Favourite Meadow Flowers

Meadows are the home of some choice wild flowers. Some, like fritillaries, have vanished from most sites, but others, like vetches and medicks, are actually welcomed by farmers.

The traditional English meadow with its profusion of brilliant flowers in spring and early summer was once a much more common sight than it is today. However, permanent and colourful meadows can still be found in Great Britain and Ireland on land that is difficult to cultivate, often with waterlogged or heavy soil, or on ground that is too stony for effective ploughing.

Skilful meadow management is crucial to the survival of wild plants. A meadow on rich soil that is heavily grazed can have vegetation as sparse as if it were on poor upland soil. Similarly if the grass is cut for silage around mid-May, although some wild flowers such as primroses will already have produced their seeds and will have ensured next season’s blooms, many other later-flowering plants will be decapitated before this can happen. If meadows are left until July before they are cut or grazed, flowers such as fritillaries and daffodils, moon daisies and orchids have time to shed their seeds and survive from year to year.


Many old meadows have become casualties of improved methods of drainage and the resulting rich land is now ploughed and cultivated. One casualty of such a practice is the snake’s head or fritillary which was introduced into Britain from Europe in the 16th century and used to be quite common in the damp meadows of the Thames valley.


The plant’s rather odd name has quite an interesting origin : in the 16th century, chess and draught pieces were kept in a dice-box which opened out to form the board on which the games were played. In Latin, the universal language of botanists both then and now, a dice box was called a fritillus ; because these angular, chequered flowers looked rather like a dice-box the name fritillary was coined for them. Snake’s head, another name for the flower, was given in the 19th century perhaps because the flower’s mottled markings look rather like scales.

Fritillaries are rare these days, surviving in only a few remaining natural habitats, the most famous of which is the North Meadow Nature Reserve in Wiltshire. Some of these surviving fields are small, and the plants found here are now believed to represent most of the total British population of this species in the wild.

The Cowslip

The cowslip is another meadow plant that was once widespread on lime-rich grasslands, but is now less common because of the effects of drainage and ploughing. Its name has a somewhat earthy history, being derived from the Old English cusloppe meaning cow dung; it was thought to grow wherever a cow pat had fallen, perhaps because it tends to occur in scattered clumps in cattle pastures. The name cowslop still persists in some dialects, but the more widespread version has been used since Shakespeare’s time.

False oxlip

Although the cowslip flowers rather later than its cousin the primrose, there is some overlap in the flowering seasons. And where they grow together, as often happens, you will commonly find hybrids of the two known as false oxlips. False oxlips are very variable in structure; they usually have flowers that open like those of a primrose, but they grow on a long common stalk (scape) like those of a cowslip. The flowers of the false oxlip do not nod to one side of the scape as those of the true oxlip — a rather rare plant that is found only in old woods in eastern England.

Naturally occurring hybrids like this are uncommon in the plant world — if such events occurred often it would be impossible to distinguish one species from another because there would be so many intermediate types. Occasionally hybrids are fertile and produce seeds, but they are usually sterile and rely on vegetative means to spread themselves. However, hybrids are important in plant breeding.

Poet’s Narcissus

Poet’s narcissus or pheasant’s eye is a relative of our wild daffodil, and it was introduced to our meadows from the Mediterranean area. The plant breeder has been able to bring together plants from varied habitats and produce hybrid garden daffodils and narcissi. By fertilising one flower with the pollen from a different one, offspring with new combinations of colour and shape can be obtained. It does not matter if the flowers are sterile because daffodils and narcissi can be multiplied vegetatively by bulbs.

Successful hybrid production comes when the parent species are closely related. You can tell just by looking at a cowslip and a primrose that they have a lot in common — their leaves and flowers are so similar. What really counts, though, is the chemical makeup of their cells. They must be related genetically to a considerable degree to be sufficiently compatible to produce fertile hybrids that can germinate, grow and flower.

Rich in nitrogen

The pea family — the clovers, medicks and vetches — are today important to the farmer as components of his meadow, both for haymaking and grazing. These plants are rich in nitrogen and hence protein — which is supplied to them by bacteria in special structures on their roots called root nodules.

The medicks have three-lobed leaves like those of clovers — they are often sold to the unsuspecting as shamrock on St Patrick’s Day. Spotted medick is less common than black medick and is found more often near the sea. Its seed pods are spirally coiled and prickly, giving the pod its other name, cog-seed. The common vetch has seed pods rather like those of our cultivated pea.

Vetches are scrambling plants, the leaves having twining tendrils at the tip which cling for anchorage to the taller herbage around them. Often grown as a fodder crop, the common vetch frequently escapes to roadsides and waste places.

Present day meadows tend to be short lived and sown with mixtures of red and white dover and sometimes black medick. All Sowers of the pea family have the same basic shape, from the tiny yellow flowers of the medick arranged in clusters to the large solitary flowers of the sweet pea.

Useful species

Salsify is now a meadow plant that was originally introduced into gardens from France and Italy around 1700; over the years many plants have escaped and become naturalised. Salsify’s long tap roots used to be peeled and boiled, and because of their flavour of salt fish the plant was also called the ‘vegetable oyster’.

28. July 2011 by admin
Categories: Wildflowers | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Favourite Meadow Flowers


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