The call of the wild

Once seen as second rate, wild flowers are now the plants of choice in urban gardens and prize-winning displays. Michael Leapman meets the scientist who saw their appeal and put them on the market
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The Independent Online
When A large industry is devoted to breeding and perfecting ever more spectacular plants for our gardens, it seems perverse to hanker after the less striking specimens that nature scatters spontaneously across the landscape. Yet more and more people want to cultivate wild flowers. That they can now buy them at garden centres is mainly due to the enterprise of Marney Hall, a determined scientist who spotted the emerging trend eight years ago.

Countryside Wildflowers, the firm she and her husband Roger started in 1988, produced fewer than 20,000 plants in that first year. Today the annual output from its Cambridgeshire nursery is about half a million. The plants are sold both by mail order and at garden centres, and garden designs incorporating them now regularly win top prizes at the major flower shows. Although Marney left Countryside Wildflowers this summer she is still designing wild-flower gardens.

"People in the 20 to 50 age group are most interested in wild flowers and most aware of their importance to wildlife," she says. "When you listen to people in garden centres talking about them you realise that it's nostalgia that makes them buy them - something they saw in grandma's garden when they were children.

"They like the softer colours. There's a move away from bright orange and shocking pink specimens with 500 layers of petal. People don't necessarily want pansies with flowers six inches across. A lot prefer heartsease, the smaller wild version: we sell hundreds of thousands of them every year."

Wild flowers sell best in cities, mostly in the south-east to what Marney calls "the poor, starved individuals who don't see any wildlife." She explains: "Once you start going north and west people can look out and see these extensive areas of natural wild habitat, so demand is less."

From 1968 to 1988 Marney was a government research scientist at Monks Wood experimental station, south of Peterborough. She specialised in the management of nature reserves, particularly for butterflies. As part of the research programme she had to grow large quantities of wild flowers and noticed that many people - private gardeners as well as fellow researchers - would ask her for plants.

"This made me feel there must be a market," she recalls. "Throughout the Eighties there was a lot of legislation that led to the protection of wild plants. People can't dig them up in the wild anymore; but at that time if they wanted to buy anything except a primrose or a cowslip they couldn't.

"If they wanted, say, a meadow cranesbill or a purple loosestrife, they had to grow them from seed. People were becoming increasingly aware of the environment and our vanishing wildlife, but at the same time there was this move towards instant gardening. They didn't want to bother with seeds."

At first the garden centre managers she approached were sceptical. "It was continually fighting what I called the yoghurt-pot brigade. Wild flowers had always been produced by old ladies in their backyards in yoghurt pots - very scraggy specimens sold at fetes and charity bazaars. I had to show the trade that I was capable of producing plants of garden-centre quality and to produce my own range of coloured labels before they would take me seriously."

Success at flower shows boosted her credibility. In 1990 John Chambers, the leading supplier of wild-flower seeds, asked her to grow the plants for a wild-flower garden at the Chelsea show, designed by the up-and-coming Julie Toll. The association continued and in 1993 a seaside garden designed by Toll, with plants supplied by Marney, won the Fiskear's Sword of Excellence, the top Chelsea prize. This year Countryside Wildflowers won the Tudor Rose, the equivalent award at the Hampton Court show, for a superb water-garden based on the exploits of A A Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh.

The designer was Paul Dyer but the idea was Marney's. "I feel that the countryside that Milne describes in his books is quintessentially English," she says, adding ruefully: "I had to put in about 8,000 individual plants."

The skill in planting a wild-flower garden is to make it look uncontrived, as if the flowers just cropped up naturally on the site, without intervention. In fact the plants have to be put in one by one, and some are very small.

"You can't produce wild-flower displays with big plants. You have to use lots of little ones or you don't get that natural effect."

Nor, as some believe, will it do to buy a packet of mixed seed and toss it over the area you want to fill. "A lot of people come up to me at shows and say: `I scattered all the seed about but nothing came up.' I ask them: `Would you go to any other type of seed and just chuck it on the garden?'"

In fact many wild-flower seeds are hard to germinate under artificial conditions. At her nursery she has several aids - shade tunnels to make woodland plants feel at home, polytunnels for those that do not relish winter cold and damp, ponds for the moisture-lovers and outdoor vernalising beds for flowers such as primroses that need to feel the frost before they will germinate. These have to be made mouse-proof, because mice regard primrose seed as caviare - and it is nearly as expensive.

"My conservation and research background has been useful in devising techniques for getting these plants to grow," she says. "There's no literature to refer to on the mass propagation of these things. We've had to work it out for ourselves and we've made some expensive errors.

"Sometimes universities or research centres will telephone and ask us for help. One rang the other day and asked how to grow saw-wort, which they needed as a habitat for a rare species of moth. I wouldn't tell them but I offered to sell them some."

Attracting butterflies and other wildlife is a principal reason for growing wild flowers. "The young people who started doing environmental science at school are now about 25. They're very aware and very green. My 15-year- old daughter is militantly green and she doesn't get it from her mother. It's in the education system now."

Marney insists that you do not need a big garden to grow wild flowers, nor a specific bed dedicated to them. They can be put into mixed borders with roses and climbers. Woodland plants such as primroses and violets will thrive in a shrubbery. Properly chosen wild flowers do well in tubs, window boxes and hanging baskets.

"I've done terrific window boxes with plants like heartsease, cowslips, creeping Jenny and ground ivy," she says. "Wild strawberries look wonderful in a hanging basket."

She also designs and plants natural landscapes, often on land that is being reclaimed from industrial or other commercial use. She has transformed a concrete loading bay into a rustic meadow, placed king cups, rushes and other damp-loving plants around a village pond and planted an area around the headquarters of English Nature in Peterborough. She will replace wild flowers in fields or large lawns that have lost them through years of spraying.

Marney defines a native wild flower as anything that is widely naturalised. "Botanists will tell you that `Evening Primrose' and `Red Valerian' aren't native because they haven't been here for ever. But `Red Valerian' grows in dry stone walls all around the coast, and if that isn't a wild flower, what is?"

When it comes to marketing, the name of the plant can be as important as its appearance. Since the most common flowers usually have at least one folk name as well as the botanical name, there is often a choice. Heartsease and loosestrife, birdsfoot and cranesbill, goatsbeard and lady's mantle: the romantic gardener is tempted to grow them just for the joy of reciting their names.

The plain columbine, or Aquilegia vulgaris, has roared ahead since the company reverted to its traditional name of "Granny's Bonnet". The words "weed" or "wort" are death to sales, as shown by the dramatic transformation in the fortunes of "Orange Hawkweed". This languished at the bottom of the popularity poll until Marney recalled an old country name for it, "Fox and Cubs". Newly christened, it is now regularly in the top ten, proving that a weed by any other name will smell as sweet and sell a lot better.

! For further information or to order a catalogue contact Countryside Wild-flowers, Chatteris Road, Somersham, Cambridgeshire PE17 3DN. Telephone 01487 841322; fax 01487 740206.