Why wildflowers matter
Why are wildflowers so special?
Wildflowers and wildflower-rich habitats support insects and other wildlife.
In the UK, we need a wide range of wildflowers to provide pollinators (bees and other insects that pollinate plants) with local food sources across the seasons – including times when crops aren’t producing flowers.
Many of our favourite fruits, vegetables and nuts rely on insect pollination. For example, in the UK strawberries, raspberries, cherries and apples need to be pollinated by insects to get a good crop.
Currently, the insects do this job for free! But if the UK doesn't have a large enough insect population we may need to develop artificial pollination methods, which takes a lot of time and is expensive.
As many gardeners know, insects and other animals can also help in the fight against crop pests (animals and insects that damage crops and plants). This means that farmers may have to rely even more heavily on pesticides if these 'good' animals and insects can't help.
Wildflowers also contribute to scientific and medical research. Some UK native wildflowers contain compounds which can be used in drugs to treat diseases. For example, foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) contain chemicals used to treat heart conditions. If we were to lose wildflower species, we could lose potential new medicines.
Just as importantly, perhaps, wildflowers are beautiful and provide us with habitats that buzz with life.
There are also strong cultural bonds that exist with recognisable species such as poppies, which remind us of lives lost in world wars, or of dandelions which may remind us of childhood summers.
How do wildflowers help the environment?
Wildflowers provide lots of things that insects need: food in the form of leaves, nectar and pollen, also shelter and places to breed. In return, insects pollinate the wildflowers, enabling them to develop seeds and spread to grow in other places.
The insects themselves are eaten by birds, bats, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals, all of whom contribute to the cycle of life.
During winter when there is less food available, wildflower seeds can also be an important food source for birds and small mammals.
Wildflowers can also be really helpful to keep soil healthy. When wildflowers become established and spread their roots, they stabilise the surrounding soil.
This means that when there is a lot of rainfall, or irrigation in fields used to grow crops, soil particles and nutrients stored in the ground stick around and the soil stays healthy. This is especially important on hillsides, where sloping ground is easily washed away if there aren’t root systems to hold the soil in place.
Without plants like wildflowers that stabilise the soil, nutrients can get washed away into nearby water systems. This causes a problem called ‘eutrophication’, where algae spread and can make the water toxic to marine animals.
What is the difference between UK native wildflowers and other kinds of wildflowers?
A UK native wildflower species is one which is naturally found in the UK, rather than a species which has been introduced from somewhere else, usually by humans.
When the glaciers melted after the last ice age – around 10,000 years ago – these are the species that recolonised the land. However it can be difficult to determine whether a species is truly ‘native’.
Once a species has developed a self-sustaining population, that is once it can continue to grow and reproduce without help, it is considered ‘naturalised’.
Any species that was brought into the UK before 1500 AD (around the time Henry the Eighth became King of England) and has become naturalised is called an archaeophyte.
Any species naturalised after 1500 AD is called a neophyte. And any species that is non-naturalised, or ‘alien’ is called a casual species.
It’s not always obvious if a wildflower is native or non-native by looking at it. But by knowing the name of the species, it’s possible to look up its native distribution (the geographical area in which it is native).
But what’s so great about native wildflowers?
Native wildflowers have grown and evolved for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years here in the climate and environment of the UK.
This means that they have evolved alongside other native wildlife and organisms, often benefiting each other.
For example, 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.
Native wildflower species have also adapted to environmental conditions here in the UK, so they can be easier to care for than non-natives.
What is wrong with non-native wildflowers?
There is nothing 'wrong' with non-native wildflowers, but they can 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 can suffer.
Non-native species can also be very difficult to remove once they have developed self-sustaining populations. Therefore, if they are allowed to grow and spread, they can out-compete native plants and threaten local wildflower populations.
Non-native species can ‘hybridise’ (cross-breed) with natives, which over time can dilute the adaptations that natives species have evolved, losing the benefits that a native species provides.
This is the case with the UK native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and the introduced Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica). It is now rare to find areas where only the UK native species of bluebell exists.
What is the difference between UK native wildflowers and weeds?
Weeds are just plants that are in the wrong place! Invasive, or problematic, weeds are plants that spread quickly and compete with the plants you are trying to grow.
A lot of UK native wildflowers aren’t competitive enough to be considered problematic weeds, as other species tend to be the first to take over.
That said, there are some native wildflower ‘weeds’. For example, many consider the UK native dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) to be a weed, since their plants spread quickly and can be difficult to remove.
However, dandelion flowers are an important source of food for bees and other pollinators early in the season, as they are one of the earlier-flowering species. So perhaps we should not judge them too harshly!
Many wildflowers grow in crops (known as ‘arable’ wildflowers or ‘cornfield annuals’) are considered to be weeds because they can reduce crop yields and their seeds can contaminate harvests.
However, modern seed cleaning techniques and chemical herbicides have almost wiped out many arable wildflower species, such as corn buttercup and red hemp-nettle. On farmland, wildflowers are now mostly confined to field margins or dedicated wildflower areas.
So how can I help UK native wildflowers?
First of all, help us spread the word about why they’re important! Share this page with your friends and followers. Pick your favourite fact and share it with a stranger.
Large wildflower meadows of UK native species are the best thing for supporting insects and animals, however it is clearly unrealistic to create these in urban areas!
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.
You could try growing wildflower seeds next Spring and create your own urban wildflower patch; we will give you guidance on how to buy native seeds.