My last week’s Six on Saturday included Melittis melissophyllum ‘Royal Velvet Distinction’. This is a cultivated form of a native wild flower, which if not exactly rare, is limited in its distribution. As it happens I know of a colony growing in a lane about a mile away and since its inclusion on the blog was rewarded with a couple of enthusiastic responses, I thought I’d go and have a look at it, see how it was faring.
It’s down a typical Cornish lane, very high banks on both sides of a single track road, grass up the middle. I’ve usually done drive by viewings; this time I parked up and walked. A month or so ago it would have been a mass of primroses, now it is a mix of fading bluebells, pink campion, foxgloves, stitchwort, buttercups, ferns and along about a two hundred yard stretch, bastard balm, Melittis melissophyllum.
I had thought the Melittis was only on the sunny, south facing bank but it turned out there were a few clumps on the other side too. I had commented on Saturday that the cultivated form was not so much better than the wild one, which turns out to depend which wild plant you’re comparing it with. As you can see in the picture, the colour varies considerably. The best are almost the equal of the grandly named ‘Royal Velvet Distinction’ and I had thought them garden worthy many years before finding the cultivated form.
I spotted a single white bluebell amongst the many blue ones and again thought how garden worthy it was, which set me thinking about what we mean when we use that expression. Plant collectors must always be seeking out the most garden worthy species and variants, though with tastes varying so much the judgement has to be subjective. The white bluebell is only more garden worthy than the blue because the blue is very common and the white quite rare. In the case of Melittis, clear strong colour and lots of flowers would be most people’s choice.
I grow a few native plants in my garden, or at least I put up with them more or less willingly. Primroses and wood anemones I have planted and they have spread about. Some of the Geraniums are natives, selected or bred for something distinctive, so there is white G. sylvaticum and G. pratense, various G. phaeum forms. Foxgloves, Columbine and Welsh poppy seed about and get left in fair numbers where they aren’t harming anything else.
I have the double form of Chelidonium and variegated forms of two native grasses, Melica uniflora ‘Variegata’ and Arrhenatherum elatius bulbosum ‘Variegatum’, along with a number of double primroses. I even have a native orchid, one of the Dactylorrhiza species, though I’m not sure which.
I think I mainly grow them because they’re good garden plants, rather than from any sense that doing so is good for the planet. I’m acutely aware that farmland is no longer a safe habitat for wildflowers; generations of selective weedkiller and the increasing use of glyphosate in minimal cultivation systems has sterilised most of it.
Roadsides are probably the best large scale habitat for wildflowers that we now have, at least if they’re being managed sensitively. I’d like to see more proactive interventions to make them better still. Where rare species are concerned, simply setting out to conserve what we have seems inevitably to mean decline, as there is always going to be some attrition for various reasons.
I will submit my photos of Melittis to the Cornwall Wildlife Trust recording system; hopefully doing so will help ensure the colony’s survival in our modern, largely indifferent world.