Wildflower Meadows

“I heard the grasses talking, talking,
Down in the meadow, one summer day,
The prettiest things I heard them whisper,
Nodding their heads in a quaint wise way […]

They told how they loved the golden sunshine;
How once in the gloom of a strange long night
They feared they were lost, until angel fingers
Touched them with life, and they found the light.”

Meadows have been a feature of the English landscape for centuries: they feature in philosophy and history, mythology and magic, science and art, botany and anthropology. They are also a hugely important part of Britain’s ecosystem.

At the Charterhouse Priory last week we cleared the wildflower meadow, raking away the dead plants and scoring the ground at the same time to make way for replanting. On Saturday we replanted the wildflower meadow which consisted of several volunteers proceeding in lines whilst distributing the new seeds. As “One of Britain’s most diverse habitats, wildflower meadows support biodiversity and can contain 40 species in one square metre, including: bees and beetles, butterflies and moths, spiders, reptiles, amphibians, bats and birds. Many of these insects are pollinating, making them valuable for food crops”. Species rich grasslands and wildflowers provide other environmental benefits, “they hold on to rainwater, help to mitigate flooding, and procure vast amounts of carbon”, they are also archaeologically important and were traditionally used for cattle grazing and hay making. There are 5 different types of meadow in the UK; limestone grasslands, marshy grasslands, acid grasslands, lowland meadows and pastures, and upland hay meadows.

Since the 1930s, over 97 per cent of wildflower meadows have been lost (Royal Botanic Gardens Kew). That is equal to 3 million hectares or 7.5 million acres which is 1 1/2 times the size of Wales. The habitat now makes up just 1 per cent of the UK. In Britain’s Wild Flowers, Rosamond Richardson reveals more about the flowers that make up these meadows and how they support our eco-system today. In January you will start to see Snow Drops, in March you will start to see Dandelions, Daisies & Primrose, in April you will start to see Bluebells & Cowslip and in June you will start to see Poppies. Some of these wildflowers are suitable for foraging, edible and medicinal plants grow abundantly and freely. These include Dandelions which can make a salve or a pesto and the flowers, leaves and roots can all be consumed. “They are nature’s great healer; their natural medicine was recommended by Arab Doctors as far back as the 11th century and they contain more vitamins B, C and pro-vitamin A than many vegetables and fruits. The root cleanses the liver and its diuretic action on the kidneys has proved effective in treating gout, joint pain and reducing high blood pressure.

Dandelion leaves are also used to brew beer and the flowers make a good country wine. Dandelion coffee, made from the dried-tapped roots, was popular during the Second World War when real coffee was at a premium. Dandelion tea can clear up skin blemishes, even eczema, and also relieves sore eyes.” Incidentally Stinging Nettles are also a superfood packed with vitamins and nutrients and have a long history in folklore and myth. Nettle was used up until the 18th Century for making cloth and the sting of the nettle is said to protect against fairies, sorcery and black magic. In Discovering the Folklore of Plants folklorist Margaret Baker writes “the juice curdled milk and helped to make Cheshire cheese; nettle juice seals leaky barrels; nettles drive frogs from beehives and flies from larders; nettle compost encourages ailing plants; and fruits packed in nettle leaves retain their bloom and freshness.” In the fairytale The Wild Swans by Hans Christian Anderson clothes made of nettle are used to break a spell of enchantment over 6 brothers who have been turned into Swans. “It is a plant that heralds the return of spring, a tonic of vitamins and minerals; and also a plant redolent of love and loss and loyalty, of ancient powers skillfully knotted into the most traditional of women’s arts: carding, spinning, knitting, and sewing.” In Norse myth, nettles are associated with Thor, the god of Thunder; and with Loki, the trickster god, whose magical fishing net is made from them.

Also of interest and relevance to our work at Charterhouse Priory are Violets which are often found “near monastic ruins or in cottage gardens and, grown in pots since the earliest times, they were cultivated in medieval and Elizabethan knot gardens and used as strewing herbs.” Violets are “a valuable umbrella species and play an important role in the ecological chain since their habitats shelter a range of other creatures: spiders, lizards, hazel dormice, scrub warblers and many species of butterfly among them.”

At Osborne House on the Isle of Wight for instance Prince Albert created a one acre meadow that was documented through time, established in 1850 the Prince created this garden for his children, there are references in Queen Victoria’s Journal to the family picking wildflowers. “Culturally speaking grasslands have a long history of inspiring artists and writers such as Constable and Shakespeare, they are the landscape setting for many of our most important historical battles, village greens have long been the hub of rural community life, and many a common day phrase take their origin from grasslands such as “off to pastures new” and “chalk and cheese”. Unfortunately due to agricultural farming methods since World War 2, only 1% of the UK’s land area now supports species-rich grassland and only 2% of the UK’s grasslands are species-rich.” The loss of these habitats and the pollinators that inhabit them could ultimately impact our own food supply as about 35% of the worlds crops are dependent on them.

Text reproduced from https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/the-stories-of-britains-wildflowers , http://www.magnificentmeadows.org.uk/conserve-restore/importance-of-meadows and https://www.terriwindling.com/blog/2019/06/the-folklore-of-nettles.html (accessed 30/03/22). Image reproduced from https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/wild-flower-mix-with-poppies-and-lots-of-bees-gm629780820-112182205 (accessed 29/03/22)/ Extract from In the Meadow by Ella Fraser Weller, reproduced from https://allpoetry.com/In-The-Meadow (accessed 29/03/22)