The stories of Britain's wildflowers

‘I love all wild flowers (none are weeds with me)’ wrote 19th-century poet and naturalist John Clare. 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.

One of Britain's most diverse habitats, wildflower meadows 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. Wildflowers also hold on to rainwater, help to mitigate flooding, and procure vast amounts of carbon.

Since the 1930s, over 97 per cent of our wildflower meadows have been lost – equal to 3 million hectares (7.5 million acres). The habitat now makes up just 1 per cent of the UK. We work hard to look after the meadows in our care to prevent further loss, and are taking part in the Save our Magnificent Meadows project, which will protect, conserve and restore wildflower meadows and other grasslands 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. Here are four examples:

Dandelions

It’s perhaps easy to be blasé about such a common weed but the dandelion – of which there are 200 micro-species – is visited by 93 species of insects and 15 moths, including the satin wave, the pearly underwing, the small mottled willow and the stout dart.

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 and 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.

Dandelions in May in a meadow at Roberts Farm, Sharpenhoe Clappers, Bedfordshire
Dandelions in May in a meadow at Roberts Farm, Sharpenhoe Clappers, Bedfordshire

Hops

Although native to Britain, hops were regarded with suspicion until the reign of Henry VIII. In the 15th century their addition to beer was considered so bitter it was tantamount to adding brimstone; hops were prohibited under strict penalties and in 1519 they were recorded as ‘that wicked and pernicious weed’.

But by 1524 commercial quantities were being introduced from Flanders to be cultivated in England and soon they had replaced other plants as the basic ingredient of beer, as they were found to make it last longer (hops have an antibacterial effect, which acts as a preservative). Their bitterness, counteracting the sweetness of malt, and the flavour they impact became the acquired taste of the day. Although later, in the reign of Elizabeth I, an edict was issue to restrain the use of ‘this pernicious weed the hop’, the ruling failed and hops are with us still.

They are a particularly major crop in Kent and Sussex where they are harvested and dried in oast houses. The tenant farmer at Scotney Castle in Kent still grows, picks and dries hops at Little Scotney Farm and the estate provides hops to Westerham Brewery for their award-winning Westerham Scotney Bitter.

Hops growing along the hedgerows
Hops growing along the hedgerows

Primroses

The primrose is the ‘first rose’ of spring, symbol of Easter’s new life. Its pale flowers light up damp, shady places in deciduous woodland, sprinkling grassy banks and hedgerows from March to May.

When Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield, who lived at Hughenden in Buckinghamshire, was dying, Queen Victoria sent him primroses from Balmoral, picked by her own hand. Her note read, ‘They were his favourite flower’, ‘his’ meaning Albert who had died 20 years earlier. Disraeli apparently smiled wanly and said, ‘I hope that her Majesty doesn’t mean me to deliver them to him in person’.

Disraeli had a regular habit of wearing one in his buttonhole, and the Primrose League, founded in his honour in 1883 and disbanded in 2004, set out to perpetuate his constitutional principles. In 1882 Primrose Day was established on 19 April and ever since Disraeli’s statue in Parliament Square has been decked with primroses.

Evening primrose growing in the garden at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire
Close up of evening primrose flowers growing in the garden at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire.

Violets

Shining darkly from heart-shaped leaves of deep green, violets herald spring as the world awakens from winter. These wild flowers are vigorous spreaders along woodland edges, in clearings and ancient hedgerows. They 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. Talking of Elizabethans, Shakespeare mentions violets no fewer than 18 times in his works.

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. They are also the food plant of fritillary butterfly larvae, the dark green, the high brown, the pearl-bordered and the silver-washed fritillaries all laying their eggs on tree trunks close to dog violets. These beautiful butterflies are in decline both in range and abundance, due to the loss of open sunny habitats that violets love.

Common dog violet, Devon
Common dog violet, Devon