I came back from a recent weekend hiking over the chalk downlands of Oxfordshire aching rather more than expected in joint and muscle but also puzzling over the distinctions we make between wild flowers and garden flowers.
When is a wild flower not a wild flower? When does it cross the line and become a flower that is somehow more acceptable: somehow not untidy, pretty even?
Is a cornflower a ‘wildflower’, or a ‘garden flower’? When we buy garden wildflower mixes, do the plants that grow become, de facto, garden flowers? Or are they still somehow ‘wild’?
It was brought home even more forcefully because what I optimistically call my top field (mainly because it is home to my chickens) has been gradually filling up with flowers all season. That’s because – to the horror of the local farmers – I haven’t been mowing it. First, I just couldn’t be bothered; second, I didn’t have the time; and third, I just couldn’t bring myself to cut down all the wildflowers.
In both Oxfordshire, where my poor walking companion had to endure frequent pauses for me to take the photos on this page, and the top field, the flowers are classic chalk downland wildflowers. That’s a protected habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, which is as good an indication as any of the quality and diversity of the plants, insects and animals which live there.
This weekend I had small blue butterflies flitting around my head as I made the trek back and forth to the chicken run. The air is buzzing with insects; not just bees, but hoverflies and little funny-looking blue flies and big clumsy may bugs. The field is surging with life (unlike the barley field next door), and in my gardener’s book, that’s just as it should be.
And never mind the wildlife: the whole thing has been a picture of loveliness. First it was a powder-blue sheen of bluebells and ajuga, later sprinkled liberally with starry speedwells; pink campion and white campion danced with ox-eye daisies, cow parsley and jack-by-the-hedge later on, with clover and sheets of yellow buttercups skipping at their feet.
Of course some ‘wild’ flowers are deemed acceptable: few gardens are without their foxgloves or forget-me-nots. But why do we go to the effort of growing Ammi majus – lovely as it is – when cow parsley is every bit as beautiful and rather more statuesque? Not to say easier to grow?
Don’t you lose your heart to red field poppies every bit as much as to oriental poppies? But why are field poppies ‘wild’? And why are cornflowers and corncockles relegated to the ‘wildflower’ bits of the garden? Why aren’t they allowed to hold their own with the penstemons and the salvias and the astrantias?
It strikes me as all rather arbitrary. I suppose I should take heart from the fact that there are wildflower bits of anyone’s garden; it wasn’t so long ago that Beth Chatto was almost disqualified at an RHS show for daring to bring Helleborus foetidus, deemed ‘wild’ and therefore undeserving of appreciation. At least these days we’re allowed to have ‘wild’ flowers in our gardens.
But I do feel sad that we are divided and labelled. We are ‘wildlife gardeners’ – or we are other sorts of gardener. I don’t consider myself a ‘wildlife gardener’, whatever that is; I love having wildlife in my garden, yet I do my own thing and don’t garden around them (and am quite horrible to a lot of wildlife, especially if it’s furry and tries to eat my lettuces).
If anything, I’m a kitchen gardener; but I also love to grow flowers. I like having wild things in my garden, too, and even like several of the so-called weeds (wildflowers?), as long as they behave themselves, more or less. I hoick a lot of them out as well: but then I dug up a rose bush last week because I didn’t like it and it was in the wrong place. So does that make roses weeds in my garden? No, of course not; and neither are cow parsley or cranesbills, though I treat them much the same in that I grow them where I like them, and pull them out where I don’t.
Well: these were idle thoughts, and rather rambly ones, and I don’t pretend to have any answers. But I do make a plea for everyone to stop all this pigeonholing. Personally, I shall grow campion and cranesbills among my cosmos and crocosmia, and hang the consequences. They’re just far too pretty to leave out.