Updated: Apr 23
2021 seems to be shaping up to be the year of wildflowers for the bees.
Old wild flower hay meadow in summer © Matthew J Thomas/shutterstock.com
Flowers that attract bees and butterflies have an extra level of delight. The plight of bee populations has become increasingly alarming and I am pleased to see so much in the media about how we can all support pollinators. When I was deciding which plants to grow choosing those beneficial to bees was an easy choice. Armed with the RHS's list of pollinator friendly garden plants I ordered my seeds.
Lately I have been ruminating on the distinction between garden plants and wildflowers.
Wildflower meadows are dreamy and romantic. Drifts of colour from your feet to the horizon. Due to changes in farming large swathes of former meadows have been lost, as much as 97% since WW2 is often quoted. That's a lot of wildflowers that are no longer around as nectar sources for hungry bees, butterflies and other pollinators. The UK comprises 24.2m hectares or land of which 17.6m hectares is agricultural and a further 3.2m hectares is woodland and forest. Recent research has suggested that private gardens equate to about 433,000 hectares. 433,000 hectares is a lot of land, but most of us are gardening on a quite a small plot - not an area that can include a meadow.
You may have heard of Plantlife's 'No Mow May' campaign. The premise is that by locking up the lawnmower for a month and letting the wildflowers in the lawn bloom we can all provide a feast for pollinators. This year the grass has been wet for most of May so there hasn't been much opportunity to mow. As my lawn is not regularly tended like a putting green it has plenty or 'wildflowers'/weeds. But, it doesn't look like the meadow image above. I have spent some time in the garden today watching the bees, butterflies and other pollinators. They are mostly feasting in my borders not my lawn. I am not surprised that my lawn hasn't morphed into a nectar-rich meadow in the last 3 weeks. Wildflower meadows don't just appear and creating one involves reducing the grass, which outcompetes most wildflowers, as well as carefully timed cutting and sowing of wildflower seed.
Sowing wildflower seeds in the border will create a better meadow than not cutting the grass and a denser, richer source of nectar. There are now plenty of products on the market that are being promoted this year as wildflower bee-friendly seed mixes. In spite of the un-mown lawn this bee was enjoying the forget-me-nots in my border. I am not sure I am going to make it to the end of May without mowing!
You don't need to grow dandelions and buttercups to feed bees, bumblebees and butterflies
As a gardener the emphasis on wildflowers is interesting. What is wildflower anyway? And how does it differ from a garden plant?
You would think from some of the current publicity that only wildflowers are bee-friendly, or that they are significantly more beneficial to pollinators than other plants. In fact the wildflowers being marketed as beneficial to bees are just part of a larger selection of plants that bees love. The RHS has compiled much more comprehensive lists of garden plants and wildflowers that are good for pollinators. There are over 150 plants on the Wildflower list and over 300 on the garden plants list. Interestingly my forget-me-nots (Myositis) are on both lists. Appropriately I think, as they will self-seed in the wild but are also lovely in the garden. The lists can be found here:
In a study the ornamental garden at Great Dixter had the richest biodiversity of the entire estate which includes ancient woodlands, pastures and meadows. The assumption that gardens are inferior to natural environs in terms of biodiversity is not necessarily correct. The key is to garden organically and thoughtfully. Providing some untidy areas with old logs and weeds will also help.
Great Dixter July 2019 © Split Second Stock/shutterstock.com
Here are some key considerations when choosing garden plants for pollinators;
Some bee species emerge from hibernation in Feb and others are still around in November so you want flowers in your garden for all those months. Even in winter you can get a 'winter colony' of bees.
Single open flowers allow bees to access the pollen - most double varieties are of little use to bees. (Single poppies, geraniums, geums).
Plant some purple flowers - interestingly bees see purple better than any other colour, but there are also lots of flowers in other colours that they love. (Verbena bonariensis, Cerinthe, pulmonaria).
Tubular shaped flowers such as foxgloves, Penstemon and snapdragons are good sources of pollen for long tongued bees such as the garden bumblebee.
Flower heads made up of lots of tiny flowers provide large quantities of pollen. (Achillea, phlox, echinops).
Native and naturalised plant species are unsurprisingly better suited to our native bees.
The dictionary definition of wildflower is 'a flower of an uncultivated variety or a flower growing freely without human intervention.'
Beyond the wildflowers which grow in woodlands and wildly on banks, there are many native plants which will probably self-seed in our gardens, they are loved by pollinators who are essential to the plants self-propogation. Personally I delight in finding seedlings when I am weeding, free plants, how great is that? But some gardeners may view self-seeding plants as weeds themselves. I think it's quite simple - if you don't love it, already have plenty, or its in the wrong place pull it out. Or even easier turn the soil with a hoe whilst the seedlings are small. If you are a really tidy gardener you could diligently remove spent flowers before they set seed, although you wouldn't get to enjoy the seedheads.
Angelica and poppy seedlings in the border. The poppy seedling (bottom middle of this shot) is definitely coming out as it will completely overcome the small Geum it is growing through.
The advantage of self seeding flowers is that they will multiply and fill your garden with blooms, for your enjoyment, and as food for hungry bees and butterflies.
I am still not clear whether all self-seeding plants count as wildflowers. The Angelica in this shot is on the RHS wildflowers for pollinators list. The opium poppy is not, but now I have grown it for a couple of years it consistently pops up every spring.