times, and after two years you can leave the perennials to develop or re-sow.

These annual and pollinator specific seed mixes tend to be composed of 100% wildflowers, however you can also purchase different meadow and specific Scottish upland mixes that have up to 80% grasses mixed through as well as wetland mixes with a similar ratio expressing a colourful range of species for wet soils, including occasionally waterlogged/ flooded sites.

Therefore, its is best to know your site and soil type, adapting your design to work with (or adapt in a complimentary way) the local conditions or it may well be difficult to establish. For example, wildflowers that thrive in dry and sandy conditions will not do well in a wetland area so be sure to cover these basics.

Seed mix species and ratios

Here is a breakdown of the ‘Get Nectar-rich Quick Mix’ by Scotia seeds (see hyperlink link included at the end). Notice that it encompasses all three types of wildflower life cycles to increase likelihood of success and maximise biodiversity - in this instance 29% annuals, 16% biennials and 55% perennials:

How to buy native plants for your site

Although many garden centres now stock native wildflower seed, caution is needed to ensure that the seed you are buying is genuinely of local origin and is not derived from a cultivated variety which may have been imported.

Check the label - you can introduce native seeds or plants to a site if they originate from the same country or region, i.e. labelled as ‘UK natives’ for example. 

Reputable source - to be certain of this, only purchase plants and seeds that are truly natives from a reputable supplier.

Mixed bag - many of the wildflower seed mixes found in garden centres and online may contain seeds of exotic plants, which have been included for their colour or ‘showiness’, but which may not be as beneficial to UK wildlife as true UK native wildflowers.

Origins - a supplier ought to be able to tell you what country the seed or plants you are buying originated.

Your site - a reputable supplier of native origin wildflower seed and plants, will also be able to offer advice on the best seed mix or plants for your site.

Resources 

Grow Wild - How to grow wildflowers

Scottish Wildflowers - How to Create a Traditional Wildflower Meadow from Scratch

The Woodland Trust - Wildflowers for bees: how to attract bees to your garden

Suppliers 

Support local and choose native where possible*

Heritage Seeds - Heritage Seeds

Scotia Seeds - Get Nectar Rich Quick Mix

Landlife Wildflowers - Wildflower Mixes

Find more articles like this on our new course plaform - Gartur Stitch Farm School.

Tags: bees

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