Keeping the "wild" in wildflower

Off-the-shelf wildflower mixes provide an instant hit of pollen, nectar and seed. But to keep the wild in wildflower, we need a different approach.

Plantlife wants to keep the ‘wild’ in wildflower; wild orchids, cornflowers, bluebells and cowslips are every bit as important a part of Britain’s nature as birds, butterflies, bees and badgers.

It would be surprising to find anyone releasing flocks of declining birds or threatened mammals into the countryside without rigorous checks and controls. Yet there is widespread and unchecked acceptance of wildflower seed mixes, often including plants of non-native origin. Our native plants are both resilient and opportunistic; give them a chance and they will move naturally around the landscape, appearing spontaneously when least expected, or springing up from the seedbank like buried treasure.

Many of us are deeply troubled at the continuing decline of our wildlife. We recognise that today’s fragmented countryside is no longer ably supporting wildlife and, as a result, birds, bees and butterflies are all suffering losses.

But what do we mean by ‘countryside’?

We mean green stuff, the natural environment, habitats such as woodland and grassland...

Or, perhaps to put it more simply, wild plants.

So often relegated to the role of scenic backdrop, our wild plants and flowers support all other wildlife. Whether they are plants of moor, coast, cornfield or meadow, they provide the food and shelter that animals, insects and birds of every habitat need to thrive.

Yet, as wild plants have declined, so have the species that depend upon them. Recognising this, there has been a growing trend to create flower-rich habitat by sowing commercial seed mixes or throwing seed bombs. While this is an appropriate response in some places, in others its is counterproductive.

At Plantlife, our experience tells us that the most sustainable and cost-effective way to revitalise our countryside is to manage it in the right way. The best way to support declining farmland bird populations is to encourage a diversity of wild plants on the farm to provide food and shelter. To encourage butterflies to return to our woodlands, we need to open them up to allow sunlight to reach the woodland floor and encourage flower-filled rides and glades. To sustain the beleaguered bumble bee, we need to protect and restore our flower-rich grasslands. We call this plant-proofing. Plant-proofing habitats and ensuring the health of our wild flora benefits all wildlife.

Restoring semi-natural habitats by natural regeneration from the seed bank, the use of local green hay or colonisation from plants in adjacent areas, are the most effective and ecologically robust methods for improving plant diversity at these sites for the long-term.

Importantly, these methods also help safeguard the distinctiveness of local flora. This is part of the magic of wild flowers; a Norfolk wildflower meadow, with green-winged orchids and pepper-saxifrage, will be different in character to a Carmarthenshire wildflower meadow with whorled caraway and lesser butterfly-orchids - which is what makes both of them special. Commercial wildflower material only carries a small proportion of the genetic diversity available in native plant populations and without a requirement to meet high quality standards, non responsible suppliers are producing and selling low quality wild flower seed.

Creating wildflower habitats using seed mixes can have an important role to play, particularly in urban areas and places devoid of a seed bank or wildflower habitat in relatively close proximity. However, as a conservation action in semi-natural habitats, though providing a hit of colour and pollen, seed-packet habitats are the equivalent of drinking a fizzy energy drink, rather than eating a balanced diet for long-term health. They do not tackle the real problem of declining local plant diversity and habitat degradation which could be fixed by changing the way we manage the land.