Meadows – a treasure trove of biodiversity

The herb meadows were once an essential component of traditional farming systems in Bavaria and other parts of Europe. I lived in rural Bavaria (Southern Germany) for three years in the mid 1970s, and was fascinated by the sheer biodiversity of herbs, grasses, insects and fungi of the meadows. During those three years of exploration and observation in the countryside, I identified almost 300 different species of wild flowers and herbs.

Robyn Francis, 1975, foraging in Bavaria

Robyn Francis, 1975, foraging in Bavaria

It was not simply the diversity of different plants, there was also the diversity of meadow types: forest clearings and edges, riparian meadows near creeks and streams, in swamps and bogs, permanent meadows in farmlands, and the cultivated meadows in the traditional crop rotation cycles.

Cultivated meadows and crop rotation

The cultivated meadows played an important role in the traditional crop rotation, where the farmer would spread the bottom layer of last season’s haystack onto a field due to go into ‘fallow’, and have a break from cropping. The bottom of the haystack would contain lots of seeds, which was spread in autumn after the crop was harvested and lightly harrowed into the soil. This makes sense, as numerous cold temperate plants will germinate better with some stratification (chill factor). The autumn sowing ensured natural stratification by winter frosts and snow. In spring the ‘meadow’ field would come to life with a diversity of herbs, legumes and grasses, which would then be occasionally grazed, and harvested as hay for winter feed.

The practice of these rotational meadows was important for restoring the health of the soil. Many of these herbs are ‘dynamic accumulators’ of specific nutrients, and a typical meadow would include a dozen or more different legumes to fix nitrogen, including numerous clovers, medics, vetches, trefoils, melilots and lucerne. These meadows provided important habitat for myriad insects and butterflies, a source of valuable forage for bees and food for insect and seed-eating songbirds.

Flowering leguminous herbs include medics, vetches and trefoils

Flowering leguminous herbs include medics, vetches and trefoils

 

One of the wonderful things I appreciated in Bavaria was the Right of Access to the environment. The enshrined right to walk freely in forests, meadows, farmland, lakes and river banks, and to gather the fruits of the forest, provided one caused no damage and left no litter. This was in stark contrast to the fenced rural landscape of Australia with its “keep out’ territorial sense of ownership.

Exploring the meadows

I was fortunate to have work that gave me plenty of free time to explore the surrounding landscape, to garden and indulge in creative pursuits. I lived on the edge of a small farming hamlet surrounded by farmland, forest and fields. The hamlet, just 30km out of Munich, was the second last station on the local S-Bahn (City Train) line, so I enjoyed the best of both worlds—living in the countryside and working in the city. I worked as an usherette in an opera theatre for 18 months, where work commenced at 6pm, which gave me the whole day to follow my passions. My next job was in the booking office of another theatre, which was rostered as seven days work and seven days off, so every second week was a ‘holiday’.

Marsh Mallow flowers and leaves are valued healing herbs

Marsh Mallow flowers and leaves are valued healing herbs

My first Bavarian spring was a revelation, the riot of wildflowers blooming everywhere piqued a deep curiosity in me. One day I realised there was something incredibly familiar about many of these plants – I’d seen pictures of them in my herb books. I purchased a Field Guide to Wild Flowers of Northern Europe to identify the plants, then cross-referenced them to see if they appeared in any of my herb books. Once I had some basic fluency in the local Bavarian dialect, I began to ask my Bavarian mother-in-law and local farmers wives for their local names and if they knew of any traditional uses or special properties.

I also had the great fortune to meet up with an elderly traditional Krauter Frau (Herb Woman), who worked at the opera theatre as the ‘toilet lady’. She was excited to meet a young person interested in wild herbs, as she hadn’t found anyone to pass her knowledge on to. She freely shared much of her knowledge of the wild herbal plants with me, including the best time of year to harvest specific herbs for maximum potency.

Disappearing meadow herbs

One day, I discovered a few ‘new’ flowers in a neglected patch that hadn’t been disturbed by farming, hidden away in the meander of a stream. When I showed them to one of the old farmers wives, she was amazed and grabbed one them excitedly saying, “I haven’t seen this flower since I went on walks as a little girl with my Grandmother, I thought they’d disappeared!” This rang alarm bells for me, how many other herbs were threatened with disappearance? How many had already disappeared? Was this incredible diversity under threat? …and with the loss of the plants, the loss of knowledge about their uses? I then consciously sought out more little neglected patches in the landscape and began to make a herbarium of samples of dried flowers, to identify them and ask the locals how common or rare they were as well as their uses.

Bluebell-diversity-meadow

I was cautious to not over-harvest the uncommon plants and just take one sample for my herbarium. However, the herbs that grew in abundance became my medicine chest and a valued food source. I collected and dried dozens of medicinal herbs for making herbal teas, syrups and concoctions: Chamomile, Yarrow, Ladies Mantle, Lungwort, Coltsfoot, Dead Nettle, Stinging Nettle, Marshmallow, Red Field Poppy flowers, Meadowsweet, Valerian, Comfrey, Vervain, Mullein, Cowslip, Daisy, Balm, Bugle, Clivers, wild Thyme, Dandelion root, Shepherds Purse, St Johns Wort, Agrimony, Red Clover, Toadflax, Horsetail, Knapweed, Melilot, Betony, Bugloss, Herb Robert, wild Caraway, Rose Hips, Blackberry and Raspberry leaves, Linden flowers, Elder flowers and berries.

Foraging the meadows for food and medicine

Wild foraging contributed to my salads and cooked meals. I’d often collect a wild salad on my way from work, in the meadow between the railway station and home. Common salad herbs included Dandelion, Sorrel, Purslane, Burnett, Chicory, Chickweed, Plantain, Fat Hen, Red clover, Bugloss, wild Mustards and edible wild flowers.

The meadow between home and the railway station provided wild salad greens

The meadow between home and the railway station provided wild salad greens

 

The mushrooms were another wild forage treat. Edible mushrooms I’d frequently find in the meadows included the common field mushroom, Slippery Jack (Suillus luteus) locally known as ButterPiltz, young Ink Caps, and sometimes I’d discover a delicious treat of a patch of Birch bolete. The forests and forest edges yielded the greatest diversity of mushrooms, and there were times when an autumn forest walk would result in a harvest of 20, and at times up to 40, different delicious edible fungi.

I left Bavaria in 1976 to return permanently to Australia, where I established and operated a herb farm and nursery until 1983, when I decided to make permaculture my career and life focus.

In Search of a Meadow, 2010

In 2010 I returned to the Bavarian landscape I once knew so well, and had to search long and hard to find any meadows. I spent two days cycling around the countryside in search of a real meadow. Commodity farming had dramatically changed the landscape from what I knew in the mid-seventies. Where there were once a patchwork of small fields with a diverse range of crops; wheat, barley, rye, maize, sugar beet, potato, cabbage and meadows for grazing and haymaking, now large mono-fields of maize for silage and wheat crops covered the landscape with an occasional crop of sugar beet. I encountered a few fields of a single grass monoculture grown for haymaking.

One improvement in the rural landscape around Walpertskirchen was that more trees had been planted, especially along creek and stream banks and around ponds. The once grassy embankment along the railway reserve running through the village had been transformed into a diverse young broadleaf forest. A few hedgerows had also been established, but overall the change of the landscape into larger farms and big fields of commodity crops had impoverished the biodiversity of the land.

On my second day of futile searching, I’d been cycling for quite some hours and would soon need to return back to the village. I was feeling rather disappointed, somewhat miffed, and quite disturbed by the absence of the meadows I knew once existed. As I peddled along the narrow county roads and tracks weaving endlessly between the fields, I turned down towards a small farm hamlet nestled in a hollow by a well-treed stream and small stand of mixed forest. The road meandered a little, and as I cycled around the bend over the crest of a small rise, I suddenly saw the air ahead shimmering with life. It was dancing with insects and butterflies for a metre or so above ground.

A meadow exploding with life and biodiversity

A meadow exploding with life and biodiversity

 

I could barely contain my excitement. I knew I had at last found a meadow. I pulled up, abandoned my bike, and walked into the precious half-acre sanctuary of diversity, bursting with life. I greeted my herbaceous friends with joy, my spirit soared, I called them by name and prayed they would never succumb to the plough.

After reveling in the delight of the meadow, I noticed a wild area across the road, near where the stream emerged to run under the bridge. I pushed my way through the wild hazels on the road edge to explore. A feast of blackberries greeted me and another riot of life and diversity emerged from the ground around my feet.

It was hard to leave and cycle back to the village. In my further explorations of the countryside I found no other wild patch or meadow quite like that one small remnant treasure I’d stumbled upon.

I do urge my European friends to treasure the meadows and encourage the biodiversity they offer—restore them and manage them an as essential and critical component of the ecosystem, of wild nature and our cultivated landscapes.

Robyn Francis: international permaculture pioneer, educator and designer and founder of Permaculture College Australia.