………… from Mouse Garlic to Northern Bedstraw!
‘Towards the northern end of the cycle path: in the distance, we can see the chimneys and buildings of the Żerań power station, across the road that is carried across the Vistula by the Grota-Roweckiego bridge, where the path officially ends. Beautiful riverbank meadowland; flowers, butterflies, dragonflies, no mosquitoes, midges or horseflies, and not wet. A felicitous spot to take a break'.1
This year I was contacted by Sławek Sendzielski of the Vistula River Meadow Restoration Project, who told me that a River of Flowers had been created along the banks of the Vistula River in Warsaw. For a moment my heart stopped still. I felt that I had been given a great gift, the greatest gift I’ve ever been given. I felt an uprush of happiness because this was a gift to all of us, to Warsaw, to Poland, to Europe, to the world, to bees and other pollinators, to growing healthy food in cities and to the future.
The Vistula River, known as the Queen of Rivers, cuts through Warsaw like a winding rope separating two distinct areas, one side encompasses the Old Town and the other, Praga. The river banks, even in the urban areas, are variously covered by grasslands, riparian forest and alluvial meadows, a unique habitat for protected species of birds and plants. Although partly unregulated, these wild banks are a part of the Natura 2000 network, an area stretching along the river for over 200 km.
The Vistula River Meadow Restoration Project, largely financed with EEA grant funding, is being carried out on an area of nearly 70ha (140 acres) on opposite banks of the Vistula. It has been planted with a stretch of wildflowers all along the flood plain not only to increase the native biodiversity and suppress invasive plant species but also to mitigate of effects of flooding in the capital city. The project was mainly funded by EEA Grants and carried out by the City of Warsaw with great help from the Centre of New Technologies at Warsaw University.
Two of the areas focused on, Żerań and Goledzinów, illustrate this spectacular undertaking. Żerań, once overgrown and forgotten for years, was populated by old native trees such as poplars and willows as well as invasive Goldenrod and Ash-leaved Maples. Young maple saplings have now been cut back and the area mown periodically to encourage the native wildflowers to return.
Mouse Garlic/Czosnek kątowy
Two such wildflowers, which have emerged into the light are the elegant, pale-pink Mouse Garlic and the ruddier Sand Leek. Both alliums are on the Red Data survival list.
Although Mouse Garlic has become rare in the European wild, conversely it is now a popular flower in many of the public city gardens following the New Perennial (or Dutch Wave) Movement. Piet Oudolf, considered to be the leading contributor to this new philosophy of gardening through his work at Battery Park, New York (2003), Lurie Garden, Chicago (2004), and New York’s High Line (2009), has placed such perennials as Mouse Garlic in centre stage.
Sand Leek /Czosnek wężowy
Both alliums are edible. Mouse Garlic, a summer flowering beauty, was cultivated in kitchen gardens throughout Europe for hundreds of years, its bulbs and leaves cooked or left uncooked in salads. Sand Leek’s dense bulbs were salted for winter to stave off scurvy, so even though its natural habitats are the broad-leaved forests, forest margins, hillside meadows and hedgerows, Sand Leek is often found growing along ancient trade routes of waterways and shores.
Goledzinów (above and below) translates to River of Flowers. It was specially created on a 42ha allotment site that had been wiped out when the Vistula River flooded its banks in 2010. After old buildings and fences had been removed, a ribbon-like, meandering shape was stripped out and sown with wildflowers to give the appearance of a ‘river of flowers’. Poppy and cornflower seed were added to the native wild seed mix of species curated for growing on the alluvial flood plain so that the first year’s flowering would be spectacular. Goledzinów is one of very few areas in Warsaw where the cry of the protected bird, the Corn Crake (Crex crex), can still be heard.
Not only Goledzinów but all of the places planted with native perennial wildflowers and wild trees for pollinators and other wildlife in the Vistula River Meadow Restoration Project, have become part of the River of Flowers Warsaw where the past is being re-created in re-wilding. Traditional farming allowed wildflowers to flourish alongside the wheat fields that along with the natural wilderness and forests that covered the land as far north as Latvia. This remembered vista has been immortalised in custom, literature and song. On St John’s Eve, unmarried girls would cast wreaths of wildflowers on the Vistula River to forecast their futures.
Great Burnet/ Krwiściąg lekarski
Many of the wildflowers now flourishing in the River of Flowers Warsaw are still being used in traditional herbal medicine or are composed of chemicals found in modern pharmaceutical products. Great Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis), whose maroon spires linger in damp meadows as well as along roadsides, banks, ditches even war-time storage areas, bears the species name ‘officinalis’ indicating that it has medicinal properties. The name of its genus, Sanguisorba, means ‘to absorb blood’ since the plant was used to stop bleeding. Used in salads, the young leaves are tasty and have slight cucumber-like flavour.
Valerian/ Kozłek lekarski
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is another plant whose name indicates that it has medicinal properties, and it contains valerianic acid, a component of foot sweat. Ancient Egyptians, who worshipped cats respected Valerian as a sacred plant. The plant gives off a pungent smell especially when dried, sending male cats into ecstasy. They will dig the root from the ground, roll around with the plant and even eat it. The root also affects people but calms them down instead and is used to treat a restless mind, over-active heart and to ease turbulent digestive troubles. Its scientific name comes from the Latin word valere, meaning ’to be strong’. The Valerian plant is currently a subject of active pharmaceutical research.
Lady’s Bedstraw/ Przytulia właściwa
Another medicinal herb, Lady’s Bedstraw is still used to treat inflammation and kidney and bladder conditions, both internally and topically, due to its ability to contract membranous tissue and relieve cramps. When dried, the stalks evoke the scent of new mown hay, which explains why ‘palliasses’ (country mattresses) were stuffed with this plant.
Northern Bedstraw/ Przytulia północna
Lady Bedstraw’s close relative, Northern Bedstraw is another edible wildflower with a sweet smell and taste, which can be eaten as a wild salad green so is considered a survival crop. Unlike Lady’s Bedstraw, Northern Bedstraw has an erect growing habit.
Long-leaved Speedwell/ Przetacznik długolistny
Long-leaved Speedwell is a popular plant among insects, especially bees and hoverflies, but also swallowtail butterflies. In the wild, it thrives in waterside thickets, and in flood-influenced land next to rivers as well as coastal areas.
Brown Knapweed/ Chaber łąkowy
The role of the eye-catching yet sterile, funnel-shaped ray-florets of Brown Knapweed is to advertise the flowerhead to insects and guide them towards the small, fertile, tubular disc florets so these can be pollinated. Knapweeds are particularly popular with bees, day-flying butterflies and hoverflies, attracted to their bluish-violet flowers.
Field Scabious/ Świeżrzbnica polna
Another plant in the blue-spectrum, Field Scabious attracts a vast number of pollinators including butterflies, bumblebees, honeybees, hoverflies and beetles. Long-flowering, it proves to be one of the most valuable plants in a meadow especially by the end of summer when it offers a source of nutrition to seed-eating birds surviving through the autumn and winter. Their small bristles help them stick to animal fur and bird feathers. Ants also carry the seeds for short distances because they have juicy appendages, which ants like to eat. Cattle and people have also been important for spreading this species.
Yellow Loosestrife / Tojeść pospolita
Yellow Loosestrife like other Loosestrifes, often form broad stands with the help of a rambling rootstock. Apart from spreading through efficient vegetative propagation, Yellow Loosestrife flowers at the end of the summer and, although the flowers have no nectar, they produce abundant amounts of pollen attracting hoverflies and bees. The shoots stick up all through the winter and the wind rattles the seeds in their round capsules. Yellow Loosestrife’s original habitats are the rich wetlands, where it often grows close to the water line. It is also a versatile, useful and medicinal plant. Although, no modern study has yet been made of its medicinal properties, traditionally Yellow Loosestrife has been used to treat bleeding and wounds. Its roots yield a brown dye and its leaves a yellow one. A strong infusion of the flowers can lighten the colour of pale hair.
Other plants in the alluvial flood plain meadows include Spear-leaved Skullcap, the ubiquitous Ox-eye Daisy, the water-loving, probable garden escapee Flat Sea Holly, the butterfly plant Birds-foot Trefoil, umbrella-shaped Mottled Selernica and the semi-parasitic Yellow Rattle, always useful in a meadow since it suppresses grass.
Flat Sea Holly/
Ragged Robin / Firletka poszarpana
Ragged Robin is one of my most memorable plants because of its exceptionally beautiful and resonating Latin name: Lychnis flos-cuculi. I was first introduced to it when I came to England as a young girl. We stayed in Alverstoke, a small village in the south, and often went for country walks along the lanes. Ragged Robin is such a special wildflower because it attracts a spectacular range of insect pollinators all summer long including butterflies, moths, hoverflies and bees. This wildflower has spread with agriculture to grow close to people. Although it's now becoming rare because of changes in agricultural practices, Ragged Robin is still found in forest pastures, shores, peatland meadows and open field ditches, and of course in the River of Flowers Warsaw!
‘You can close your eyes to reality but not to memories.’ 2
2 © Stanisław Jerzy Lec: Polish poet
Goledzinów © Sławek Sendzielski
Warsaw Panorama © Filip Bramorski
Mouse Garlic (Allium angulosum L.) © Sławek Sendzielski
Sand Leek (Allium scorodoprasum L.) © Tigerente
Great Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis L.) © Sławek Sendzielski
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) © Sławek Sendzielski
Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum L.) © Wikimedia
Northern Bedstraw (Galium boreale L.) © Iifar
Long-leaved Speedwell (Veronica longifolia L.) © Sławek Sendzielski
Brown Knapweed (Centaurea jacea L.) © Uoaei1
Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis (L.) J. M. Coult © Sławek Sendzielski
Yellow Loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris L.) © Le.Loup.Gris
Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi L.) © Sławek Sendzielski
Spear-leaved Skullcap (Scutellaria hastifolia L.) © Kristian Peters
Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare Lam.)© Sławek Sendzielski
Mottled Selernica (Kadenia dubia L. or Cnidium dubium) © H.Zell
Yellow Rattle (Rhianantus minor) © Sławek Sendzielski
Greater Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus angustifolia) © Sławek Sendzielski
Flat Sea Holly (Eryngium planum L.) © Bogdan
Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) © Sławek Sendzielski