Why our roadside perennials make more than just pretty borders
Thought you knew the plants that grow on our roadsides? Well, I certainly thought I was familiar with most of them. That was, until I started to look a little closer and realised that our native roadside perennials are anything but simple. The other day, as part of my research for my ‘Native hedgerows’ series, I looked a little closer at one particular section of perennial meadow planting beside a hedgerow and couldn’t believe my eyes. How could so very many different plants all grow in one small section of road verge?
Sure I was familiar with the most common of our native perennials which border most hedgerows-think nodding heads of ox-eye daisies and fluffy white cow parsley- a most familiar sight all across our island. But the mixture of colour, texture and variety was truly astonishing when I looked a little closer. I was surprised to study how tendrils of delicate, yellow, pea-like flowers curled around long stems of fluffy brown and white Ribwort Plantain. I noticed how dots of silky yellow buttercup, the bane of many a gardeners life, which here took on a different role in the scheme and complemented the centre of the egg-yolk, ox-eye perfectly.
Naturally grown planting combinations, which develop without the interference of humans, have a way of forming beautifully perfect schemes themselves and this was something which really brought a smile to my face.
Our native hedgerows, which consist of many different layers in height and density are perfect breeding and foraging groups for so many different species of wildlife. Our dense hedges provide nest building structure and shelter for many birds and animals and the meadow like borders which edge these hedgerows provide rich sources of nectar for bees, birds and butterflies.
In this particular stretch of roadside meadow I counted over twenty different plant varieties which all form a rich tapestry of planting for our fauna. The most noticeable one visually is of course the Ox Eye daisy. This gorgeous flower, which is also known as the Dog daisy or Chrysanthemum Leucanthemum, is one that pops up everywhere in Ireland along motorways, grass verges and embankments. The flowers, which emerge in May and last through to September are born on long, ridged stems and are the shape of a giant daisy- with a prominent egg-yolk yellow centre of disk florets and sprays of white petals radiating out form the centre. These flowers are also the ones which are used in a custom of French origin ‘He loves me, he loves me not’ in which the petals are picked off an ox eye daisy, with the phrase spoken when the last petal is picked determining whether the object of affection returns that affection.
While this pretty flower is not edible it does have a variety of uses, some of which are medicinal. The plant is considered antispasmodic and has many similar properties as Chamomile. The flowers can be used to make medicinal infusion to treat coughs, asthma and bronchial problems and the root can be used to make medicinal lotions for external wounds, bruises and ulcers. It is also said to be useful for treating conjunctivitis when distilled into a water.
Another plant which has long been considered a weed by most people, though one long embraced by herbalists, is the Ribwort Plantain, the Plantago lanceolata. This incredibly adaptable perennial grows everywhere from coastal areas all the way to urban wasteland and even directly on stone walls. Many people treat this as a garden weed and they are admittedly hard to ‘get rid of’ in a perfect lawn. Thankfully we are finding our way back to embracing gardens which celebrate natures diversity and allowing fascinating plants a way back into our private spaces.
And that’s a good thing too as the Plantain has a lot more to offer than most of us know.
It is a fascinating plant belonging to the family Plantaginaceae and has lovely long stems which rise out of a rosette like base plant and are topped by brown lanceolate flower spikes which have fluffy white halos of tiny white petals surrounding the flower spikes. The leaves of this plant are actually edible but are slightly bitter in taste and can be eaten cooked or raw. Interestingly Plaintains have been used medicinally for a variety of purposes such as to stem the flow of blood, the treatment of inflammation as well as encouraging skin to heal. The humble plantain has now been embraced by many designers and gardeners and some pretty specimens made its way into a few of the Chelsea gardens las year as well as my own Bloom garden.
While we are on the topic of using native roadside plant varieties in show and private gardens, one plant that has long been used in show gardens is the beautifully frothy Cow parsley or Anthiscus sylvetris. This plant which has long hollow stems bears beautiful, five petalled umbel shaped flowers which thrive in semi-shade and sunny meadows and at the edges of hedges and roadsides. It is a visibly graceful plant which can reach up to a metre in height and adds a gorgeous, natural accent to a meadow scheme. In many private gardens the black variety Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ is used for its striking contrast flowers to purple-black stems.
One much more unassuming plant which caught my eye was a delicately curling, pea like plant with beautiful yellow flowers which resembled the sweet pea. Though visually obviously from the Fabaceae- the pea family -I hadn’t seen this particular one before. The Lathyrus pratensis is a gorgeous little thing, growing to about 1.2m in height and has hermaphrodite flowers which are pollinated by bees. This perennial legume uses its curling tendrils to climb over other plats in hedgerows, forest edges and banks and is a host plant for our wood white butterfly, Leptidea sinapis. Interestingly these butterflies is very choosy in selecting the location where they oviposition-or lay their eggs- with their favourites being Lotus pedunculatus, Lathyrus pratensis, and Lotus corniculatus all of which make delicious food for the green caterpillars before they become butterflies.
Now, knowing how many fascinating plants grow in our hedgerows, from trees, to climbers, grasses and verges, and the diversity of wildlife it supports, I’ll never look at our hedgerows the same again!
The Carlow Garden Festival
This year I am super excited to be taking part in the Carlow garden festival. Running over 11 days, the 2018 programme will have an inspiring mix of mix of world-class UK and Ireland designers, gardeners, garden broadcasters, writers and new trailblazers in Irish horticulture and garden design. The show has a host of well known people booked, all of which sound incredibly exciting. Speakers such as UK based Sarah Price, Chris Beardshaw, Carol Klein, Adam Frost, John Anderson, Stephen Anderton, Charles Dowding will be making appearances and the best of our Irish talent Fiann Ó Nualláin, Jimi Blake, Fionnuala Fallon, Dermot O’ Neill, Helen Dillon, Seamus O’Brien, Cormac Downey and myself also will be there to inspire on all topics gardens and design.
My own talk on July 28 will be at 12 noon and will be all about designing your dream space and will aim to cover every stage of design -from developing a concept all the way to fleshing out your own design details. I’ll also be hosting a design clinic walk where all your garden questions can be answered in a stunningly beautiful setting of the Huntington Castle gardens at 3pm on the same day. To book these events or any other event visit www.carlowgardentrail.com