As a child I lived with my mother, sister and grandparents in a two down, one up, plus bathroom. We had no car, of course, but we treasured our motorbike and side-car. Sundays were for outings; my grandfather was the driver, my mother pillion, grandma in the front of the sidecar with me on her lap and my sister in the tiny back seat. We´d generally pack a picnic and head off into the countryside – we lived in Northumberland, England so there were plenty of wild spaces.
One of my ongoing school projects then was a pressed wild flower album and it became somewhat a passion of mine (I told you I´ve always had flowers in the blood!). So every time we saw a wild flower in the verge that I might not have, we’d bang on the window and my grandfather would dutifully pull up. The album grew into a work of art and I mourn the fact that I no longer have it – it would be a real treasure now.
In those days – the 1950´s – it wasn´t ‘wrong’ to pick wild flowers; there were so many of them! And we would often return wearily and happily home with armfuls of bluebells picked from oceans of blue in Bluebell Wood. Nature then was truly prolific.
But how often do we see that abundance now? I look back and think how wrong we all were to strip Nature of her bounty, how shameful. But we didn´t know - it´s always said, and it´s true; no-one thought we could ever lose all that flowery profusion.
It has been calculated that 54% of evaluated plant species are now under threat and one in eight, globally, is at risk of extinction. One thing we do all now realise is that over one third of our food for the 7.2 billion people occupying earth comes from flowering plants - pollinated by bees. In England, it is
estimated that 97% of flower-rich grassland and meadows have disappeared since the 1930’s. We all have beautiful visions of alpine meadows, full of wild flowers but, in actuality, even there, flower species have declined 60% in the last forty years – and that is in protected areas.
So how can we atone, how can we restore the plenty? It could be said that it is impossible because there are so many things against – massive population increases, the demand for food, homes, roads, cities, pollution in all aspects but one idea I do like is to plant something that your grandmother grew.
Wild flowers are, by definition, those that grow and are able to look after themselves in the wild, in a natural state. They are uncultivated, they grow, go to seed and start all over again. But garden plants from Grandma’s era were not so very different to the wildflowers; they were simpler and well-able to look after themselves because of that. Modern breeding programmes produced flowers with bigger blooms. Things like roses can, nowadays, have one hundred, or more, petals in a bloom and, yes, they are often very beautiful but pollinating insects cannot get through the mass to reach the pollen and nectar. Grandma’s plants were rich with nectar and it was easily accessible because the flowers had few petals. Her garden, too, was full of diversity – she wanted flowers, fruit, herbs and veg for all seasons – no monocultures for her! And remember, it wasn´t purely a decorative garden – many of her plants were used for feeding, healing and cleaning; they were of value to us but also to wildlife.
I remember the buzzing towering spikes of hollyhocks and foxgloves alive with bees, massed daisies, black-eyed Susans, and nodding heads of grandma´s bonnets! There was bachelor’s buttons, bee balm, bellflowers, bleeding hearts, lily of the valley, mock orange, pin cushions, ragged robins and snap dragons. On hot summer nights (yes, there were some then!) we were allowed to rig a tent with the wooden clothes horse and an old blanket and we slept under the intoxicating scent of the lilac tree.
Many of these plants are now called heirloom plants and they are becoming rare and special. They have history, they have stories to tell to each and every one of us, they are our heritage and our future. Let´s fill our gardens again with these magical memories, these old friends and give our children and grand-children something to remember too.
We have many of these plants in the Garden Centre, so come and make your very own Grandma’s Garden.
Where Have All The Flowers Gone?
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