Derek – Friday 12th June 2020

Phacelia (Phacelia tanacatifolia) is a plant native to SW United States and Mexico. So what is it doing in our wildflower bed? Presumably it was among the seeds in the pack we bought, but that simply pushes the question back a level, like what was there before the Big Bang, or who made God?

None of which I can answer.

But if we are to deny phacelia UK status, that raises the quandary of what exactly is a native plant? Or to put it another way, how long does a plant have to be around to be considered native? The last Ice Age ended around ten thousand years ago. The ice came down as far as London, but even further south there would be little growing, beyond lichens and moss, as it was too cold. So most of our plants (trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses) have come in since that time.

We were connected to mainland Europe up to eight thousand years ago, by a wide stretch of land, now known as Doggerland, joining England to the Netherlands and Denmark. The Dogger Bank in the North Sea is a remnant. Before the submergence of Doggerland, post Ice Age, in came the plants, dispersed by animals and wind. More were brought by migratory birds.

Arable farming was introduced to this country around six thousand years ago, by farmers from Europe, who over centuries had made their way from the Middle East. Their sacks of seeds would have contained miscellaneous wild flowers. The Romans brought celandines as a medicinal herb, they also brought box and fennel, sweet chestnut, wild cherry and pear, as well as many of our common vegetables, and surely a few passenger seeds among their plants and sandals.

Our native wildflowers arrived by many routes.

There’s a bluish green grass here and there in the garden. It is a handsome plant, the seed heads very wheat like. How on earth had it got here and what is it? And then Barbara came up with the likelihood that it was from the birdseed that we put in our feeders. That fitted as birdseed has all sorts of grains. So what was it? I trawled the internet, and I think it is Triticum aestivum, a wheat, usually grown as a winter wheat which means it is sown in the autumn. And likely so in our garden, which is why it is ahead of our other cereals.

There are two wheats in the cereal project, one of which is Red Fife wheat, also blue-green. It is very upright and stately. Red Fife is a Canadian wheat, brought to Canada by a Scot, David Fife, in 1840. The seeds were given to us by Prairie Garden Seeds who are based in Saskatchewan. Red Fife was grown till about 1900 and then overtaken by bigger croppers. I found reference to it on The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity website. The wheat is being grown again in Canada and becoming popular with artisan bakers for its unique bread flour. Ours is growing in a cardboard box, so we might harvest enough for a bread roll.

I took a wander round the garden and noted a host of flowers: a red floribunda rose by our greenhouse, our first hollyhocks with yellow blooms, lavender, sedum spectabile (ice plant) with domes of pink florets, phlomis, lychnis, scabious, St John’s wort, sisirhynchium, red and yellow poppies, and purple sweet peas. That list omits those in the wildflower bed which in a few weeks will be the belle of our ball.

We have let the garden grow rather wild during lockdown. This has been good for wild plants and for wildlife. But a tidy up is on the cards. From July 1 st on Saturdays we’ll have working pairs, socially distanced, doing stints of around two hours. I’m glad it’s a few weeks hence as there are some interesting wild flowers, which I don’t want to lose for a while.

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