Once upon a time, but not too long ago, from early Spring through to late Autumn our headlands, laneways, roadsides, woodlands, wetlands, bogs and hay meadows were great
colourful scenes of diverse flowers. We remember with fondness picking the Mayflower,
also known as the Cuckoo flower, for the May altar. We did appreciate them then, but
perhaps it is only in their absence that we realise what an idyllic landscape we inhabited.
We had more than the beauty of flowers to nourish our spirits. There was also the great
diversity of insects and birds that depended on the flowers for survival and on which in turn
the flowers depended. The decline in bees and other pollinators at this time is attributed
mostly to the decline of wildflowers.
And now! ‘Where have all the flowers gone’ and what is it that has happened to us at all?
When did our language change? When did we invent the word ‘wildflower’? Was it when
the laboratory took a flower from the meadow and manipulated it into a new species? The
purpose of course was to sell it and in a relatively short time a major global industry grew up
around it. Now we needed a new language, so we coined new words to make the
distinction when referring to flowers: ‘cultivated’ and ‘wild.’
The late Anne Primavesi in one of her talks here in Ireland once pointed out that we make distinctions in order to degrade.
So the beautiful flower in the meadow became ‘only’ a wildflower, and in our minds lesser
than the flower we purchased in the garden centre.
We are well aware of all the other indirect ways that have contributed to the disappearance
of wild flowers and their dependents from our landscapes, especially since the latter half of
the twentieth century – pollution, pesticides, intensive monoculture farming, industrial
pollution from use of fossil fuels, destruction of wetlands, transport infrastructure,
deforestation, explosion of human population, to name some.
Hindsight is often insight! Perhaps another way of saying this is that ‘we evolve’, we move
on and we better understand the past from the present stance. But it also seems that very
often among us are people who see into the meaning of the present more clearly, see the
nuances, see the bigger picture in time and space. Poets and creative people come to
mind. Sometimes we label them ‘eccentrics’.
One of these people is Sandro Cafolla, now living on the borders between Carlow and
Kilkenny. As a young boy Sandro had an instinct for wild flowers. At a very young age he
began to save wildflower seeds and has spent his life trekking in and out, up and down the
byways of the country collecting the seeds of our native wildflowers. Because Sandro
pursued his passion we now have in Ireland a great seed bank of probably close to a 100% of
our native wildflowers and so we can begin the healing journey.
The first step of this journey is to be able to hear the patch of earth that I inhabit, big or
small, pleading to leave it alone. In time it will heal itself, each year offering more variety of
the old flowers and grasses whose seeds have lain dormant for years. This means that I
have to let go of the preconceived stereo-type image of a flower bed or lawn!
The second way we can do something is to sow native wildflower seeds. It is crucial for the
flower’s pollinators that the seeds are native Irish seeds. We need to distinguish between
‘Native’ and ‘Native Irish Seed’. Irish wildflowers are genetically different from the
wildflowers of the rest of Europe. The plant/flower, insect and bird life in a given niche have
co-evolved over thousands of years. The native flower will open exactly at the time when its
dependent larvae, caterpillar, or mature insect is ready to feed. Timing is everything in the
seasonal cycles of nature. A non-native flower will open at a different time from our
indigenous native flowers, thus leaving its hosts without its food source. Besides, in time the
native and the non-native are likely to cross-pollinate or cross propagate and then we have
a new species, causing a further sundering of that fragile web, a tearing through the natural
balance that has been established over thousands of years.
Wildflower patches can ‘look’ attractive and have even become trendy. Perhaps we all at
some time have scattered a packet of wildflower seeds which we picked up in the local
hardware shop or supermarket or even the cheaper one in Aldi or Lydl and ended up with a
very colourful patch of flowers. We can also be lured by videos of wildflowers being
streamed all day long in some garden centres, and are usually labelled as native. The
individual flowers e.g Cornflower, Poppy may have the same names and look the same but
are not ‘native Irish’ even if it says ‘native’ on the packet.
There is the only one supplier of Irish Certified Native Wildflower Seeds in the country,
Sandro Cafolla of www.wildflowers.ie and email: firstname.lastname@example.org They supply seeds
suited to every type of landscape and soil type. They have a few outlets in the country.
A few tips: If we do not have access to a sizable piece of land we can sow wildflower seeds
in pots/boxes, small gardens, headlands any place where there is a little soil. They do not
need rich soil. When preparing, loosely rake the soil, remove weeds, scatter the seeds and
very lightly rake over. Nature will take over from there. There will not only be a summer
harvest but one that goes on into the autumn and winter as the seed-heads provide food for
birds especially finches and tits. Also small birds like wrens and robins will forage through
the undergrowth. We must to some degree let go of our preconceived images of a
wildflower patch, like those displayed on the packet. We will have that for a while in
summer and then it changes as we go into the autumn and winter. We must let go of our
urge to ‘tidy up’ and have it looking as we would like it! We are doing it for wildlife to enjoy
and to survive while we experience the joy of having re-established a further connection
with the larger community of life.