This time last year I was singing the praises of the glorious floral colour extravaganza of the newly established Monument Meadow Natural Burial Ground on the outskirts of Farndon, where I was taking additional photographs for a post about the Barnston Memorial. The blues and reds (cornflowers and poppies) were brilliant against the white mayflowers and chamomiles and all the sunny yellows. It was the best fantasy wildflower garden that I could imagine (more photos of how it looked last year here). But that’s essentially the trouble with wildflower gardens. The fantasy is easily replaced by a rather different reality. You can seed them as much as you like, and in the first year you might have the perfect, cottage garden look, but wild means wild, and a field full of seeds will do its own thing, whether those seeds were scattered by human hand, blow in by the wind or deposited by birds on high. Last year, I was standing amongst the poppies and the cornflowers. dubiously wondering how many years this idyllic vision would last.
My doubts were largely due to a television report a couple of years ago, about research based on a study at Cambridge University, which took place on what had been a formal lawn behind King’s College Chapel. When it first flowered it looked like the Barnston Memorial field above, full of poppies, mayflowers and cornflowers. What happened in its second year of flowering is that most of the colourful species were replaced by cow parsley and other great leggy white-flowered umbellifera weeds of British verges, as well as thistles, as you can see in the photograph of the Cambridge wildflower field just before being harvested (using shire horses).
I have been driving past the Barnston Memorial field for the last few weeks keeping a look out for the poppies and cornflowers, but could see nothing but white. When I pulled over on Tuesday 5th July to take a closer look at this, its second year, it became clear that it had gone the way of the Cambridge experiment. Large swathes of cow parsley and a few thistles and white chamomiles are accompanied by a patches of yellow vetch, one or two fugitive cornflowers well below the level of the cow parsley, a lot of yellow ragwort (poisonous to horses and cattle) and some pinkish, blousy mallow. Mallow, or lavatera, is a chronic escape artist from domestic gardens, which seeds itself wherever it can; I suspect that the lavatera in the field is just such a domestic escapee. There are multiple species of grass and a few cereal crops that have escaped from the neighbouring field. There is not a poppy in sight. That is not to say that the field is unattractive, but it is a very different proposition from last year, and the loss of the blue cornflowers and red poppies makes it a much less idyllic prospect.
The wildflower field was not planted as an ecological experiment, and it is not being monitored by any specialists, but it will be interesting to see what happens next year.
Cambridge University’s King’s College meadow harvested with horses