So what are wildflowers?
Intriguingly, the definition of a wildflower is not a flower found in its “native” habitat or in the wild, as many typically believe.
The true definition lies in its genetics; a wildflower is any flowering plant that has not been genetically manipulated.
Nonetheless, the typical understanding of a wildflower - a flower that you might see out on a walk in the countryside - is also broadly correct; those flowers are all wildflowers.
More accurately though, any flowering plant that grows without human help, particularly in spring and summer in the woodlands or out in the hills is a wildflower.
Why are wildflowers so special
Wildflowers make-up a really important part of the ecosystem. Plants are the foundation of the food-chain; everything from bugs to cattle feed on them, so plant-life is a fundamental part of a thriving planet.
Wildflowers are the food source of many important species, particularly bees, butterflies and other insects. These insects feed on the leaves, pollen and nectar, and they use wildflowers as places to shelter and to breed.
Bees and butterflies are considered ‘pollinators’ - they fly from plant to plant, feeding on the nectar and pollen found inside flowers. In return, they spread the pollen between the flowers, which triggers the plants to reproduce, creating seeds. More seeds means more plants.
The more food stuff there is, the more the insects thrive. The more insects there are, the more that can then be eaten by other animals, like birds, bats, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals. And so the cycle of life goes on.
During harsh winters, these seeds also provide food for hungry animals like birds and small mammals.
Many of our favourite fruits and vegetables such as raspberries, blackberries, apples and more, rely on pollination to produce a good crop. Again, these fruits aren’t just eaten by humans; they’re an important food source for many other creatures too.
Without pollinators, our plant life would whither, and wildlife would suffer - and so we’re big advocates of keeping some around!
What are ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ wildflowers?
In truth, it’s hard to determine which flowers are truly ‘native’ wildflowers.
Most people consider native wildflowers to be species that are found ‘naturally’ in the UK, rather than species that have been introduced from elsewhere. But how far do we go back?
The glaciers, which covered the earth in the last ice age, melted around 10,000 years ago. Plant species that emerged from under the ice are the most native species that we know of, but they are really hard to know precisely.
To identify these truly native species, botanists look to fossil records; if they can find a continuous supply of fossils since the late-Glacial period then a species is considered truly native.
Some plant species that we know are ‘native’ include bottle and beaked sedge, common hazel and broad leaved pondweed.
But we can make a few further definitions. Firstly, species that have over time developed into a self-sustaining population, growing and reproducing without outside help, are considered ‘naturalised’.
Then, in order to make a more workable definition of ‘native’ wildflowers’, rather than trying to go back to the ice age, we instead look to around 1500 AD, around the time that Henry the Eighth became king of England. Any plant that became naturalised before 1500 AD is called an archaeophyte, and is commonly thought of as a ‘native’ wildflower species.
Any species naturalised after 1500 AD is called neophyte. And any species that is non-naturalised is called a casual species.
Why 1500 AD? Because 1500 AD was the time when Columbus returned from Americas, initiating a period called the Columbian exchange, where multiple hitherto unknown plants started to move freely between the Americas and Europe.
We by no means advocate this definition for anything other than wildflowers, by the way, but it’s a useful way of thinking about how we can best help our local ecosystems!
It is often pretty hard when looking at a flower to know whether it is a native, archaeophyte or neophyte species - or even what species it is!
Is native (archaeophyte) better?
In short, sometimes - but not necessarily. Native wildflowers have evolved over time alongside other local wildlife, which means they are productive, synergistic parts of the ecosystem.
Many native wildflowers have flower shapes, sizes, colours and the time when they bloom that are attractive to UK pollinators. Some insects, such as some bumblebee species, are very picky about where they get their food and need certain UK native wildflower species to survive.
There is nothing wrong with non-native wildflowers per se, but they can sometimes have a negative impact on the native wildflowers that are already growing here.
For example, if new species bring diseases, or are competitive for resources like water, space or pollination by insects, the native species and therefore local wildlife can suffer.
How can we help?
There are a few ways we can help. Firstly by growing wildflower ourselves, as we’re doing this month! We’re hoping to attract bees and butterflies, so keep your eyes out.
Some pollinators can’t travel too far to find food so it’s really important that there are food sources and refuges dotted around for them to visit. This is especially important in urban areas where the environment is often grey, with few sources of pollen and nectar. It really is a case of every little helps.
Green spaces in urban areas can also help our health and wellbeing, so growing wildflowers in small spaces can also benefit us, as individuals and as a community.