Does it matter what names we use for things?
Louise Gray at the Telegraph drew my attention to the Britain in Bloom plan to give packets of wildflower seeds to local communities to plant in their local park as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. She wanted a quote from us (we like Lou!). Thanks to the very poor mobile signal on the train from London to Dorchester, it took me about five attempts to give her a ten second quote for that article.
The seeds chosen by the RHS for Britain in Bloom were for arable wildflowers, flowers (or weeds) like cornflowers, corncockles and pheasant’s-eye. These are long gone from the modern countryside – indeed they were originally introduced in the neolithic with the crops of ancient wheat, rye and barley they grew within (I co-wrote a book about these fascinating plants – Arable Plants: a field guide).These are all annuals – in botanical speak segetal species – they grow with and through a cereal crop, flowering and setting seed with the crop.
What they are not are plants of wildflower meadows. Wildflower meadows are grasslands comprising native grasses and flowers, mostly perennial, which are grazed or mown for hay.
Veteran media gardening commentator Peter Seabrook (and proud defender of the horticultural peat extraction industry) complained in Lou’s article that wildflower meadows in public spaces could become “unruly rubbish dumps” and said “The whole idea of a wildflower meadow is I think extremely difficult and needs to be done on a large scale and requires a lot of maintenance” .
As you can see there are some mixed messages coming across here. Is it wildflowers in open spaces that attract rubbish, or just wildflower meadows, or arable wildflower plots? Do wildflower meadows need to be done on a large scale – do they require lots of maintenance? Well there are plenty of perfectly good wildflower meadows in people’s very small garden lawns, so size does not matter. And because meadows only need one or two cuts compared with the 12-15 cuts per year that regularly mown parkland require, they are far lower maintenance 9and far cheaper) than almost any other urban greenspace management practice, including tree planting. (see Trees or Turf the Woodland Trust report if you don’t believe me). Sorry Peter, but you’re wrong on both counts.
London in Bloom is one of the regional projects contributing to Britain in Bloom and they are really excited at London in Bloom because this is Olympic Year. The Olympic site in East London has created a whole range of Olympic gardens and meadows. These have been designed with the help of the people behind Pictorial Meadows, which are colourful mixes of native and exotic annuals mostly used to make derelict urban spaces more attractive.
Mad about Meadows is an initiative within London in Bloom which is encouraging people to create urban meadows in London – ranging from the teeny 60 to very small 300 square metres (sorry Peter). There are some great ideas in this – a competition for schools to create a mini meadow in an unusual place (bucket, wheebarrow) for example. But I was looking for some guidance as to what they thought a meadow was – try as hard as I could (via Google) I couldn’t track it down. There is no Mad about Meadows website, no technical advice – no description of what a meadow was. All I could find was a link to Hackney’s website describing how a new meadow was created on Stoke Newington Common using a mix of “rainbow annuals” ie a pictorial meadow.
OK so all this is great and I am all in favour of getting communities involved with their local greenspaces – this is after all what we are doing through our Community Grasslands projects.
But the problems arise when these meadows are confused with the wildflower meadows that I described above. Hackney seem to think that planting a colourful mix of annuals (mostly American species) is making a contribution to their Biodiversity Action Plan targets for Lowland Meadow (planting 1ha of new meadow in five years, harldy ambitious in itself). London in Bloom talk about creating wildflower meadows and “nectar-rich plantings” but then mix the two up time and again.
Does this matter? Well, yes it does. Wildflower Meadows have almost completely disappeared from England – there may be just 7000ha of the “real thing” left. These are beautiful, support a rich diversity of wildlife, some of it rare, and also are rich in archaeology and history. They also provide food and a whole range of other ecosystem servces. Yes they can be re-created – the Weald Meadows Initiative has been doing fantastic work doing just this.
It’s important that we don’t get confused between these type of meadows and the urban Pictorial Meadow approach – which is valuable, but for a different set of reasons. Pictorial meadows are not contributing to the conservation of Wildflower Meadows or their wildlife (and other values). And for that reason it does matter what we call things!