Garden Wildplants
             Garden Wildplants
History of wild plants in gardens
 
 
The early history of growing wild flowers in gardens in Britain and Ireland is inextricably linked to the history of early farming/husbandry and the domestication of wild plants near the home. There is little distinction between small scale farming and gardening for food and herbs.  It seems clear that cultivation essentially began with the first Neolithic people in Britain and Ireland about 6,000 years ago.  There is little evidence that nomadic Mesolithic people cultivated plants 1. though they certainly gathered them and probably knew of their medicinal values.
 
Recent interest in garden archaeology has unearthed evidence of gardening activity in the Iron Age. This,together with the discovery by paleo-botanists of seeds and pollen of wild plants such as fat hen Chenopodium album and good King Henry Blitum bonus-henricus, (still eaten as a vegetable today2. are evidence of early garden cultivation of wild plants alongside the cereal crops imported from the original home of Neolithic farming in the near East.  The seeds of other wild flowers such as black horehound Ballota nigra, hop Humulus lupulus, meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria, celery Apium graveolens and wild carrot Daucus carota have also been identified in areas such as the Nene valley archaeological sites.3.
 
For the prehistory of gardens, see our page here and a more complete pdf here.
       Garden Wildplants
             Garden Wildplants
  Good King Henry Blitum bonus-henricus           Wild carrot Daucus carota                   Hop Humulus lupulus
 
Plants and Gardens in Roman Britain
 
In addition to a wide range of plants, the Romans introduced formal gardens to this country. The earliest evidence is a Roman villa courtyard garden, dated from around 75 AD discovered in 1965 at Fishbourne, West Sussex. However, little is known about the plant species grown there. No evidence remains of the plants likely to have been planted apart from box Buxus sempervirens used as clipped hedging.  Box is indigenous to chalk and limestone soils of Britain and still cultivated and widely used in gardens for border edging and topiary.
 
Of the plants introduced during Roman occupation of Britain, many became naturalised such as Alexanders Smyrnium olusatrum, sweet chestnut Castanea sativa and ground elder Aegopodium podagraria used like spinach or as a gout cure  Many such as rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis grape-vines Vitis vinifera and walnut Juglans regia have survived as cultivated garden herbs and trees.  Many more probably died out due to problems with climate or just falling out of cultivation – many being brought back in much later.
 
    Box hedges at Fishbourne Roman villa replanted                        Alexanders                     Ground elder
                          in original beds                                     Smyrnium olusatrum             Aegopodium podagraria 
 
 
Wild flowers for medicine and food c. 500 to 1500 AD
 
Not much  is known about gardens of the early medieval period. It is likely that wild flowers would have been grown and cultivated for food and medicine. There is evidence that bee hives were kept in this period and flowers would have been grown for the bees, as well as for decorative use such as decorating churches.4.   Ordinary people would have continued to collect plants in the wild such as fruits and some herbs, and grow others in their garden plots for medicinal and culinary use.  Scented herbs were used for cleaning or strewing on earth floors, such as wormwood Artemesia absinthium, meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria and tansy Tanacetum vulgare.  Others found use in dyeing such as weld Reseda luteola, wild madder Rubia peregrina or bedstraws Galium species.
 
            Wormwood Artemesia absinthium                       Weld Reseda luteola            Wild madder Rubia peregrina 
 
Herb gardens
The earliest herb gardens were found within the confines of monasteries until their dissolution in the late 1530s. Here plants for medicinal use may have included wild flowers such as self-heal Prunella vulgaris (an astringent or antiseptic), hedge woundwort Stachys sylvatica (for healing wounds), comfrey Symphytum officinale (for sprains and bruises) and yarrow Achillea millefolium  (a stimulant and tonic) alongside more recently introduced (during Roman occupation) herbs such as Alexanders, ground elder (also known as gout weed) Aegopodium podagraria and rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis. Vegetables, introduced species and cultivated native species such as wild celery Apium graveolens and sea beet Beta vulgaris would also have been grown in monastery gardens.
 
Remains of Haverfordwest Priory monastic garden 
 
Herbals – authors and gardeners
The early herbals contained detailed information about herbal plants - native and introduced – the locations they were to be found and the medicinal qualities of the plants and treatments. .The apothecaries or doctors who wrote the Herbals, were also professional gardeners and they grew and studied the plants they described.
 
William Turner (1508-68), ‘Father of Botany’ physician, clergyman botanist and gardener was Dean of Wells Cathedral 1551-1553 and 1560-64, where he started a physic garden. He wrote the first book of wild flowers that recorded their localities "Libellus de re herbaria novus".5. His major work was the first English herbal, the New Herball published in three instalments in 1551, 1562 and 1568.
 
The botanist and barber-surgeon, John Gerard (1563-1637) whose Herbal was published in 15976. has been described as the ‘greatest living gardener’ 3. He kept his own garden near his home in Holborn where he catalogued all the species he grew, published in 1596 – the first complete catalogue of garden plants. In 1577 he was appointed superintendent of Lord Burghley’s gardens at the Strand.5. He was also the first curator of the College of Physicians Physic garden from 1586 to 1604.
 
 
Thomas Johnson (c.1600-1644), was an apothecary and botanist who updated and revised Gerard’s Herbal in 1633, adding considerably to the number of species described, and the number of illustrations. It was reprinted in 1636. Johnson kept a physic garden in the city of London. He also wrote "Mercurius", the first work in which the then known British plants were listed,  and the first accounts of botanical journeys with lists of plants and habitats.
 
John Parkinson (1567–1650) botanist and apothecary, and contemporary of Johnson, had a botanical garden at Long Acre in Covent Garden and wrote "Paradisi in Sole: Paradisus Terrestris" (1629) (a gardening book covering over 1,000 plants) and a herbal, "Theatricum Botanicum, an Herbal" (1640).
 
The Chelsea Physic Garden, London’s oldest physic garden, was started in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries to grow medicinal plants, it's first gardener/keeper was Philip Miller who made it the then most richly stocked botanic garden.  There is a wild flower section in the Physic Garden today.
 
Title pages of Turner's Libellus de re herbaria novus (left) and Gerard's Herball (right)
       Chelsea Physic Garden Echium wildpretii from Tenerife in foreground right.
 
Ornamental gardens c. 1500 to 1900
 
From 1500, with the increasing number of plant species introduced from overseas and the development of new horticultural techniques, gardens evolved from the functional to the ornamental and with a wider range of vegetables and herbs.  The early transition within small gardens is neatly illustrated at the Weald and Downland Living Museum in Sussex.
 
The numbers of herb or physic gardens declined and individual gardeners grew a wider range of plants. Wild flowers such as salad burnet Poterium sanguisorba and primrose Primula vulgaris featured in gardens such as Elizabethan knot gardens.
 
The gardens of ordinary people and gardens of the wealthy developed side by side but much more has been written about the latter, where there were few limitations on space and budget. Flowers and vegetables became more exotic as a greater number of species arrived from the ‘the empire’, landscape and garden design came into fashion and cultivation techniques improved with the introduction of glass houses and conservatories.
 
By Victorian times gardens and parks had become more flamboyant with carpet bedding and borders, though even these did not exclude some wild flowers such as oxeye daisy Leucanthemum vulgare which was planted in bedding to provide contrast with the Paul Crampel geranium (zonal pelargonium) which came into fashion from France in 1896.7.      
 
Wild flowers and a more relaxed style of planting were advocated by William Robinson (1838-1935) who deplored formal bedding, its wastefulness and the ‘mock Italian-styled ornaments’ of the Victorian high style. In his 1870 book "The Wild Garden" he promoted an informal and more sustainable approach to planting – one that would benefit the plants as well as the garden. As he explained in the preface8. 
 
"the term Wild Garden ….. is applied essentially to the placing of perfectly hardy exotic plants under conditions where they will thrive without future care. It has nothing to do with the old idea of ‘Wilderness. It does not mean the picturesque garden, for a garden may be highly picturesque, and yet in every part the result of ceaseless care".
 
And to further emphasise the point in his Forward to the second edition 20 years later:
 
 ‘…… the idea of the Wild Garden is placing plants of other countries, as hardy as our hardiest wild flowers in places where they will flourish without further care or cost.9.
 
 
 
 
Chelsea Physic Garden Echium wildpretii from Tenerife in foreground right.
 
 
Left: "Colonies of Poet's Narcissus and Broad Leaved  Saxifrage" from "The Wild Garden"   Right: William Robinson
 
Robinson recognised and appreciated the beauty of wild flowers and included them in his plantings. For example, in discussing violets for shady places in the garden he writes:
 
 "Our own sweet Violet should be abundantly planted wherever it does not occur in a wild state"
 
He was an advocate for flowering lawns:
 
"Not to mow is almost a necessity in the wild garden…… of course it may be cut when ripe, and most of the spring flowers have past and their leaves are out of danger…."     
 
- and this extends to parks:
 
"‘Mowing the grass once a fortnight in pleasure grounds, as now practiced, is a costly mistake."
 
A third of his book was devoted to gardening with wild flowers with examples from his own garden.
 
 
 
Wild Flowers for people and wildlife
 
Like fashion, gardening changes from decade to decade. With the burgeoning of plant nurseries and garden centres from the 1960s, benches of brightly coloured bedding plants – annuals and tender perennials and bulbs – tempted many new and existing gardeners, as well as the carpet-bedding municipal parks departments. Then a more ecological approach returned and is slowly gaining ground.
 
Nearly 100 years after William Robinson’s "Wild Garden", wild flowers became fashionable. Encouraged by Miriam Rothchild’s experimental meadow seeds and her campaign to introduce wild flowers to gardens, parks and motorways, meadow mixes were added to gardens and urban parks. Miriam Rothchild’s own garden was a mix of wild and cultivated flowers and a wild flower meadow replaced her lawn. A wonderful garden of wild plants was created on waste ground near Tower Bridge in 1977 - the William Curtis Ecological Park. This succumbed to development in 1985, but the idea took off and wildlife areas were encouraged by the GLC ecology unit in London and the Wildlife Trusts in London and other urban areas.
 
And then wildlife gardening – and wild flowers – finally earned the reputation it deserved at the Chelsea Flower Show 1985. Chris Baines, the first person to make a wildlife garden for the Show, was awarded a gold medal for his Wildlife Garden. This was followed by his book How to make a Wildlife Garden10. and many others such as The Living Garden by Michael Chinery11. and Wild Flower Garden by John Chambers,12. and many more since.
 
Wild flowers, grown in the earliest of gardens for essential food, through the centuries for medicinal, domestic and ornament and in more recent decades for the additional benefit of wildlife, have a place in all our gardens.
 
 
References:
 
1.  Karl-Ernst Behre, K-E (2007). Evidence for Mesolithic agriculture in and around central Europe?  Vegetation History and Archaeobotany  16:203–219
 
2. Vickery, R.  (2018). Vickery’s Folk Flora. Weidenfeld & Nicolson p.295.
 
3.  Brown, J. (1999). The Pursuit of Paradise. HarperCollins p.138.
 
4.  Thacker, C. 1994. The Genius of Gardening. The History of Gardens in Britain and Ireland. Weidenfeld Nicolson
 
5.  Arber, A. 1912.page 100-102 Herbals, their origin and evolution. Cambridge University Press. Reprint 2019 Alpha Editions
 
6.  Gerard, J. 1597 Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes
 
7.  Genders, R. 1976. The Wild Flower Garden. David and Charles
 
8.  Robinson, W.   (1870). The Wild Garden second edition 1894. p.xiv,. John Murray. London
 
9.  Robinson, W (1894). The Wild Garden. Second edition. p.xix. John Murray. London
 
10.  Baines, C. (1985). How to make a Wildlife Garden. Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton.
 
11.  Chinery,  M. (1986). The Living Garden. Dorling Kindersley
 
12.  Chambers, J. (1987). Wild Flower Garden. Elm Tree Books
 
 
Page written by Caroline Ware, compiled by Steve Head
 
History of wild plants in gardens
 
The early history of growing wild flowers in gardens in Britain and Ireland is inextricably linked to the history of early farming/husbandry and the domestication of wild plants near the home. There is little distinction between small scale farming and gardening for food and herbs.  It seems clear that cultivation essentially began with the first Neolithic people in Britain and Ireland about 6,000 years ago.  There is little evidence that nomadic Mesolithic people cultivated plants 1. though they certainly gathered them and probably knew of their medicinal values.
 
Recent interest in garden archaeology has unearthed evidence of gardening activity in the Iron Age. This,together with the discovery by paleo-botanists of seeds and pollen of wild plants such as fat hen Chenopodium album and good King Henry Blitum bonus-henricus, (still eaten as a vegetable today2. are evidence of early garden cultivation of wild plants alongside the cereal crops imported from the original home of Neolithic farming in the near East.  The seeds of other wild flowers such as black horehound Ballota nigra, hop Humulus lupulus, meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria, celery Apium graveolens and wild carrot Daucus carota have also been identified in areas such as the Nene valley archaeological sites.3.
 
For the prehistory of gardens, see our page here and a more complete pdf here.
       Good King Henry                  Wild carrot                      Hop
 
Plants and Gardens in Roman Britain
 
In addition to a wide range of plants, the Romans introduced formal gardens to this country. The earliest evidence is a Roman villa courtyard garden, dated from around 75 AD discovered in 1965 at Fishbourne, West Sussex. However, little is known about the plant species grown there. No evidence remains of the plants likely to have been planted apart from box Buxus sempervirens used as clipped hedging.  Box is indigenous to chalk and limestone soils of Britain and still cultivated and widely used in gardens for border edging and topiary.
 
Of the plants introduced during Roman occupation of Britain, many became naturalised such as Alexanders Smyrnium olusatrum, sweet chestnut Castanea sativa and ground elder Aegopodium podagraria used like spinach or as a gout cureMany such as rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis grape-vines Vitis vinifera and walnut Juglans regia have survived as cultivated garden herbs and trees.  Many more probably died out due to problems with climate or just falling out of cultivation – many being brought back in much later.
 
Replanted box hedges at Fishbourne Roman     Alexanders            Ground elder
               in the original beds                                    
 
 
Wild flowers for medicine and food c. 500 to 1500 AD
 
Not much  is known about gardens of the early medieval period. It is likely that wild flowers would have been grown and cultivated for food and medicine. There is evidence that bee hives were kept in this period and flowers would have been grown for the bees, as well as for decorative use such as decorating churches.4.   Ordinary people would have continued to collect plants in the wild such as fruits and some herbs, and grow others in their garden plots for medicinal and culinary use.  Scented herbs were used for cleaning or strewing on earth floors, such as wormwood Artemesia absinthium, meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria and tansy Tanacetum vulgare.  Others found use in dyeing such as weld Reseda luteola, wild madder Rubia peregrina or bedstraws Galium species.
 
                   Wormwood                               Weld                   Wild madder
 
Herb gardens
The earliest herb gardens were found within the confines of monasteries until their dissolution in the late 1530s. Here plants for medicinal use may have included wild flowers such as self-heal Prunella vulgaris (an astringent or antiseptic), hedge woundwort Stachys sylvatica (for healing wounds), comfrey Symphytum officinale (for sprains and bruises) and yarrow Achillea millefolium  (a stimulant and tonic) alongside more recently introduced (during Roman occupation) herbs such as Alexanders, ground elder (also known as gout weed) Aegopodium podagraria and rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis. Vegetables, introduced species and cultivated native species such as wild celery Apium graveolens and sea beet Beta vulgaris would also have been grown in monastery gardens.
 
Remains of Haverfordwest Priory monastic garden 
 
Herbals – authors and gardeners
The early herbals contained detailed information about herbal plants - native and introduced – the locations they were to be found and the medicinal qualities of the plants and treatments. .The apothecaries or doctors who wrote the Herbals, were also professional gardeners and they grew and studied the plants they described.
 
William Turner (1508-68), ‘Father of Botany’ physician, clergyman botanist and gardener was Dean of Wells Cathedral 1551-1553 and 1560-64, where he started a physic garden. He wrote the first book of wild flowers that recorded their localities "Libellus de re herbaria novus".5. His major work was the first English herbal, the New Herball published in three instalments in 1551, 1562 and 1568.
 
The botanist and barber-surgeon, John Gerard (1563-1637) whose Herbal was published in 15976. has been described as the ‘greatest living gardener’ 3. He kept his own garden near his home in Holborn where he catalogued all the species he grew, published in 1596 – the first complete catalogue of garden plants. In 1577 he was appointed superintendent of Lord Burghley’s gardens at the Strand.5. He was also the first curator of the College of Physicians Physic garden from 1586 to 1604.
 
 
Thomas Johnson (c.1600-1644), was an apothecary and botanist who updated and revised Gerard’s Herbal in 1633, adding considerably to the number of species described, and the number of illustrations. It was reprinted in 1636. Johnson kept a physic garden in the city of London. He also wrote "Mercurius", the first work in which the then known British plants were listed,  and the first accounts of botanical journeys with lists of plants and habitats.
 
John Parkinson (1567–1650) botanist and apothecary, and contemporary of Johnson, had a botanical garden at Long Acre in Covent Garden and wrote "Paradisi in Sole: Paradisus Terrestris" (1629) (a gardening book covering over 1,000 plants) and a herbal, "Theatricum Botanicum, an Herbal" (1640).
 
The Chelsea Physic Garden, London’s oldest physic garden, was started in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries to grow medicinal plants, it's first gardener/keeper was Philip Miller who made it the then most richly stocked botanic garden.  There is a wild flower section in the Physic Garden today.
 
Title pages of Turner's Libellus de re herbaria novus (left) and Gerard's Herball (right)
 
 
Robinson recognised and appreciated the beauty of wild flowers and included them in his plantings. For example, in discussing violets for shady places in the garden he writes:
 
 "Our own sweet Violet should be abundantly planted wherever it does not occur in a wild state"
 
He was an advocate for flowering lawns:
 
"Not to mow is almost a necessity in the wild garden…… of course it may be cut when ripe, and most of the spring flowers have past and their leaves are out of danger…."     
 
- and this extends to parks:
 
"‘Mowing the grass once a fortnight in pleasure grounds, as now practiced, is a costly mistake."
 
A third of his book was devoted to gardening with wild flowers with examples from his own garden.
 
 
 
Left:  "Colonies of Poet's Narcissus and Broad Leaved  Saxifrage" from The Wild Garden,
 
Above: William Robinson
 
Wild Flowers for people and wildlife
 
Like fashion, gardening changes from decade to decade. With the burgeoning of plant nurseries and garden centres from the 1960s, benches of brightly coloured bedding plants – annuals and tender perennials and bulbs – tempted many new and existing gardeners, as well as the carpet-bedding municipal parks departments. Then a more ecological approach returned and is slowly gaining ground.
 
Nearly 100 years after William Robinson’s "Wild Garden", wild flowers became fashionable. Encouraged by Miriam Rothchild’s experimental meadow seeds and her campaign to introduce wild flowers to gardens, parks and motorways, meadow mixes were added to gardens and urban parks. Miriam Rothchild’s own garden was a mix of wild and cultivated flowers and a wild flower meadow replaced her lawn. A wonderful garden of wild plants was created on waste ground near Tower Bridge in 1977 - the William Curtis Ecological Park. This succumbed to development in 1985, but the idea took off and wildlife areas were encouraged by the GLC ecology unit in London and the Wildlife Trusts in London and other urban areas.
 
And then wildlife gardening – and wild flowers – finally earned the reputation it deserved at the Chelsea Flower Show 1985. Chris Baines, the first person to make a wildlife garden for the Show, was awarded a gold medal for his Wildlife Garden. This was followed by his book How to make a Wildlife Garden10. and many others such as The Living Garden by Michael Chinery11. and Wild Flower Garden by John Chambers,12. and many more since.
 
Wild flowers, grown in the earliest of gardens for essential food, through the centuries for medicinal, domestic and ornament and in more recent decades for the additional benefit of wildlife, have a place in all our gardens.
 
 
References:
 
1.  Karl-Ernst Behre, K-E (2007). Evidence for Mesolithic agriculture in and around central Europe?  Vegetation History and Archaeobotany  16:203–219
 
2. Vickery, R.  (2018). Vickery’s Folk Flora. Weidenfeld & Nicolson p.295.
 
3.  Brown, J. (1999). The Pursuit of Paradise. HarperCollins p.138.
 
4.  Thacker, C. 1994. The Genius of Gardening. The History of Gardens in Britain and Ireland. Weidenfeld Nicolson
 
5.  Arber, A. 1912.page 100-102 Herbals, their origin and evolution. Cambridge University Press. Reprint 2019 Alpha Editions
 
6.  Gerard, J. 1597 Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes
 
7.  Genders, R. 1976. The Wild Flower Garden. David and Charles
 
8.  Robinson, W.   (1870). The Wild Garden second edition 1894. p.xiv,. John Murray. London
 
9.  Robinson, W (1894). The Wild Garden. Second edition. p.xix. John Murray. London
 
10.  Baines, C. (1985). How to make a Wildlife Garden. Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton.
 
11.  Chinery,  M. (1986). The Living Garden. Dorling Kindersley
 
12.  Chambers, J. (1987). Wild Flower Garden. Elm Tree Books
 
 
Page written by Caroline Ware, compiled by Steve Head
 
       Chelsea Physic Garden Echium wildpretii from Tenerife in foreground right.
 
Ornamental gardens c. 1500 to 1900
 
From 1500, with the increasing number of plant species introduced from overseas and the development of new horticultural techniques, gardens evolved from the functional to the ornamental and with a wider range of vegetables and herbs.  The early transition within small gardens is neatly illustrated at the Weald and Downland Living Museum in Sussex.
 
The numbers of herb or physic gardens declined and individual gardeners grew a wider range of plants. Wild flowers such as salad burnet Poterium sanguisorba and primrose Primula vulgaris featured in gardens such as Elizabethan knot gardens.
 
The gardens of ordinary people and gardens of the wealthy developed side by side but much more has been written about the latter, where there were few limitations on space and budget. Flowers and vegetables became more exotic as a greater number of species arrived from the ‘the empire’, landscape and garden design came into fashion and cultivation techniques improved with the introduction of glass houses and conservatories.
 
By Victorian times gardens and parks had become more flamboyant with carpet bedding and borders, though even these did not exclude some wild flowers such as oxeye daisy Leucanthemum vulgare which was planted in bedding to provide contrast with the Paul Crampel geranium (zonal pelargonium) which came into fashion from France in 1896.7.      
 
Wild flowers and a more relaxed style of planting were advocated by William Robinson (1838-1935) who deplored formal bedding, its wastefulness and the ‘mock Italian-styled ornaments’ of the Victorian high style. In his 1870 book "The Wild Garden" he promoted an informal and more sustainable approach to planting – one that would benefit the plants as well as the garden. As he explained in the preface8. : 
 
"the term Wild Garden ….. is applied essentially to the placing of perfectly hardy exotic plants under conditions where they will thrive without future care. It has nothing to do with the old idea of ‘Wilderness. It does not mean the picturesque garden, for a garden may be highly picturesque, and yet in every part the result of ceaseless care".
 
And to further emphasise the point in his Forward to the second edition 20 years later:
 
 ‘…… the idea of the Wild Garden is placing plants of other countries, as hardy as our hardiest wild flowers in places where they will flourish without further care or cost.9.