Casual Gardener: Debunking the myths around wildflowers

Much-feted wildflower displays often aren't what they seem...

Common valerian proliferates on the roadside verges of Co Clare
Common valerian proliferates on the roadside verges of Co Clare Common valerian proliferates on the roadside verges of Co Clare

You hear a lot about wildflowers these days. After being almost eradicated by modern farming practices, the liberal use of herbicide and inverted snobbery, this extensive category of native flora is apparently prospering, with so-called wildflowers at the heart of every trendy garden. Councils across the north are now eager to give (often unconstituted) community groups grants that are ostensibly designed to help nature by promoting biodiversity. Mention the word 'wildflowers' on an application and before you can ask "Is this an appropriate use of ratepayers' money?", the spondoolicks will be rolling in, with no follow-up checks to see how the funding was spent. Yet too often these amateurish displays are nothing more than a collection of colourful annuals that may look good, fleetingly, but do little to attract native pollinators. They're better than garish bedding plants reared in Dutch glasshouses, but only marginally. 

Many of these displays are created with the best intentions but use generic seed mixes that don't take into account differences in provenance between Ireland and Britain, or even Continental Europe. Also in many cases, chemicals are employed to clear the ground to ensure the 'wildflowers' won't be overwhelmed by more vigorous plants that are no less worthy of the wildflower title but are usually labelled weeds. Then there's often a misplaced assumption that such displays are simple to create, when in fact they need special conditions to germinate. On the other hand, natural road verges or what's often called 'wasteland' can be extraordinarily diverse and ecologically complex, and support specialist plants adapted to local conditions, especially when managed sensitively. However, they are less predictable, less showy and may take a few years to develop, may have gaps in flowering and suffer from the perception that they are untidy. 

I've had wildflowers in my garden for 20 years but never thought to call them such. They're not the colourful annuals or ox-eye daisies that predominate in municipal plantings – not this year at least. I just call them natives. They're plants that I know will succeed, as this is their preferred climate, while I can create a habitat that makes them feel right at home. Naturally, they're also good for local insects, reptiles and fauna, species who've co-existed with these very same plants for millennia.     

Among the perennial cultivars in my garden such as ornamental poppies, geraniums and alliums, grow foxgloves, honeysuckle and ferns. Meanwhile in the damp ground by the pond and in the water's margins close to the Calamagrotis, hostas and Rodgersia grow flag iris, common valerian and even a single rush has been permitted to flourish. The common valerian is truly a magnificent plant but one that is rarely seen in a wild setting in my part of Co Down. Travel to Clare in the south west, however, an area world famous for its flora, and there Valeriana officinalis – or Caorthann corraigh, as Gaeilge – can be found in abundance on road verges, alongside willow herb and purple loosestrife.

A typical cottage garden plant, Common valerian is a tall (up to 2m) herbaceous perennial that will grow in dry ground but prefers its roots in damp soil. In the summer months its stems bear pinky white flowerheads made up of hundreds of tiny blooms. The roots have been used medicinally as a sedative.

It's not to be confused with the unrelated red valerian, which is a widely natuarlised non-native that actually belongs to the Centranthus genus.