Cultural values in plant conservation – the Corncockle approach

  • Conservation of plants and their genetic diversity is carried out by a range of individuals and organisations using scientific methodologies, responses to political and conservation strategies, community land management and the individual decisions of farmers, foresters and gatherers. However despite the multiple routes to conservation the debate in Europe is increasingly framed only in terms of numbers and economics. Those arguing for and against more conservation couch their arguments in these terms and in policy frameworks such as biodiversity offsetting, natural capital and green infrastructure, and the statistics of decline. This paper will argue for an increased awareness of the potential for cultural values, often unmeasurable, in conservation debate and action.

    Wild, naturalised and cultivated plants carry cultural information and when we lose plants and their habitats we lose this living part of our heritage. This paper will examine a selection of these plants which shed light on wider cultural processes both historical and modern. These include the corncockle (Agrostemma githago) which is on the edge of extinction in modern European agriculture but has been part of our farming floral in Britain since the Iron Age. Sweet flag (Acorus calamus) is probably the calamus of King Solomon, the medicinal plant of the Mongol invasions, and was introduced to Britain for its strewing properties. St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is one of the few plants named for a saint which is still in common usage. The growth of printed herbals and the Reformation acted in part to remove the association between plants and the Catholic faith in Britain, particular the so called ‘Mary flowers’.

    This paper will also outline an ongoing project (Wildflower Europe) which is based around cultural value as a means of conservation, community engagement, and improving economic benefit for biodiversity friendly farming. (www.wildflowereurope.org)