Making Wildflower Areas Better
Some estimate that Ireland has lost over 90% of its wildflower meadows in less than a century due to a change in farming and land management. In reaction public bodies such as Coillte, our local County Councils and even Tidy Towns groups have started creating wildflower areas to add to beauty and biodiversity. Unfortunately not all wildflower areas are equal for several reasons and so for anyone considering creating their own in Spring 2021, this list will provide a list of things to avoid and what to look out for.
- Many “wildflower” seed mixes contain non-native plants and in the past some of these imported species have become invasive so choose wisely. In many cases the real danger isn’t understood until several decades after introduction at which point it becomes very challenging to do anything about it. We only have to think of the likes of Himalyan Balsam, Japanese Knotweed and Rhododendron which are prevalent in and around Cavan and Monaghan. That said, supplies of Irish sourced seeds are limited enough so UK seeds may be the nearest you can find.
- Seeds of “native” plants sold in wildflower packs are sometimes sourced from abroad (where similar plants grow), a fact which is often omitted from the packaging. In this way two virtually identical versions of the same plants from different parts of the world have slightly different characteristics. Unfortunately the imported version can dilute the purity of the local plant population (as the local and imported plant breed together). There are many possible side effects: it could lead to a reduction in resilience to a local pest or make the plant more attractive to insects which will attack it more often. Alternatively it could result in a slight change to the flower colour, shape or time of flowering all of which may make the plant less attractive to the native pollinating bees and winged insects.
- Many wildflower mixes are made of annuals and therefore they are often short lived. The result is that in later years the more dominant species will take over and the colour and diversity of the original mix (sown in year) one may be lost. And so, to recreate the glamour of the first year some people will resow annually which is definately not sustainable nor a “natural wild” flower area. This is because of the regular effort and carbon footprint involved in soil preparation and rotovating.
- In a terrible irony, actual “wild” flowers are sometimes specifically destroyed (at preparation stage) to sow packet bought wildflower mixes as local wildflowers are often viewed as not pretty or as “weeds”. Preparation can involve rotivating to turn up the care soil while some landowners opt for glyphosate based weedkillers to clear existing growth. Of course anyone with bare soil knows many plants quickly pop up without anything being sown. These pop ups were often lying dormant in the soil and turning the soil has given them a change to grow. Other seeds blow in. Some people in Monaghan might refer to such an area of wild growth as a “weedy brose” however closer inspection shows that the mismash is made up of a mixture of important local wildflowers / grasses / shrubs and trees, many of which will support local insect and pollinator populations at crucial times of the year.
- Shop purchased mixes often flower late in the growing season. This is crucial to know because a UK study proved that 100% of early season nectar (vital for insect and pollinator populations) is provided by what many consider “weeds”. This means that a highly manicured area free of “weeds” may offer little in spring outside of starvation for nectar hungry creatures. Of course nectar can be provided in spring by other plants: for example perennials such as wood anemone, white dead-nettle or lungwort or woody species such as hawthorne, cotoneaster and hazel.
- Many “wild flower” purists despise packet bought mixes as they give people a wrong idea of what nature looks like. We say we “love nature” but many of us only appreciate it when it’s heavily managed. The wildflower area in Rossmore Park has been widely commented on in recent time (and does look fabulous) but few would recognise that adjoining areas of dandelions, brambles, buttercups and daisies are equally important and more “natural”. As often noted in this column many of our family, friends and neighbours go to extreme lengths to destroy the native plants they see as “weeds” and create “pretty” areas. In an infamous case on twitter one lady posted that her neighbour (an avid and prize winning gardener) had reported her to the local council for “untidyness” and not mowing her lawn. In truth the lawn in question was a text book example of real natural and native wildflowering plants giving huge eco-system services.
- Finally we must be aware of context and which plants are planted where. So for example planting wildflowers most commonly found by the seaside in “inland locations” or planting seaside species in land has less benefit – they may look great but the insects that would benefit from their presence are far away.
So to sum up then: if possible, stand back and let natural vegetation regrow without repeated and costly intervention. If you want to supplement the natural regrowth then use a mixture of annual and perennial plants and seek native species of local provenance where available. Even if it is a native seed mix choose one that fits the local context. Adding perennial shrubs to the area will reduce the area needing annual attention. And if you see a wildflower you like along the verges and hedgerows pull the seed heads and add them to your area. Finally be patient and above all, enjoy the challenge!