Local wildflowers for bees and people

Common carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum) foraging on Verbenum flowers (Verbenum bonariensis) in Wiltshire garden, UK, September. - Nick Upton/2020VISION
A wildflower is more than just a pretty face. Wildflowers provide food for pollinating insects. Without wildflowers, there are no pollinators. It has been estimated that 80% of our western diet depends on bees. Without bees and other pollinators which give their time for free, fertilising crops would be time-consuming and costly, making food more expensive.

Britain used to be a nation of wildflower meadows. But due to post-war changes in farming (for instance fields given over to one type of crop) there has been a drastic decline in wildflower meadows. As a result, many of our bees and butterflies - and the birds that feed on them - have also disappeared.

Here in Bristol, a dedicated wildflower nursery team is growing over 100 different types of wildflowers so pollinators can feed on their nectar, pollen, leaves and roots. The team focuses on collecting seeds of local origin, or native plants. They have existed in the area naturally for generations (and not been introduced by humans) so are adapted to regional conditions.  

Set up five years ago, the Avon Wildlife Trust wildflower nursery is located at Feed Bristol nature reserve, a beautiful wildlife-rich six-acre site near Bristol’s M32. Inside the nursery’s polytunnels, managers Shaun Waycott and Rachael Dodd, check on trays of native wildflower seedlings including self-heal, fennel, and ox-eye daisies. The team, including volunteers, community groups and placement students, grow them from seed into hundreds of tiny seedlings.

The seeds were gathered from last year’s plants growing on Feed Bristol’s six-acre site or from one of Avon Wildlife Trust’s other nature reserves. “We collect seeds over several months from June for spring flowers like primroses through to October for later-flowering plants like devil’s-bit scabious,” says Shaun. “The trick is to get seeds when they are as ripe as possible, but without leaving it too late.”

Kew Gardens awarded a grant for the nursery’s living seed banks to grow plants of local origin. Once collected, the seeds are dried and cleaned before being stored then sown, enabling wildflowers to grow from year to year. “Our own collected seeds are fresh, quick to germinate and give great results,” says Shaun, a grower and landscaper.

Take betony. Seeds were collected from Avon Wildlife Trust’s Weston Big Wood nature reserve, where betony, with its spikes of pinkish-purple flowers, grows wild. Shaun and Rachael and their team of volunteers germinated the seeds to produce this year’s plants.

“Betony is one of those wildflowers which stagger their germination,” says Rachael, who worked at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, Cambridge University’s Botanic Gardens, and the Great Dixter gardens in East Sussex. “It’s one of the differences between growing cultivated plants and wildflowers, and it’s fascinating to watch and wait to see how plants behave.”

By planting bee-friendly plants in your garden, you are helping nature recover. 

Visit the Avon Wildlife Trust wildflower nursery for expert advice and to buy native wild bee-friendly plants. Free, everyone welcome (but bring cash for purchases). Open weekdays 10am – 4pm. Also open for Open Days with activities on the first Saturday of every month up to 5 October. Feed Bristol’s entrance is by the traffic lights on Frenchay Park Road, Bristol BS16 1HB.

https://www.avonwildlifetrust.org.uk/feedbristol