Feeling Wild about Botany

Recently a tweet by Chris Packham congratulated East Lothian Council on a colourful roundabout that had been sown with ‘wildflowers’. This apparently innocent comment resulted in some pretty robust discussion, with Chris receiving criticism for his support for the planting of non-native species. He in turn responded with a rather sharp tweet about ‘angry’ botanists, following which Kevin Walker of the BSBI (Britain’s main botanical society) wrote a more measured response in defence of botanists with hurt feelings (https://markavery.info/2020/06/12/guest-blog-wildflower-rich-road-verges-the-botanists-hen-harrier-by-kevin-walker/). I have not read all the comments and tweets, but I feel that the discussion has rather missed the point. Surely not all ‘wild flowers’ are wild?

Meadows and other grassland such as road verges often support communities of plants that have developed naturally. By naturally, I mean that the plants have put themselves there without conscious human intervention. Seeds and other propagules may have blown in or been washed in by floods, carried by animals or birds, or even accidentally introduced by people – in hay or other animal fodder, on the tyres of farm vehicles or even (as the story goes), in the turn-ups on a botanist’s trousers. There is a certain amount of random chance in which species have got there. Some plants survive, while others don’t. The result can be a more-or-less stable plant community well-adapted to the soils, climate and, most importantly, management of the site (e.g. cutting and grazing). This is how the ‘wildflower meadows’ of yesteryear arose – by accident – and we quite rightly mourn their almost complete loss. Similarly species rich road verges owe their diversity to a series of happy accidents over time, and indeed often to the regular cutting that is now coming under fire!

The point about such ‘natural’ grasslands is that they are ‘wild’ and cannot be recreated or replaced without a lot of time and effort – the closest that we can get is probably seeding a site with fresh cut ‘hay’ from a species-rich site next door or from very close by and then waiting to see how it shakes down in its new home. (Incidentally, it is important to understand that ‘boring’, species-poor grassland and verges owe their existence to the same processes – to soils, climate and management, and it is these that have to change if they are to become more diverse).

To return to the controversial roundabout in East Lothian that sparked the whole debate, to my mind it does not make much difference whether it is seeded with a ‘Pictorial Meadows’ mix containing many non-native species, a cornfield annual mix, or a ‘wild flower meadow mix’ of exclusively native species. In all cases it is people who are choosing what goes there and the result is not by any means ‘wild’. The choice depends on what you want to achieve, but whatever you chose it is it is not wild. If it’s low-cost colour to please the eye of speeding motorists, then perhaps months of Pictorial Meadows colour is the right choice – at least the passers-by may notice it!

In my opinion, even if they had sown ‘native wild flowers’, it is not wild flower conservation, it is gardening, although there’s nothing wrong with that! It is also simplistic to state that ‘wild’ flowers automatically do more to promote the conservation of other creatures. Research by the RHS does support the idea that native species of plants will support more diverse wildlife in your garden, but the context us surely important – it’s a roundabout, after all, and lacks the history of colonisation by creatures of an old meadow (or an established garden) while half the visiting bees are probably zapped by passing traffic.

Botanists have been described by Chris Packham as ‘angry’, but I would think ‘bemused’ is more accurate. We have always distinguished planted from wild, and I will always get a special thrill from seeing a plant in a wild setting. Locally here in Norfolk, the Cowslips on chalk grassland at the iron age fort at Warham or on the verges on the boulder-clay of South Norfolk have something special that the thousands of cowslips sown along the Norwich southern bypass lack. In an ideal world it would be great if local councils could tweak their management of verges and roundabouts to encourage more diversity and then just wait to see what would happen – one, ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred years from now – as plants arrived at random and took their chances. We could then enjoy genuine wild flowers in natural grassland. Tens of thousands of miles of rural road verges would surely benefit from this. But at some times, and in some places, this is not appropriate, and a more immediate solution is better.

Like Kevin Walker, I am saddened by the general ‘plant blindness’ that I see around me, even among many naturalists. I would like more appreciation of all plants, however, wherever they come from, more understanding, and a considered approach. I do wonder whether the current obsession with ‘native’ vs ‘non-native’, all the talk of ‘invasive aliens’ and coming down hard on Chris Packham for praising some attractive planting is really the way to go.

A wonderful meadow in Upper Teesdale

AYou have to gio a long way to find a really great meadow: this is Transylvania in Romania