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.
Observations on Grasses from Archive.org