What is a meadow?
Originally a meadow was an area that was permanently covered with grass, often for the purposes of gathering hay in the late summer. Once the hay was in, it might be further grazed by sheep and cattle before being left to grow up again the following spring. These days the word can have a wider definition to include other grasslands, but the key element is that the grass is there all year round.
Like any other stable habitat, meadows have their own special community of wildflowers. These include dandelion and daisy flowers such as hawkweed, cat’s-ear and oxeye daisy; peas like bird’s-foot trefoil and clover, important for fixing nitrogen into the soil; and a riot of others such as buttercups, crane’s-bills and bedstraw, and a favourite of mine, Perforate St John’s Wort, with the tiny little holes in its leaves. Depending on the soil there will also be some regional specialists like agrimony and the lovely pale flax. If you’re lucky you may even find an orchid.
Meadow flowers. Top row: St John’s Wort, Common Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Mouse-ear Hawkweed. Bottom row: Agrimony, Greater butterfly orchid, Pale flax.
Of course there will be grasses too – lots of them. If you have a lawn then it’s probably mostly made up of perennial rye-grass, which I’ve heard called ‘plastic grass’ for its shiny leaves! It’s resistant to trampling and tough as old boots, but having too much of it is a bad sign for a meadow. Instead, you should be looking for a variety of gentler species, with their lovely common names: Yorkshire fog, cock’s-foot, crested dog’s-tail (the one that wags like a happy Labrador) and if you are very lucky, the delicate, trembling quaking-grass.
Quaking-grass and yellow rattle.
Last but not least, a good meadow should feature a very special plant, so important that it’s sometimes called ‘the meadow maker’. This is yellow rattle, named for its rattling seed pods. It is semi-parasitic on grass, weakening it by drawing nutrients from grass roots into its own. If you are trying to grow hay, it’s a menace. But if you want to see wildflowers, then it’s just what you need as it reduces the competition.
Losing our meadows
Grasslands, including meadows, have had a tough time in the last few decades. Many were ploughed up to produce food as part of the war effort, and the never-ending expansion of towns and roads to accommodate our growing population has swallowed others. According to Plantlife, over 97% of wildflower meadows have been destroyed since the Second World War – and with the flowers, we lose a host of bees, butterflies and other invertebrates that depend on them. They have little legal protection, and are not known and loved by the public as much as woodlands. This is why a campaign has been launched to save them, which includes National Meadows Day.
But beware of imitations! You may have seen specially sown patches on verges and roundabouts that look spectacular, with white chamomile, blue cornflowers and glowing red poppies. These are lovely, but they are not meadow plants – they are cornfield plants, which rely on soil being disturbed every year. Without further management, they soon subside into overgrown grass. Real meadow flowers will return every year and need far less maintenance. See this great blog post ‘When is a wildflower not a wildflower…’ by Sophie Leguil for a detailed analysis of pretty ‘pictorial’ meadows versus wildflower meadows.
Make your own meadow
As there are so few meadows left, we ought to be making more. If you have a patch of grass that you fancy turning into a meadow of your own, then it couldn’t be easier; sit back and do precisely nothing. Once wildflowers realise that they are welcome, they will often turn up of their own accord. If you want to speed things up a bit then you can add some plants – just make sure they are native meadow wildflowers. After that you just need to cut it once or twice a year, at the end of the growing season.
Grasses (and one sedge!) in my mini-meadow. Left: crested dog’s-tail and soft brome. Middle: a cloud of common bent. Right: sweet vernal grass and spiked sedge.
I’m doing this myself this year, having started off with Plantlife’s ‘No Mow May’ initiative. I have a big patch of grass out front that I spend a lot of time mowing, so it was an ideal experiment. I bought some native wildflower plug plants from the local nursery at Feed Bristol to start things off, including my favourite St John’s Wort. As the lawn has been subjected to weedkiller in the past, I wasn’t expecting much more than a large crop of ryegrass. How wrong I was! There was some rye, yes, but so far I have counted 8 grass species and 8 flower species – including some St John’s Wort that arrived all by itself. There are even tiny anthills! I have now sown some yellow rattle seeds that I gathered from a meadow where they were plentiful, and hope some of it will take hold.
What else can I do?
If you’d like to do more to help meadows, you can:
- Visit a meadow and appreciate it for yourself.
- Donate to Plantlife
- Sign a petition to improve protective legislation for meadows
- Above all – enjoy wildflowers!