6 top plants for the wildflower garden
This is a purely personal list, drawn from the memories and connections that I have with certain plants. All of these are cracking garden plants in their own right though, so I think no garden should be without at least 1 or 2 of them.
This is probably the first wildflower I ever grew from seed, so it holds a special place in my heart. I was probably about 13 years old and had seen harebells growing on the chalk downland around where I lived (there is a note in my copy of my Fitter, Fitter & Blamey wildflower book that reads "Stockbridge Down – 1982").
As well as the beautiful flowers, I was strangely fascinated by the "round-leaves" of Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) as suggested by the Latin name rotundifolia. As the tiny seedlings grew I was delighted that the leaves were indeed perfectly round. But I was also a bit disappointed when the leaves rather quickly elongated as the plants grew. As a consolation, though, the wonderful flowers followed soon after.
Harebell (pictured above) is a lovely little perennial for the front of the border, a rockery or a pot. It loves poor soil, sun and an open spot, so make sure it’s never overshadowed by its neighbours.
2) Sea Kale
If there is one undersung star of the wildflower garden it’s Sea Kale (Crambe maritima). It was once much more popular, a staple of the Victorian kitchen garden that was highly valued for its early leaves, which were often forced rather like rhubarb.
It’s seeing a resurgence now – a trendy vegetable prized by top restaurants for its flavour somewhere between asparagus and celery, perfect when steamed and served with hollandaise sauce.
But it’s not just as a vegetable that this plant should be grown. The leaves emerge deep purple and expand into the most incredible sculptural forms: large lobes and undulations in steel and slate grey. And as if this isn’t enough, mature clumps produce huge domes of creamy white flowers that waft their strongly honey scent around the garden.
Once established, clumps can live for decades and get bigger and better every year.
Nothing quite beats the elegance of a Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) as it emerges from its downy nest of leaves in early spring.
The flowers – a chalice of royal purple with that flamboyant boss of gold stamens at the centre – look too exotic to be a British native wildflower.
They are rare – growing at a scattering of sites in southern and eastern England – but visit an ancient earthwork at Easter and you might spot one, springing up from the soil where the blood of Vikings has been spilt. At least, that’s the legend. In reality, such earthworks tend to have escaped ploughing and disturbance, so often home rare and delicate flowers like pasqueflowers.
Cultivated pasqueflowers are readily available from garden centres and make wonderful garden plants. Individual clumps can live for years in well-drained, lime-rich soil and forms with red and white flowers are available too.
I’m an absolute sucker for scent. It adds a magical element to a garden – ephemeral, sensual and alluring. And Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) is probably the most elegantly scented of all garden plants (I find lilies too pungent and roses too nebulous, unless you get your nose right into them).
Its sweet scent is breathed generously into the air to attract pollinators (and passing gardeners).
We grew up with a large honeysuckle in the corner of the garden and every year mum would take a few cuttings, laying the long stems into trays of soil or pegging them down into the earth. They’d always take root so all our relatives had pieces of the original plant.
Later I learned this plant came from uncle Bill in Suffolk; it was an especially fragrant form he found in a local woodland. So it’s now a firm family tradition and, when we moved house a few years ago, mum struck a few more cuttings for us. Some plants just work their way into your life.
5) Royal Fern
I’m a big fan of ferns and Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) is by far the best of our native ferns for the garden.
Mature plants can grow into magnificent clumps with huge, arching fronds several metres long; they might not sit atop a trunk but will give any tree fern a run for its money, and are far more reliable in our climate.
If you have a pond or bog garden, Royal Fern will provide many years of annual entertainment, from the curled-up croziers emerging and slowly unfurling in spring to the fronds turning butter-yellow in autumn before they fall.
Unlike many ferns Royal Fern can take quite a bit of sunshine provided its feet are kept wet and, if you don’t have a pond or bog garden, you can grow it in a large pot standing in a tub of water. I think it’s one of the most underrated native plants for the garden.
A staple of the cottage garden, this delightful flower is so familiar it can be surprising to find it growing in the wild.
The native form of Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) always has a single (rather than double) flower and is a beautiful bright, clear blue. I remember seeing it for the first time while walking the Offa’s Dyke path in the Wye Valley, where flanked the path as it snaked through lightly shaded woodland.
In the wild, it prefers to grow on lime-rich soil (it even grows on steep, rocky limestone banks) but is more relaxed about soil type in the garden.
Many garden forms have been developed in all sorts of colours, often with double flowers. Just as columbine pops up gently all around the garden, these forms readily become naturalised in the wild too, popping up along roadsides, railways and waysides and in old quarries. But none match the simple purity of the wild form.