Mixes, fixes and going native

Outdoor Living

Nature and rewilding
Pat Fahy

Many often say and wonder why we don’t just buy boxes of ‘Wildflower Mix’ from garden centres to transform council meadows into a splash of instant colour. It’s a fair question – aren’t they wildflowers? They should be easy to grow and then spread of their own accord.  
Problem is (and it took us until this year to definitely determine and confirm their nature), they’re not actually our wildflowers and they should in fact be called ‘Cornfield Annuals’.
Maybe some of you remember the ‘Mix’ area near Westport Leisure Centre some nine years ago, sown by Council Gardeners for Westport Tidy Towns? Very popular with many Tidy Towns groups at the time, its hundreds of flowers of many varieties, all sorts of shapes and colours, live long in the memory. The buzz of bees and the fluttering of butterflies amplified the experience. I clearly remember many people going out of their way at the time to see these flowers.
It was puzzling, then, to learn that they had disappeared – and the results were the same for every group I spoke to. Henry Brawn, Town Council Gardener, informed me that in the second year only half the flowers returned, and by the third year, only the odd flower here and there remained.
I had a lot to learn about native wildflowers at that time – a reality that was easily righted by Zoe Devlin’s ‘The Wildflowers of Ireland, a Field Guide’ (a book I highly recommend). Even  though most ‘Wildflower Mix’ blends contain cornflowers, cornflowers are not listed in that book. This was the first of many clues that this species, like others in the mixes, is not suited to our climate in general.
If the flowers are not suited to the climate in which they are grown, the seed they produce won’t be viable. This means that the flowers won’t return the next year – any that do will have grown from seeds that were dormant in the original sowing.
For us, that means we must keep buying the ‘Mix’ seed every year. Still a good deal in my opinion – for the price of one potted plant from the garden centre, you instead get a cornucopia of flowers and lots of colourful interest throughout the season.
I do still wish the beautiful cornflower was one of our own, and some strongly suspect that it used to be. During the Clare Island Survey of 1909 to 1911, Robert Lloyd Praeger noted cornflowers growing in the tilled fields, before animal husbandry became the norm. Either these must have been native, or the farmers were buying seed every year. I asked the many volunteers at the Heritage Centre about this and got my answer that this didn’t seem likely. They were also probably amused at the notion of hard-pressed tillage farmers heading off in their currachs and their best báinín to the co-op to buy wildflower mix to enhance their oats and barley.
Now that we’ve solved this conundrum, we’ve moved on to create four areas around Westport town. As well as sowing ‘Cornfield Annuals’ we sow phacelia and borage to save our own seeds for next year’s mix, while also learning the ways of our native wildflowers to encourage an increase every year. Lots to learn, lots to do, but you know, you’ll always find time for the things you love to do.

Pat Fahy is Biodiversity Officer with Westport Tidy Towns.