Yellow rattle, ragged robin, birds foot trefoil, self heal; what are they and why should we care?

Posted on: 20 Jun 2017
Posted by: Debbie Hicks

Debbie Hicks, Biology Teacher and Staff Development Officer at Downe House, argues children should learn about wildflowers to give them an opportunity to connect with nature and value the inter-connectedness of the countryside.

In response to a Guardian article which claims that hardly any British children can identify a red clover, and few students take plant science for a first degree.

Yellow rattle, ragged robin, birds foot trefoil, self heal. Typical plants from a traditional hay meadow. Plants with evocative names, each meriting a whole story of their own, but which are unfamiliar to many of our pupils.

Why should we care?
Why should children learn about wild flowers?
Here are just a few of the reasons why:

Because they provide rich contexts for wider learning

A few weeks ago, as part of my role with Farming and Countryside Education (FACE), I worked outside with Year 5 pupils to explore flowering plant reproduction. We looked at the reproductive structures of buttercups, cow parsley, red campion and cowslips. During the session, our discussions naturally flowed into considerations of the cultural significance, folklore and wildlife value associated with these everyday flowers.

Because they provide an accessible focus for complex, potentially abstract topics such as interdependence, conservation and biodiversity

At Stokehill, we use our wildflower meadows and hedgerows to identify and classify different plants and animals, investigate variation in flower colours and stem heights and to discuss human influences on the environment.

We observe bees visiting comfrey or foxgloves as the basis of a simple food web. The eggs, larvae and honey of the bees provide food for mice, who will in turn be eaten by owls and stoats.

Because they offer many opportunities to develop observation and recording skills, usually involving collaboration with others during the activity.

Wild flowers are perfect for using and creating identification keys, for making tables and drawing graphs.

Because wild flowers can teach us all to look again and to consider the value and inter-connectedness of the countryside.

Pupils can see the flamboyance of a wildflower meadow in June and then zoom in on the tiny detail of an insect visiting the nectaries of a single flower.

Learning to recognise how wildflowers are connected to the rest of nature and ultimately to our own nutrition, health and wellbeing, helps children to develop their awareness of their future roles and responsibilities in protecting the earth’s finite resources.

Because they provide an opportunity to reconnect children with nature and offer a chance for them to experience all the well documented benefits of spending time in green space.

Step outside with a class and the dynamics shift. Perspectives widen, thoughts and heart rates slow, we connect with the present moment. Conversations start up but silence also has its own valuable place. The focus is the flowers; eye contact is optional and there is plenty of green space around us. Discussions about wild flowers lead naturally into discussions about everything and anything.

Last week, once we’d negotiated our way through the recent examination mark scheme, I took my UIV (Year 9) group out into the School grounds to begin our ecology topic. We walked and talked our way through the shady woodland and out into the sunlight of the open field, where we discussed the ways that we could investigate the distribution of the wild flowers. Exam-weary brows un-furrowed, open body postures reappeared. The focus of our attention might have been the wild flowers in the field, but the benefits to the girls extended well beyond the Biology learning that took place. 

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About Debbie Hicks

Debbie Hicks is a Biology Teacher and Staff Development Officer at Downe House, a girls' school in Berkshire.