Wildflower meadows in London's 2012 Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Is this a wildflower meadow in London's 2012 Olympic Park?

The BBC Today Programme (7.45 on 20.8.2012) had an item about the wildflower meadows being one of the great successes of the 2012 Olympic Games. I congratulate Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough on their planting design – and would like to know more about the origins of the planting design idea. Their history may be as follows, but any extra details from readers would be welcome:

  • EDAW (now AECOM) produced the master plan for what was the Olympic Park during the games and will re-open as the Queen Elizabeth Park in 2013. The idea for the planting design may have been theirs.
  • LDA with George Hargreaves produced the design plans – and probably commissioned Dunnett and Hitchmough.
  • LDA were guided by the Olympic Development Authority ODA and by John Hopkins, landscape architect and Head of Parklands & Public Realm at the Olympic Development Agency
  • Dunnett and Hitchmough were probably inspired by Piet Oudolf’s ideas on New Perennial planting design
  • Oudolf probably drew on Christopher Lloyd’s advocacy of wildflower meadows, and his work at Great Dixter
  • Christopher Lloyd was inspired by his mother, the beautifully named Daisy Lloyd, who made a flowery meadow at Dixter which she connected with the meadows in renaissance painting (eg Botticelli’s Primavera) and Pre-Raphaelite painting. Daisy also introduced Christopher to Gertrude Jekyll – and both were surely influenced by William Robinson.
  • Gertrude Jekyll popularised the idea of using plants in ‘drifts’
  • William Robinson shared John Ruskin’s love of the middle ages. He wrote a famous book on The Wild Garden and advocated ‘wild flower meadows’ instead of mown grass.
  • A medieval ‘meadow’ was ‘a piece of land permanently covered with grass to be mown for use as hay’ OED (mædewan, mædua, mæduen, etc in Old English).
  • Meadows contained wild flowers and meadow turf was cut from pastures and laid in gardens, probably as ground cover in small herbers for the delight of ladies and minstrels. ‘Mead’ is cognate with meadow. Deriving from Old Dutch and Old German, it was used rarely in Old English but later became popular with poets etc in the combination ‘flowery mead’.

The flowers in old English meadows were, of course ‘wild’ flowers. Those used in the Olympic 2012 Queen Elizabeth Park were wild somewhere at some time. But many are cultivars from outside the UK. If my plant identification is satisfactory, the above photograph has: Coreopsis (Tickseed, native to North America), Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower, native in the UK), Chrysanthemum carinatum ‘Polar Star’ (a cultivar of the annual chrysanthemum, native to North America), Calendula spp (pot marigold, native to the Middle East). The drifts of annual and perennial plants in the Lea Valley have visual connections with meadows and  the flowers are, or were, wild in some place at some time.  But they will not be used as pastures and one could make a good case for NOT calling them ‘wildflower meadows’. As Immanual Kant observed, paradox is an inescapable aspect of how we understand the world.

24 thoughts on “Wildflower meadows in London's 2012 Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

  1. Katrina

    An interesting article. And somewhat through provoking, I guess that whilst the description is accurate, people do assume the wildflowers are native to the UK. I do think this style of planting preferable to container grown shrubs and perinneals that are not wildlife friendly and with all the construction that has been going on in the area it is nice ot attempt to give something back.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I agree – the planting is successful in the Olympic Park and it is likely to be wildlife friendly. It was a very good thing to do. But there is a danger of the approach being over-used and used in inappropriate places.

  2. Christine

    Yes. As the world population increases and there is increasing pressure on land use, with the opposing needs of agricultural production and biodiversity conservation. The choice between sparing and wildlife friendly farming is only one of the issue we will face.

    The ability to acquire a sophisticated understanding of landscapes will become increasingly important. The critical insights of landscape architects therefore are only likely to become more valuable over time.

    It is good to call a spade a spade. So the ability to identify a natural wild flower landscape [ http://media.lonelyplanet.com/lpi/4518/4518-14/681×454.jpg ] and a created landscape and evaluate their relative contextual merits, social, economic and ecological will be critical to long term biodiversity and landscape sustainability.

  3. Christine

    Gosh, who would have known the word ‘spade’ had another meaning!

    One of the wonderful things about the photograph for me is the delicate subtleness of nature, with the soft variation in coloration. The natural wildflower meadow is very beautiful also.

    Thankyou for the link to green infrastructure at Yale.

  4. sarah

    It is a very valid point that some of the species used were not strictly native. They are also annual species from what I can see. Meadows with perennials and annuals will give the best diversity. What is has done at least is to raise awareness of the possibilities that incorporating a wildflower meadow into the landscape, whether it be your own garden or a public space, can offer. Low maintenance gardens seem to be what a lot of garden owners favour. There are some products on the market which will make life easier for the garden designer and/or the keen gardener. You can actually buy a turf which has wildflowers already established as young plants! Seeding is possible however, it is notoriously tricky and takes years to establish in some cases! Let’s hope we can continue to cover as much of the UK in wildflower meadows as possible! This is especially important when you realise that nearly 98% of all native wildflower meadows have been lost in the UK.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I agree. Gardens have a much greater acerage of wildflowers than, say, 30 years ago. But there is scope for a great deal more. I was surprised to see Caluna vulgaris growing in the long grass in Kensington Gardens this summer.

  5. Nigel Dunnett

    A nice set of deductions, but not entirely accurate! Myself and James Hitchmough have been developing our eco-aesthetic approach for 20 years. There is no influence by Piet Oudolf – we work in the same broad field, but the approach is very different. The overall context for the park was set by the EDAW plan, but we developed it in a strongly different direction. The EDAW plan took a wholly habitat creation/restoration ecology approach to the plantings across the park. We integrated this with a horticultural philosophy to enhance the visual spectacle at key points. The planting strategy across the park was based on a meadow aesthetic, and ranged from the purely native meadows of North Park, through to the synthetic annual and hybrid native-exotic meadows around the stadium (in the picture), through to the stylised meadow aesthetic of the 2012 gardens. We have never called the non-native meadows ‘wildflower meadows’, but this is how some sections of the media have labelled them. The flowery meadows have been hugely, hugely popular – if ever any evidence was needed that people respond to a flower-rich, naturalistic environment, then this is it. The important point here is that we work with a gradient from the purely native through to the highly artificial, but within the same aesthetic. And it is incredibly popular. This is a new and different approach to promoting biodiversity in cities: the ‘nature in cities’ movement has had only limited success in converting our cities to rich habitats for wildlife over the past 40 or 50 years. The Olympic Park shows a different way to engage people with a more natural environment, and one which could potentially open the way for a more widespread implementation of native habitats, with non-native or hybrid naturalistic plantings used in visual hotspots.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Nigel, many thanks for the information. I am very happy for this website to be a ‘place of record’ and hope my post made it clear that I am full of admiration for the planting. But every good thing benefits from a good name and I wonder if it would not be best to accept the vox populi, taking whatever opportunities arise to make the necessary qualifications. If commentators can be encouraged to explain what them mean it gives them an opportunity to show off, as every kind of ‘buff’ likes to do, and helps to keep people talking about the idea! The term ‘flowery meadows’, used in your comment, gets round the ‘wild’ problem but leaves some issues: (1) ‘flowery’ applies to all categories of flowering plant, and most plants flower, (2) most of the plants used in the design grow in ‘the wild’ somewhere, the others being named varieties (3) many of the plants in the above photograph are from North America, which, comparatively recently (135m years ago, out of the Earth’s 4.5 billion years) was joined to Europe (4) the words ‘meadow’ and ‘mead’ originate with a land management system: grazing (5) a remaining problem with ‘wildflower meadow’ as a term is that it does not capture the important idea of ‘a gradient from the purely native through to the highly artificial, but within the same aesthetic’ (6) from the standpoint of design history, the key phrase here is ‘the same aesthetic‘ – which leads me to categorize the idea as POSTMODERN.
      Thank you!

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Christine, thank you for the links and for the Australian perspective on the planting and on the John Fraser, in 1892, wrote that ‘The next great tribe is the Kuringgai on the sea coast. Their ‘taurai’ (hunting ground or territory) is known to extend north to the Macleay River, and I found that southwards it reached the Hawkesbury. then after, by examining the remains of the language of the natives about Sydney and southwards, and by other tests, I assured myself that the country thereabout was occupied by sub-tribes of the Kurringgai.’ This gives me two thoughts (1) though the indigenous people surely appreciated the flowers they would have had no thought of their being any non-wild plants, (2) in the early 1970s I worked in the office of Sylvia Crowe. She was asked to give some lectures in Australia and came back saying that she was really disappointed that no use was being made, by landscape architcts, of Australia’s native flora. With a smile as wry as it was broad, she said ‘I told them what to do – and I think they are going to do it’! Sylvia was very much aware of William Robinson’s advocacy of ‘wild’ plants.

  6. Marian Boswall

    Is there a reason the mix could not be used as pasture? I assume some of the plants may be unsuitable but a mix could surely be developed which could be both beautiful, and instead of being burnt, could also be useful as fodder. Williams Robinson and Morris could then approve.

    Re the role of reason vs faith in postmodernism [http://www.gardenvisit.com/history_theory/library_online_ebooks/architecture_city_as_landscape/after_post_postmodernism]
    do not 20 years of research into an ‘eco-aesthetic’ count as an act of faith?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      This is a good question – to which I do not have a good answer. My guess is that it is edible but not a farmer’s choice from a nutritional point of view.
      And an even better question re the 20 years research – definitely an act of faith from my point of view but an archbishop might possibly not agree.

  7. Christine

    Yes indigenous Australians did garden, however it was different to our concept of gardening and perhaps is a little more like harvesting from the wild and cultivation in the wild?
    [ http://www.abc.net.au/gardening/stories/s1983635.htm ]

    “Water lily seed bread was also popular in the Top End. The two species of water lily used were Nelumbo nucifera and Nymphaea macrosperma. During the early part of the dry season, water lilies were an important part of the diet, with seed pods eaten raw or ground into paste.”

    There is some research into Australian native waterlilies occuring at Kew.
    [ http://www.sciencewa.net.au/topics/environment-a-conservation/item/1192-water-lily-research-flourishing-in-the-kimberley ]

    An understanding of indigenous climate science, in particular the peak waterlilly season of Yegge, would assist with a more refined understanding of landscape management practices.
    [ http://www.environment.gov.au/parks/kakadu/nature-science/seasons.html ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Would it be more accurate to say that indigenous Australians ‘did cultivate‘? I tend to think of the activity as ‘horticulture’ unless (1) it was in an enclosed space (2) it had aesthetic or metaphysical objectives, as well as food production. But definitions are mostly arbitrary, of course.

  8. christine

    It wasn’t within an enclosed space within the context you know, however there are indigenous boundaries…also these plants are part of a totemic relationship so yes there are metaphysical objectives.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I agree. What you describe is on a cousinage footing with gardens in othe parts of the world.
      This page from the Royal Botanic Garden website seems to have been phrased with some difficulty http://www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/welcome/royal_botanic_garden/gardens_and_domain/indigenous and outlines an approach to a landscape rather than an approach to gardens. It seems to me that Sydney would benefit from (1) an indigenous garden (2) an indigenous ‘layer’ on Sydney’s City Plan.

  9. Christine

    It is quite likely that an indigenous garden exists, although in what form, and whether totemic relationships are still reinforced with initiation ceremonies, I am not sure.
    [ http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/barani/themes/theme1.htm ]
    Perhaps dental records provide us with more information?

    Yes, an indigenous layer on Sydney’s city plan would be great. It would be interesting to consider how this might be developed?

    “The National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 provides statutory protection for all Aboriginal relics and for all Aboriginal places, while the Heritage Act 1977 protects the State’s natural and cultural heritage, including archaeological remains. (Aboriginal sites and relics are primarily cared for under the National Parks and Wildlife Act, but if you have concerns or questions about a site in Sydney your first point of contact should be the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council or the Aboriginal Heritage Officer at the NSW Heritage Office.)”

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I suggest the following approach to providing Sydney with an indigenous component to the city plan:
      1) use whatever information is available (geology, soils, history etc) to produce a physical geography map of ‘Sydney as it was’ before the Europeans arrived
      2) supplement the physical geography map with a cultural geography map to show ‘Sydney as it was used and understood by indigenous Australians’
      3) draw up a plan for conserving and re-creating aspects of the indigenous physical and cultural geography eg1 an area of habitat eg2 a cultural feature
      My ‘model’ for the above suggestion is the map of the Lost Rivers of London and the proposal for a Recovery Plan. Many of the rivers cannot be fully recovered but there are ‘things which can be done’ – and I made one suggestion as a 2012 Chelsea Fringe project. See

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Botanic ‘Gardens’ suffer from a degree of confusion as to whether their concern should be with botany, which is the ‘world outside’ or with ‘garden’, which is the world within the wall. This results in a nostalgic addiction to the picturesque aesthetic and some other historical styles (notably the gardenesque). They show little understanding of cultural landscapes (except for a passing interest in econmic botany). Kew exemplifies this characteristic and comes closer than other botanic gardens to transcending the attitude. My conclusion from this ramble is that the involvment of botanists would be necessary but that they would also need a landscape planner (who could be a landscape architect but would require the broader perspective one associates with planning). Sorry if this post is a footnote rather than a full response.

  10. Christine

    Tom you are right. Indigenous ‘gardens’ are indeed both these things – the ‘world outside’ (Botany) and the ‘world within the wall’ (Garden). Amazing. So yes the viewing lens of the botantist and landscape planner together perhaps with an anthropologist/linguist would be the right combination to gain a comprehensive understanding of the indigenous ‘garden’ consciousness.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Edmund Burke criticised social contract theory and argued that a society should be “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”. I like the theory and it militates against the creation of an ‘Aboriginal Garden’ on the ‘Indian Reservation’ principle. Much better, and more Burkian, to regard the entire landscape has having an Indigenous Dimension.


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