Category Archives: Wild Flowers

The English Hay Meadow

Helmingham Hall, Suffolk May 2018

Meadow planting is enjoying a wave of popularity right now both in private gardens and public spaces.  As well as looking natural and beautiful, the variety of flowers and seeds they produce offer great benefits to wildlife, such as pollinating insects and birds.

But what are the origins of the meadow these modern plantings reference and attempt to re-create?  Broadly, the inspiration is the traditional hay meadow, where grasses and other plants were grown to be cut and dried, supplying winter fodder for cattle.  In today’s decorative meadows the balance between grasses and flowers tends towards the dominance of flowers, but when hay was still a crop, grasses were the most important plants in the meadow.

Benjamin Stillingfleet’s illustrated study Observations on Grasses (1762) gives some valuable insights into the 18th century meadow.  In this brief account, he explains how meadows were planted and managed, and discusses in detail the best  grasses for a good hay crop.  Stillingfleet’s research on meadow grasses is intended to educate the farmer so the most suitable kinds of grasses can be grown.  He observes how, until recently, the study of these grasses has been neglected,

‘The farmer for want of distinguishing, and selecting grasses for feed, fills his pastures either with weeds, or bad, or improper grasses; when by making a right choice, after some trials he might be sure of the best grass, and in the greatest abundance that his land admits of.’

Stillingfleet criticises the imprecise way in which farmers acquire seed, which was generally collected from their own hay stack or from a neighbour.  The disadvantage of sowing this mixture is that weeds are introduced; ‘I have seen it filled with weeds not natural to it, and which never would have sprung up, if they had not been brought there.’  Stillingfleet’s solution is to gather very specific grass seeds, so that the mixture contains the best kinds of grasses for the type of soil and situation, and weeds can be kept to a minimum.  He describes enlisting the help of children to perform this task;

‘I have had frequent experience how easy it is to gather the seeds of grasses, having employed children of ten or eleven years old several times, who have gathered many sorts for me without making any mistakes, after I had once shewn them the sorts I wanted.’

The charming illustrations of ten of the finest hay grasses are a valuable aid to the identification of these plants for the general reader, as grasses are quite hard to tell apart from descriptions alone.

‘Many people having expressed a desire that I should have plates of some of the profitable grasses added to this piece, that most excellent man, the late Mr Price of Foxley, whose extraordinary character I shall always revere, and do intend to give a sketch of on some future occasion, kindly condescended to employ his pencil, which in the opinion of the best judges was equal to things of a much superior nature, in making me several drawings from the plants themselves, and a very able hand has supplied the rest and engraved them all.’

One of the most beautiful grasses to be found in the hay meadow is the meadow fox-tail which grows to around a metre in height, and was also considered one of the best for high quality hay.

‘I am informed that the best hay which comes to London is from the meadows where this grass abounds.  I saw this spring a meadow not far from Hampstead which consisted of this grass chiefly with some of the vernal grass and the corn brome grass. It might be gathered at almost any time of the year from hay ricks, as it does not shed its seeds without rubbing, which is the case of but few grasses.’

Benjamin Stillingfleet (1702 – 1771) was a naturalist and author, accepted as one of the first in England to use the principles of Linnaeus in his botanical studies.  His portrait by Zoffany hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

The modern meadow is unlikely to be harvested for cattle, and the flowers it contains may well include non-native species.  But meadow plantings using indigenous plants blend so well with the English landscape and its vernacular buildings, and seem to tie these elements together seamlessly.  Mass plantings of ordinary plants like buttercups and cow parsley have a freshness and radiance at this time of year which can stop you in your tracks.

Vernal grass  ‘It is very plentiful in the best meadows about London, viz. towards Hampstead and Hendon.’

Meadow foxtail grass (Alopecurus pratensis)  One of the taller grasses, to approx 1m.

Fine bent grass

Mountain hair grass  ‘It grows in great plenty on Bagshot Heath’

Silver hair grass

Great meadow grass

Annual meadow grass  ‘This grass makes the finest of turfs.  It is called in some parts the Suffolk grass.  ..as some of the best salt butter we have comes from that county, it is most likely to be the best grass for the dairy.’

Sheeps fescue grass

Flote fescue grass

Crested dogs-tail grass  ‘This grass I imagine is proper for parks.’

Meadow foxtail grass Alopecurus pratensis (foreground and against yew trees) in a planting of cow parsley, Kentwell Hall, Suffolk

Cow parsley, Kentwell Hall, Suffolk

Meadow planting with willow edging, Kentwell Hall, Suffolk May 2018

Observations on Grasses from Archive.org

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Cuckoo Flowers

Lychnis flos-cuculi from Flora Londinensis by William Curtis

The arrival of the cuckoo in April remains a popular sign of spring, even for the majority of us now living in towns or cities who might not actually hear the call.  The unmistakable sound of the cuckoo is embedded in our creative culture – in music, poetry and in the common names of some of the UK’s native wild flowers, all of which help us preserve a link with the natural world and the changing seasons.

Flora Londinensis, written by William Curtis and published in six volumes between 1777 – 1798 is an illustrated survey of all the wild plants that could be found within a ten mile radius of London.  Curtis sheds some light on the reason why Lychnis flos-cuculi is known as the cuckoo flower observing that, ‘from the earliest ages’ people have made a connection between the flowering of certain plants and ‘the periodical return of birds of passage’.

Before the return of the seasons was exactly ascertained by Astronomy, these observations were of great consequence in pointing out stated times for the purposes of Agriculture; and still, in many a Cottage, the birds of passage and their corresponding flowers assist in regulating “The short, and simple Annals of the Poor.” 

Curtis points out that  ‘we have several other plants that, in different places, go by the name of Cuckow Flower’ including cardamine, arum, orchids and wood sorrel.  He talks about a double form of the lychnis flower being cultivated in gardens.

Gerard’s Herball, or, Generall Historie of plantes (1597) contains many examples of local plant names.  He confirms that cardamines are commonly known as Cuckow flowers, while noting that in Norfolk they are called Caunterburie bels and in Cheshire (his place of birth, in Nantwich), Ladie smockes.  

Another cuckoo flower mentioned by Gerard is the common woodland plant Arum maculatum.  He lists the plant’s common names:

The common Cockow pint is called in Latin Arum: in English Cockow pint and Cockow pintle, wake Robin, Priest’s pintle, Aron, Calfes foote, and Rampe, and of some Starch woort.

According to Wikipedia, ‘pint’ is a shortening of the word ‘pintle’, meaning penis, derived from the shape of the spadix. 

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

Cardamine pratensis from Flora Londinensis by William Curtis

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

Arum maculatum from Flora Londinensis by William Curtis

A double form of Lychnis flos-cuculi ‘Jenny’ (photo Wikimedia Commons)

In the eighteenth century it was understood that cuckoos left the country to overwinter in warmer places, but not known that they travelled as far as Africa.  While we know more about the cuckoo’s migratory patterns now, fewer of us experience the cuckoo first hand, so may not know about the changing call of the cuckoo over the season.  Gerard talks about the time in April and May when ‘the Cuckowe doth begin to sing her pleasant notes without stammering’.  In his poem The Cuckoo John Clare also observes a loss of voice, but in summer:

When summer from the forest starts
Its melody with silence lies,
And, like a bird from foreign parts,
It cannot sing for all it tries.
‘Cuck cuck’ it cries and mocking boys
Crie ‘Cuck’ and then it stutters more
Till quick forgot its own sweet voice
It seems to know itself no more. 

This alteration in the cuckoo’s call is described as a ‘change of tune’ in Jane Taylor’s poem, memorably and beautifully set to music by Benjamin Britten in his collection of twelve songs entitled Friday Afternoons.  Do listen on the link below.

Cuckoo, Cuckoo!
What do you do?
“In April
I open my bill;
In May
I sing night and day;
In June
I change my tune;
In July
Far far I fly;
In August
Away I must.”

Jane Taylor, 1783-1824

from History of British Birds by Thomas Bewick 1797 – 1804

Cuckoo! by Benjamin Britten

Flora Londinensis

Arum maculatum entry Wikipedia

(images from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, unless otherwise stated)