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Cornfield Flowers

Horrible Weeds or Vanishing Treasures?

by Nan Sykes

If any plants have dual personalities in human eyes it must be the 50 or so opportunist species which erupt from time to time on cultivated ground – Beauty and the Beast springs to mind! Some are known to have been around in farmers’ fields for over 4000 years: others have reached our shores within the last century. Their single shared characteristic is an ability to thrive in land which is subject to frequent disturbance, which in our densely-populated island usually means arable fields and gardens – those productive areas where we want to decide which plants should grow there and which (the ones we call weeds) should not. Ironically the weed species include some of the most spectacular of our wild flowers – corncockle, cornflower, corn marigold – so the dilemma emerges: destroy them in order to maximise the crop, or let them flourish and accept poorer crop yields.

Until half a century ago there was little choice as means of eliminating the weed flora were very limited, but 20th century technology has provided an armoury of weed killers so effective that eradication to the point of extinction is now a real possibility. Corncockle is effectively extinct in Britian (it survives sparsely on the continent and in wild flower reserves); cornflower has almost disappeared as a wild plant, and many others are on the brink.

How can they survive?

Where modern farming systems seek to maximise crop yield there is no longer a place for weed plants but diversification is now widely advocated to counteract declining farm income. Perhaps the cultivation of rapidly-disappearing flower species could provide an alternative use for land, and provide an income? After all the Swiss have long capitalised on the natural alpine flora to attract visitors and create revenue.

And we should remember that extinction is for ever – once gone these plants can never be retrieved. On aesthetic grounds have we the right to wipe out species which add much to a landscape vista? Should we eliminate at random plants whose potential medicinal value is unknown? Will any of our tiresome weeds be found to solve some of our energy problems – they certainly grow fast!

There is a growing unease about the widespread disappearance of many wild flowers in recent decades and the transient plants which come and go on cultivated land have been seriously affected. A few species such as mayweed, field pansy and common fumitory remain plentiful despite herbicides, but many others are destined for extinction in this country unless areas are managed primarily for their survival.

A Rescue Scheme at Hutton-le-Hole

In 2000 such an area of land became available at the Ryedale Folk Museum. It is part of the Highfields Project where traditional livestock breeds are reared (pigs, hens and sheep were kept last year) and old varieties of corn and vegetables are grown. Such seeds and plants of cornfield flowers as could be obtained were introduced into the arable land, and the difficulties experienced in finding these served to emphasise how rare many have now become. For some species less than ten seeds could be found but by growing on in a nursery and encouraging self-sown plants amidst emerging corn it is hoped to build up a seed bank in the ground sufficient to perpetuate a variety of cornfields flowers at Highfield.

This is where Ryenats members could help. We need seeds or news of locations where seed could be gathered of the following plants: corn mint, field gromwell, mousetail, red hemp-nettle. small-flowered fumitory, lesser toadflax, clary, treacle mustard, shepherd’s needle, small-flowered geranium, wild pansy (not field pansy), thoroway, cornfield or dwarf spurge, basil thyme (not wild basil), henbit deadnettle.

All these species were seen in local cornfields until a few decades ago. As it is unlikely that they will now be found hereabouts, we would welcome any source in Britain – but not from abroad where different strains have evolved. And if you would like to see the colourful flowers – and the awful weed problems of yesteryear’s cornfields – do visit Ryedale Folk Museum this summer.

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