Plantlife’s top 7 wildflowers to grow in the garden at home

The weather may still be playing havoc with our gardens, but this month, to celebrate the start of National Gardening week, we’re filling you with gardening inspiration.

There’s our fantastic offer in association with our favourite gardening magazine ‘The English Garden’. Claim your FREE copy of their gardening annual when you buy our hand wash and lotion together.

We’ve also managed to catch up with our charity partner Plantlife’s botanical specialist, Dr Trevor Dines. Plantlife, the wild plant conservation charity have just launched the Great British Wildflower Hunt, so here’s Trevor with some insider tips on growing wildflowers in your garden.

I inherited the gardening bug from my grandparents; one of my clearest childhood memories is of my grandma finding snake’s-head fritillaries in the water meadows on the farm where we grew up. Back in her own garden she showed me the same flowers she’d planted in her lawn and the connection between garden and the wild has fascinated me ever since.

 

For many of us, wildlife gardening is all about attracting birds, butterflies, bees and other animals into our gardens by providing them with a haven in which to thrive. As any visit to the garden centre will show, a wide range of plants and flowers can be grown to do this. But – like my grandmas’ snake’s-head fritillaries – many of these plants have origins in our own countryside. In fact, more species than you might realise have British roots.

 

Trevor says, “In the garden, most wild flowers are very easy to grow. They’re hardy, resilient and well adapted to our climate and soils. They’re also incredibly beautiful. At Plantlife, the wild-plant conservation charity, our Wildflower Garden website profiles over 100 of the best wild flowers to grow in our gardens, along with tips and advice on buying, planting and propagating them. There are many to choose from, but here are my top 7 favourite wild flowers for the garden. This is a purely personal list drawn from the memories and connections that I have with certain plants, but I think no garden should be without at least one or two of them.

 

Sea Kale (Crambe maritima)

If there is one unsung star of the wildflower garden it’s sea kale. 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 plants 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.

 

Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris)

Nothing quite beats the elegance of pasqueflowers as they emerge from their 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 are often home rare and delicate flowers. 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.

Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)

I’m an absolute sucker for scent. It adds a magical element to a garden – ephemeral, sensual and alluring. And honeysuckle 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 learnt this plant came from my 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 our lives.

 

Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala)

When I was young, making troughs from old sinks was all the rage. Spurred on by Geoff Hamilton on Gardener’s World, I covered an old Belfast sink in hypertufa, a mixture of compost, sand and cement, and made a wonderful miniature world of alpine plants. By far my favourite was mountain avens, a small creeping shrub that bears beautiful little oak-like leaves that are glossy green above and whitish below. But it was the flowers in spring that really captivated me, large white chalices with a central boss of yellow stamens. Even better, they tracked the path of the sun through the day, maximising the warmth on their petals. Years later, I saw carpets of these jewels in the Burren in Ireland, a remarkable place for a remarkable plant.

 

Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis)

I’m a big fan of ferns and this 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 it 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.

 

Aquilegia or Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris)

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 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.

 

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

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 their ‘round-leaves’ as suggested by the Latin name rotundifolia. As the tiny seedlings grew I was delighted that the leaves were indeed perfectly round, but was a bit disappointed when they rather quickly elongated as the plants grew. As a consolation, though, the beautiful flowers followed soon after. This 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.

 If you’d like to find out more, you can join the Great British Wildflower hunt here