The superbloom of southern California was the ultimate botanical hit for plant geeks and meadow fanatics. In spring 2019, after an unusually wet winter, the region’s mountains and deserts erupted with wildflower meadows of orange California poppies, violet Phacelia and vivid blue Chia sage – a surreal display of nature so vast and vivid it was visible from space.
Nigel Dunnett, the botanist and University of Sheffield professor behind the 2012 Olympic Park meadows and the concept of the “pictorial meadow”, was so inspired by the spectacle that he decided to create a superbloom 5,000 miles away at the Tower of London. This June, to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, the landmark’s 13th-century moat will ignite with colour, as Dunnett and landscape architects Grant Associates transform a 14,000sq m area into flower fields. More than 20mn seeds were sown earlier this spring to create the reverie, which will evolve as the flowers come to life until late September. The Tower’s superbloom is the first stage of a legacy project that will turn the moat permanently into the biggest resource for bees and other pollinators in central London.
“It’s an art installation as much as a biodiversity project,” says Dunnett, who also found inspiration in Claude Monet’s 19th-century impressionist colour studies of the River Thames, and used 15 different seed mixes to create flowing colour-themed plots that will merge into one another. Cornflowers appear in each zone, and at some point over the summer, when they reach their peak, the effect will be of a moat filled with water.
For purists, Dunnett’s pictorial meadows – where swathes of non-native and native wildflowers are packed tightly together – are not true meadows (restricted solely to native varieties), but no one has done more than he has to popularise the concept. “Some nature conservationists get very upset when it’s not a straight restoration of something you’d find in the countryside.”
Dunnett first began creating meadows as part of his scientific research (measuring how species grow together, when they flower and how to make them work), before turning his attention to the impact they have on urban regeneration. “Much of my early work here was in housing estates and alongside roads. When I saw the reaction to these colourful meadows, my focus shifted to human response,” he says. “Creating plots in unexpected places is a way of raising consciousness.”
Interest in meadows and naturalist planting is growing. At seed specialist Emorsgate, which grows 250 species of wildflowers and grasses on two sites in Bath and Norfolk, demand is currently outstripping supply. Last autumn, with sales up 17 per cent on the previous year, it was unable to meet all the requests and the owners have taken on new land to increase capacity. Once established, it will increase production by two-thirds.
Such initiatives are vital in the UK where more than 97 per cent of wildflower meadows have been lost since the 1930s – an area of around 7.5mn acres. Like other precious natural habitats around the world, they support a diverse ecosystem of pollinators (1,400 species rely on meadow flowers), invertebrates as well as shrews, voles, field mice and birds, while locking in carbon and helping to reduce flooding. This picture is echoed globally. Less than four per cent of the tallgrass prairies that used to stretch across 170mn acres of the US remain, and it’s a similar story across mainland Europe, where the loss of flower-filled grassland has led to catastrophic declines in insects: in German nature reserves there has been a 75 per cent reduction in flying-insect populations in the past quarter of a century, while the Netherlands has lost half of its butterflies since 1990. More than three-quarters of grasslands across the EU are in “unfavourable” conservation status – a generic designation that can mean anything from requiring improvement to total loss.
At next month’s Chelsea Flower Show, always a barometer of trends, the appearance of wildlife-friendly native plants rarely seen in the coiffed show gardens is notable. Howard and Hugh Miller’s Alder Hey Urban Foraging Station is a stylised riff on orchards and meadows filled with cow parsley, wild carrot and meadow buttercups among edible herbs. Meanwhile, Juliet Sargeant’s The New Blue Peter Garden: Discover Soil has a rooftop meadow adorned with shade-tolerant wildflowers; and The Mind Garden by Andy Sturgeon includes swathes of colourful meadow planting with various yarrow and oxeye daisies. Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt’s A Rewilding Britain Landscape is similarly picturesque: a riparian meadow with devil’s-bit scabious, marsh orchids and Deschampsia cespitosa.
These showstoppers reflect a shift that was already happening in real-life gardens. Garden designer Ula Maria, who grew up surrounded by wildflower meadows in her native Lithuania, says her clients increasingly request areas designated for wildlife – even, as in one of her recent projects, on a Hoxton rooftop. But what are the benefits? “They are beautiful, smell amazing and they’re low-maintenance as they only need to be cut down once a year – plus they help wildlife.” She acknowledges the therapeutic qualities for humans too. “There’s an innate connection to nature and memory,” she says.
The game changer in the creation of domestic meadows has been wildflower turf, which is pregrown and only needs to be rolled out in a plot. It’s particularly good for rooftop gardens as little soil is required and there is less weight. James Hewetson-Brown of specialist Wildflower Turf began experimenting with native flower seeds more than 20 years ago. “We started with a square metre, which was extraordinarily colourful and attracted many bees and butterflies,” he recalls. Hewetson-Brown has now turned the family lawn-turf business over purely to wildflower-meadow turf. He produces up to 250,000sq m per year and has recently taken on another site in Shropshire. “You can see the attraction: it’s like a charitable donation to nature – you’ve done something amazing for biodiversity.”
For some, joy is also found in returning areas to wildflower meadow. After attending a study day at Great Dixter in 2013, illustrator Caroline Kent started to renovate the grassland around her Sussex cottage with help from Peter Baldock, the former head gardener at Pashley Manor, and Joshua Sparkes, who has since gone on to reinvigorate the meadows at Sissinghurst and Forde Abbey. The process involved removing old hedges, stripping off the topsoil (wildflower meadows flourish on less fertile soils) and scarifying the entire area before sowing Emorsgate seeds including yellow rattle (which weakens the grasses to allow wildflowers to flourish) and strewings (seed-rich cuttings) from Great Dixter.
This same ritual was repeated annually; the meadow cut by hand and the seed spread. “After about three or four years, we saw our first orchids, and they have multiplied every year,” Kent says. “And we now have significant numbers of green-winged orchids, which are rarer still.”
Kent has since added plug plants of ragged robin, scabious and campion, as well as cowslips and lots of bulbs including wild tulips, narcissi, snake’s-head fritillaries and muscari. “The meadow feels like one of our greatest achievements. It hums with life for so much of the year and I love seeing the kids hunting for insects and running up and down the paths,” she says. “I love the balance of wildness and order. It keeps us connected to the seasons and although it is tiny in comparison to the meadowlands that have been lost in Britain, it’s a small step in the right direction in reinstating those habitats.”
Nigel Dunnett is now seeing meadows flourish in built environments. Meadows on rooftops are a particular trend (he helped develop the first meadow turf designed specifically for this purpose) but he is also seeing them spring up in more unlikely places. “It’s happening in pavements, streets and car parks,” he says, citing a current project on The Strand in London, which will introduce 44 trees and 2,000sq m of meadow planting. Just call it the flower power of a new generation.