Flower meadows in the fight against drought

Łąki kwietne

Flower meadows and their benefits are appreciated by more and more institutions and individuals. Great in this is the role of social media, television and color newspapers. Urban flower meadows are promoted by Monty Don and “May in the Garden,” Lukasz Luczaj and Malgorzata Kalemba-Dróżdż. A number of foundations and commercial companies have sprung up that are primarily engaged in creating and then caring for innovative grasslands of this type. They are encountered even in small towns, on the roofs of buildings or revitalized post-mining areas.

Flower meadows good for everything?

There is no shortage of advertising material on the web describing the advantages of these colorful carpets. Flower meadows [1 – 7]:

  • mitigate the effects of drought, as they retain water and do not require regular watering, except during the longest droughts. They absorb snowmelt water and that from driving rains.
  • do not need fertilization, as most of them will develop better on relatively poor land than on very fertile land. Herbs and subshrubs of the bean family will successively enrich the soil with nitrogen, while brassicas will make phosphorus from soil chelates available to other plants.
  • require less commitment than lawns, since, depending on the type of urban meadow, they are mowed once or twice a year.
  • reduce the negative effects of urban heat island and heat waves, which are exacerbated by excessive concreting of surfaces.
  • protect against pollen allergies, as they consist of herbs with insect-pollinated flowers, with no or significantly less grasses, perennials and oxalis than in the case of lawns and the “fourth nature” of the metropolis.
  • protect small animals, especially wild pollinators, hedgehogs and songbirds.
  • provide additional take for bees from urban apiaries.
  • provide substitute habitats for many native species (e.g.: ragged phirlox, sand clover) and for disappearing archeophytes (especially summer lovage and cowrie).
  • Some of them are supposed (at least according to distributors’ claims) to absorb smog and dust, nitrogen and sulfur oxides from acid rain, dampen noise, repel ticks and mosquitoes, buffer fertilizer and herbicide runoff from flowerbeds and lawns into watercourses and from there into the sea, rehabilitate initial post-mining or post-industrial soils.
  • based exclusively on native species and ecotypes can provide refuges for declining and legally protected species, such as: praying mantis, lapwings and corncrakes in the interior of large cities.

Nevertheless, the enthusiasm of some urban grassland owners and managers cools down after a few years. Their dream floral turf is transforming into a weed bed full of species that are allergenic and/or invasive in the country. It is beginning to generate financial and image costs. There are more and more uncomfortable questions about the actual effectiveness of ecosystem services, non-native plant species and conflict animals (rodents, ticks, flies, mosquitoes, aphids, wasps) [5, 6].

Attraction for summer visitors, nightmare for farmers

If flower meadows of cities and flower spits of the countryside have so many advantages, why have they almost disappeared from the landscape of highly developed countries? Was it just about ad hoc profits from the commodification of fields? About snobbery for evenly trimmed lawns, devoid of molehills and millipedes? Preferably still girdled with a row of tui? [8 – 10].

The issue is definitely more complicated. The fabulously colorful, traditionally used hay meadows and pastures are indeed an attraction for tourists and an inspiration for artists. The farmers’ perspective, however, is different. For them, most of these aromatic, colorful herbaceous plants and shrubs are fodder weeds, harmful to cows and horses, spoiling the taste of dairy and meat, making them difficult to process. The native buttercups (sharp buttercup, European buttercup, marsh marsh marigold, to name the species more commonly offered in commercial mixtures) and carnations (mullein, ragged phirlox, red sapberry, soapberry, cartouche) are not inferior in beauty to many exotics, but they are poisonous, sometimes even when dried or ensiled in hay.

Livestock can get really badly poisoned by autumn winterberry, wolfberry or water dropwort. They avoid field clover and serpentine, and even wild garlic, sorrel or meadow cress, which are attractive to humans. Only as a last resort will they graze the native hogweed, ninetails and spurge. Skylights and hornets are semi-parasites of sward plants. In an urban meadow this can sometimes be an advantage, in a rural, hay meadow – a disadvantage. Milk quality decreases markedly in cows and sheep eating a lot of broom, bloodroot, sage, mint, ladybane or rhododendron. It will boil too strongly with a diet rich in caution, and harm even a man after laxative flax [11 – 14].

Farmers are even more concerned about attempts to use undesirable companions of crops, such as poppies, cornflower, field holly and field goldenrod, in flower strips.

Bloodstock for the wet, bloodstock for the dry. Cornflowers good for everything

The root cause of many failures in combating drought and protecting wild pollinators by tending flower meadows is sometimes over-enthusiasm combined with a lack of elementary knowledge. Many customer advisors and copywriters, extolling the seed mixtures offered by specific companies, have a rather superficial knowledge of land cultivation, plant diversity and the requirements of the species offered . For many, a bloodroot is a bloodroot and a grass is a grass: they have no idea that under these colloquial terms there can be many species. While bloodroot will do well in wet and variegated sites, in heavy and rich soils, lesser bloodroot is a flower that grows in even very dry places.

Cornflower, depending on the context, can mean wild-type cornflower, any of Canada’s extremely popular ornamental varieties, or a number of perennial species, often taken for some kind of “thistle without thorns.” The latter group abounds in species that are extremely useful on variable-moisture sites (waterlogged in spring, but severely dry in summer), as well as permanently dry sites. Some of them, in addition to their many advantages, from the perspective of an urban gardener or nature advocate, also have a number of disadvantages. Suffice it to mention one of the few steppe runners native to Poland, namely the Rhineland cornflower, a viola with extraordinary allelopathic power, capable of destroying neighboring plants [15, 16].

China leads the way again

The Chinese idea of “sponge cities” finds applause around the world, including in Poland. Flower meadows remain an important part of the blue-green infrastructure of these cities. From China come the first reports of large-scale restoration of riverside meadows in the hinterlands of cities, based on the reseeding of native species and removal of non-native ones. The method seems to be a promising way to mitigate urban droughts and floods, while inhibiting the expansion of alien species or supporting domestic pollinators, etc. [17].

Pole Mokotowskie: laboratory of the future

We are dramatically lacking hard, verifiable data regarding the replacement of species in urban meadows and rural flower strips, as well as actual, rather than vendor-reported, water retention. It is gratifying that more and more theses on this topic are being produced at European universities (e.g. [18]). Research conducted as part of the revitalization of the Pola Mokotowskie park in Warsaw has yielded pioneering data on the sustainability of flower meadows of various types, pollinator fauna, etc. It turns out that species-rich carpets, composed mainly of perennial flowers, can be refuges for truly rare species of bumblebees and bells. They would be expected in the meadows of the Kampinos Forest rather than in the city center.

It is important that in the fight against the flood of concrete and climate change “not to throw the baby out with the bathwater”, since even the heavily concreted ponds of Mokotow Field turned out to be refuges of quite valuable conservationist invertebrate species [19 – 21].

In the article, I used, among other things. From the works:

[1] Luczaj Ł. (2020). What kind of flower meadow are we fighting for? http://lukaszluczaj.pl/o-jaka-lake-walczymy/

[2] Matusiak R. (2020). Polish Waters project: flower meadows https://www.wody.gov.pl/edukacja/kwietne-laki-na-okres-suszy/projekt-wod-polskich-laki-kwietne-nad-bystrzyca/zalozenia-projektu

[3] Przybysz A., Popek R., Stankiewicz-Kosyl M., Zhu C. Y., Małecka-Przybysz M., Maulidyawati T., Wińska-Krysiak M. (2021). Where trees cannot grow – Particulate matter accumulation by urban meadows. Science of the Total Environment, 785, 147310.

[4] Woloszyn H. (2021). Flower meadow – a paradise for insects. https://www.pszczolamusibyc.pl/blog/laka-kwietna-raj-dla-owadow/

[5] Nawrot K., Kapler A. (2022). Everything you need to know about flower meadows. Published. Flower Foundation, Bolimow.

[6] Kapler A. (2022). Establishment and maintenance of flower meadows as a method of active biodiversity conservation. Prądnik, Proceedings and Materials of the Adam Mickiewicz Museum. W. Szafer, 32: 31-64.

[7] Kapler A. (2023). Establishment and maintenance of urban flower meadows. Apiary 3 https://pasieka24.pl/index.php/pl-pl/pasieka-czasopismo-dla-pszczelarzy/246-pasieka-3-2023/3803-42-zakladanie-i-pielegnacja-miejskich-lak-kwietnych-adam-kapler

[8] Ignatieva M., Hedblom M. (2018). An alternative urban green carpet: How can we move to sustainable lawns in a time of climate change? Science, 362: 148-149.

[9] Ignatieva M., Haase D., Dushkova D., & Haase A. (2020). Lawns in cities: from a globalised urban green space phenomenon to sustainable nature-based solutions. Land, 9(3), 73.

[10] Yang F., Ignatieva M., Larsson A., Zhang S., Ni N. (2019). Public perceptions and preferences regarding lawns and their laternatives in China: A case study of Xi’an. Urban For. Urban Green., 46, 126478.

[11] Tymrakiewicz W. (1976). Weed Atlas. Warsaw: PWRiL.

[12] Rutkowska B. (1984). Atlas of meadow and pasture plants. Warsaw: PWRiL.

[13] Wasilewski Z. (1996). Organization and use of pastures on mineral soils. Falenty: Wyd. IMUZ.

[14] Rogalski M. (ed.) (2004). Meadowing. Poznan: Wyd. Kurpisz.

[15] Sudnik-Wójcikowska B. (2014). Synanthropic plants. Warsaw: Multico.

[16] Kapler A. (2021) Cornflower driakiewn. Meadow cornflower. Rhineland cornflower. IN: https://lakikwietne.pl/produkty/gatunki/wieloletnie/

[17] Yuan J., Zhang G., Chen L., Luo J., You F. (2021). Experiment using semi-natural meadow vegetation for restoration of river revetments: A case study in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. Ecological Engineering, 159, 106095.

[18] Folk A. (2019). Evaluation of restoration success for semi-natural and flower meadows in the Oslo municipality (Master’s thesis, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Ås) https://nmbu.brage.unit.no/nmbu-xmlui/handle/11250/2605429

[19] Kolodziejczyk A., Lewandowski K. (2020). Invertebrate macrofauna of the waters of Pole Mokotowskie Park in Warsaw. Geographical Works and Studies, 65, 1: 53-60.

[20] Sudnik-Wójcikowska B., Jędrzejewska-Szmek K., Sikorski P. (2020). Flora of Pole Mokotowskie park in Warsaw. Geographical Works and Studies, 65, 1: 33-42.

[21] Zajdel B., Kucharska K., Boranski M., Spong J., Kaminski Z. (2020). Bumblebees and bumble bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae, Bombini) in Pole Mokotowskie park in Warsaw. Geographical Works and Studies, 65, 1: 83-90.

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