Meadows magic: top urban meadows to visit

by Drucilla James

Swathes of red poppies, white ox-eye daisies, yellow buttercups and purple orchids are literally stopping the traffic as meadows flourish in our towns and cities while their country cousins decline.

Whether it be on roads, roundabouts, plots of inner city waste ground, or in parks and public gardens, increasingly a profusion of brightly coloured flowers is attracting our townie gaze.

Much is happening in the world of urban meadows: from research which will hopefully help save the bees to finding more drought-tolerant plants for future climate conditions ; from money-saving ideas for cash-strapped councils; to preserving our wildflower heritage so that that we can know the plants themselves as well as their intriguing names.

Check out these examples in a range of cities:

Birmingham – the work of Parks and Wildlife Trusts

Moseley Bog and Joy’s Wood Nature Reserve

Meadows moseley bogOnly 3 miles South of Birmingham City Centre, Moseley Bog ,a site of human activity for 3000 years, was saved from developers in the 1980s. Here sunlit wildflower meadows rich with blue germander speedwell, red dead nettles, yellow rattle, purple vetches and the guelder rose contrast with the eerie and shadowy woodland of the bog itself which lies behind Tolkien’s boyhood home and  inspired his depiction of the ‘old forest’ in ‘The Lord of the Rings.’The reserve is administered by The Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country -the first in the country to serve a wholly urban area.

meadows woodgate valley Woodgate Valley Country Park

Over 250 plant, 20 butterfly and 90 bird species have been recorded in Woodgate Park woods and meadows, belying its location in the Birmingham suburbs. Run by the Park Ranger Service, the annually cut hay meadows produce an astonishing display of wild flowers in summer and autumn including huge expanses of yellow buttercups – and a stunning array of purple orchids.

The Urban Pollinators Project led by the University of Bristol with academic partners at the Universities of Edinburgh, Leeds and Reading

Between June and September,  in each of these four cities you can look out for vistas of Viper`s bugloss, musk mallow, wild marjoram, and knapweeds sown in five perennial wildflower meadows specially designed to be rich in pollen and nectar resources for pollinating insects. You can also enjoy the colourful spectacle of ten further meadows sown for a long flowering season with an annual seed mix which includes Californian poppy, red flax, cornflower, cosmos and cosmidium.  Watch out too for the different pollinators these meadows are attracting including bumblebees, solitary bees, hoverflies and butterflies as well as damselflies, solitary wasps and beetles.

The flowers are being planted in public parks, school playing fields, university grounds, and road verges, in partnership with local councils, as part of a nation-wide research project to investigate if planting meadows in urban areas can improve conditions for native insects and their role in pollination.

meadowsPilrig PK Edinburghmeadows Leeds perennial meadows 2 or 3meadowsPortman Road East_Reading2Recommended meadows to visit are: Edinburgh- Pilrig Park; Leeds- Burley Park and Reading- Portman Road East

Bristol City Council’s Meadow Bristol Initiative –flower margins along the M32

meadows Bristol Teija 4Commuters into Bristol can enjoy the beauty of vividly coloured annual meadows planted along the main gateways to the City from early orange to red and yellow poppies and coreopsis mixed with a hint of blue and pink of different varieties of cornflower, to be taken over by the mauve of the later flowering cosmos. The meadows can be enjoyed until the frost takes the blooms and in a mild autumn the flowering can go on until December. The  meadows  have taken over areas both large and small including a central refuge by traffic lights of less than 2m2.To take a closer look, visit the Riverside Park meadows located by a cycle route to the city. Sponsorship is being sought to develop the meadows which received the Mayor’s Bristol Genius Award this year.

Gloucester and the Bee Guardian Foundation

Colourful flowers are also transforming eighteen different roadsides and verges across this city.meadows Gloucester Plock Court 1

Gloucester was crowned the first Bee Guardian City by the Bee Guardian Foundation, a conservation organisation, last year and following the pioneering work in the City, the Foundation has been approached to run similar campaigns for towns and cities across the UK. The meadows not only help the recovery of the declining bee population, they also brighten up the city and cut routine maintenance costs.

A recommended place to visit is:

Plock Court Wetland Area

This area has been transformed into a sea of colour following the planting of a special mix designed to recreate a traditional wildflower meadow, which includes species such as ragged robin, oxeye daisy and sorrel. The next few weeks will be the best time to view the wetland area including its wide variety of bird life with herons, little egrets and green sandpipers. House martins are also currently using the exposed mud to build their nests.

Liverpool and the work of Landlife and the National Wildflower Centre

meadows wildflower centreNational Wildflower Centre

Just at the end of the M62 on the outskirts of Liverpool, you can enjoy a wide range of annual and perennial landscapes with over 350 wildflower species including the rare fritillary, maiden pink, and annual displays of corn buttercup and bloody cranesbill at The National Wildflower Centre. The Centre was opened by Landlife in 2000 to showcase our rich wildflower heritage and promote new places for this to thrive.

One of the best meadows to visit in the area is:

Woolfall Heath Meadow, Huyton.

meadows huyton meadowSandwiched in the middle of a nineteen fifties housing estate, this perennial wildflower meadow is one of the best created meadows in the country, and arguably one of the most sustainable landscapes in the UK. Visit from mid-July to mid- August to enjoy the profusion of devil’s- bit scabious across the site, but from April to mid- August there’s a rich diversity of plants to appreciate particularly the density of keynote grassland species such as greater burnet, cowslips and eyebright and invertebrates – look for meadow ants and grasshoppers and see if you can spot reed warblers and water voles too.

Many eminent ecologists both nationally and internationally visit here and, the meadow, created in 1994, received a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere citation for excellence in urban ecology in 2004.


The Natural History Museum

meadows NHM chalk downland This meadow area, modelled on a perennial hay meadow, and the adjoining chalk downland area created to represent chalk grassland, between them cover approximately a third of the wildlife garden – the Museum’s first living and working exhibition.

Cowslips flower from early April. These are followed by bulbous buttercups in the meadow and meadow buttercups elsewhere. Common spotted orchids appear from early June.

Oxeye daisy, yellow rattle, red clover, sweet vernal grass, bird’s-foot trefoil, meadow vetchling and meadow cranesbill are found in the meadow from May to July. And -yellow rattle, wild marjoram, quaking grass, kidney vetch, salad burnet, lady’s bedstraw, rough hawkbit, field scabious, and bee orchids appear on the chalk downland.meadows Chalk grassland in late May NHM

The garden is popular with butterflies including holly blue, orange tip, brimstone, large and small white, common blue, peacock, red admiral, speckled wood, and meadow brown, and day-flying moths like the six spot burnet moth. Cowslips and dandelions attract different bee species such as the honey bee and buff-tailed bumble bee and flies (bee fly). There are a variety of ladybirds and their larvae too and dragonflies – including azure and large red damselflies, broad-bodied chaser, and emperor dragonfly.

And listen out for grasshoppers including the common field grasshopper and the lesser marsh grasshopper.

Many different bird species visit during the year (it’s especially busy during breeding time!) including moorhen, robin, blackbird, greenfinch, wren, blue tit, great tit, coal tit, and goldfinch.

Hackney Downs – the Mad About Meadows Project

meadows Hackney Downs HugoA London 2012 project, Mad About Meadows worked with local authorities, community groups and schools in Greater London, to create native wildflower meadows inspired by  the Olympic Park’s plantings.

Of these the wildflower meadows at Hackney Downs are particularly recommended for a visit. Best seen in early August, the meadows are a mix of annual and perennial plantings including cornflower, corn poppy, corn marigold, corn chamomile, buttercup, oxeye daisy, bird’s-foot trefoil, meadowsweet and red campion. Poppies have been particularly impressive. Watch out too for butterflies and the Shrill Carder Bee

Oxford and Cambridge Botanic Gardens and the work of Professor James Hitchmough, University of Sheffield

Cambridge University Botanic Garden

meadows Cambridge perenial meadowThe Botanic Garden in Cambridge marked the Olympics and Golden Jubilee last year with colour-rich annual meadows. Given their popularity with visitors, the Garden was inspired to ask James Hitchmough, one of the designers responsible for the meadows for the London 2012 Olympic Park, to create a new, drought-tolerant perennial meadow to be grown from seed. 

The overall design uses a low layer of mostly winter evergreen or semi-evergreen herbaceous plants punctuated by hemispherical bump-like forms, tall grasses and semi-transparent flowering plants, set off by a dark green yew hedge. The species chosen are all adapted to survive moisture stress and will knit together to give a long flowering season from April to October. There’s a strong emphasis on Mediterranean and steppe environments from the Colorado plateau through to central Europe and Asia, but with species also drawn from the drier parts of the North American prairies and the summer rainfall regions of South Africa. In future years, the meadow should flourish in the dry Cambridge climate and although only in its first year, the foxtail lilies have already put on a spectacular show.

University of Oxford Botanic Garden -the Merton Border plantings

meadowsOford Botanical Garden

Credit: The University of Oxford Botanic Garden

This meadow, also designed by Professor James Hitchmough, combining visual impact as well as scientific purpose, can be visited from June through to October- to appreciate the changing splendour of the succession of flowering throughout the summer.

In this new area you will be able to see plants and planting likely to become more important in the future if current climate change models prove correct.

The plants have been chosen for their visual appeal as well as their drought-tolerance and are drawn from three regions of the world -the Central to Southern Great Plains (USA) through to the Colorado Plateau and into California; East South Africa; and Southern Europe to Turkey and across Asia to Siberia.

The planting uses repeated blocks of these three community types creating strong contrasts in  colour- such as the orange Kniphofia triangularis with the purple violet Aster oblongifolius in autumn, – and in  height – juxtaposing dense lower planting with tall plants- to  produce strikingly dramatic pictures.

With many  thanks for information and pictures:  to Nadine Mitschunas Urban Pollinators Project, University of Reading;  Teija Ahjokoski  Meadow Bristol Initiative; Natalie Wilder Gloucester City Council; Richard Scott Landlife; Caroline Ware Wildlife Garden Natural History Museum; Nicola Quinn, Media and Campaigns Officer, Hackney Council; Hugo Ross Tatum Project Coordinator Mad About Meadows; Juliet Day Development Officer Cambridge University Botanic Garden; Tom Price Gardens Curator University of Oxford Botanic Garden

Leave a Reply