There’s a trend towards sowing colourful ‘wildflowers’ on roadside verges. Is that a good thing or a bad one?

I don’t regard myself as gardener but I am an occasional visitor to Yellow Book gardens and hence sometimes encounter the real thing. In these cultivated settings, it is not just the plants that are of interest of course, and as a keen observer of human nature the social niceties of horticultural life also entertain me. From a detached perspective I have noticed a tendency for true gardeners, particularly the sort that can afford to employ gardeners, to be rather sniffy about their peers, a behaviour that sometimes borders on horticultural snobbery. Cutting remarks are made with perfect manners of course, reminiscent of E.F. Benson’s ‘Mapp and Lucia’ books, and this trait seems especially true of those at what might be termed the Jekyllian end of the spectrum some of whom value muted colours above all else. Presumably it was just such a person that wrote a review I remember reading once that described a garden, rather uncharitably, as ‘an eyesore in purple, pink and orange’.

Getrude Jekyll, that pioneering gardener and floral powerhouse behind the Arts and Crafts movement, was all in favour of colour of course, both vibrant and muted. But she also valued harmony both in her planting schemes and her colour palette. With her Art School training behind her, and her colour wheel spinning, Jekyll worked on the basis that some colour schemes induced tranquillity while other more clashing combinations created discord, perhaps even raising blood pressure. So I wonder what she would make of the modern day trend for local councils to sow ‘wildflowers’ along verges bordering ringroads and dual carriageways. I am all for bringing colour into people’s lives but if Jekyll was right about the effect that colour has on mood then I wonder if these occasionally garish plantings encourage relaxed and considerate driving, or perhaps quite the opposite.

With the above in mind, the other day a friend sent me a link to an article in the Rotherham Advertiser, entitled ‘The story behind Rotherham’s bloomin’ lovely River of Colour’.,feature-the-story-behind-rotherhams-bloomin-lovely-river-of-colour_32425.htm  Subsequently I have seen the same scheme mentioned in glowing terms by the BBC and in national newspapers. The story is one about a seemingly laudable aim to grow ‘wildflowers’ beside an otherwise uninteresting 8-mile stretch of road.  What could be wrong with that? Colour combinations notwithstanding the photograph used to illustrate the article showed a strange mix of former arable ‘weeds’ – just the sort of thing that intensive arable farmers want to be rid of – and a scattering of alien species and dubious natives . From what I could make out, the main components comprised a form of European poppy Papaver sp., California Poppy Eschscholzia californica, Cornflower Centaurea cyanus and Corn Marigold Glebionis segetum, all of which are plants of disturbed ground hence their liking for tilled farmland soils. How will they maintain this peculiar species mix I wondered? All was revealed when I read on to the section that stated “Hopefully in late March 2015 we will weed kill all of the eight miles and reseed it again in April”. That explained all. I am a bit confused about the dates I should add, because the article appeared in The Rotherham Advertiser in 2019 (according to my link) but the text refers to 2015.

roadside 1.jpgAbove: A ‘sown’ roadside verge in a north Hampshire town featuring amongst others various colour forms of Cornflower, poppies of various hues, and the seedhead remains of Phacelia. I have no idea what the management regime is for this stretch of road. ©Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

Assuming the newspaper’s report was accurate the reality in the case of Rotherham was that native wildflowers (as well as the sown ones) were destined to be killed so the cycle could continue and inappropriate and occasionally alien (but colourful) species could charm the eyes of passing motorists. A victory for those producing and selling the seeds to councils perhaps but not so much for native biodiversity. Talking of financial benefits, the article stated that ‘At this time the council was spending around £80,000 on cutting the eight miles of grass, seven times a year, with outside contractors providing traffic management when the roads were closed to allow the work to take place.’ It went on to say that the man in charge believed ‘bringing it back inhouse and planting the wildflowers would bring back some colour and interest to the A631 Bawtry Road and A630 Centenary Way reservations’.  He also felt that ‘having the wild flowers would reduce the amount of times the council would have to cut the reservations as it would be less dense than grass and so visibility for motorists would be better.And the article added ‘we’ve now saved £20,000 for the grounds maintenance budget.

roadside 2Above: In the same north Hampshire town as the ‘sown’ verge image seen above, this picture shows the potential value of roadside verges for native flora, and wildlife generally. Because it is on chalk, species such a Marjoram and Kidney-vetch thrive, the latter serving as a foodplant for colonies of Small Blue butterflies. And the beauty is that the council need do nothing other than mow the vegetation sparingly once a year. © Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

In these times where councils are facing austerity measures I have a suggestion. Unless road safety is an issue, let genuinely native wildflowers naturally colonise your roadside verges for free and cut the vegetation just once a year – in August or early September perhaps. And an extra tip would be to sow the seeds of Yellow-rattle Rhinanthus minor. This self-seeding plant is a semi-parasite of grasses and great for inhibiting their growth, as well as being colourful in its own right. Councils would save a huge amount of money and the result might actually benefit native biodiversity. Admittedly the verges would not be gaudily colourful but I think Getrude Jekyll would approve of that. The real point is that there’s a greater chance that the verges might then do something positive for native wildlife.

163119Above: Yellow-rattle is a great addition to any roadside verge. As well as being attractive, its semi-parasitic life-style has the potential to inhibit the growth of rank grasses. © Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd