Mead­ow­lands

Some of our most fa­mil­iar plants have their prove­nance in the grass­lands of south­ern Tran­syl­va­nia

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS DR JOHN AKEROYD PHO­TO­GRAPHS RICHARD BLOOM

Dis­cover the di­ver­sity of Ro­ma­nia’s jew­ellike wildflower mead­ows

For some time now, for­eign vis­i­tors have been flock­ing to south­ern Tran­syl­va­nia in Ro­ma­nia, largely drawn by the re­mark­able ar­chi­tec­ture of its me­dieval towns and vil­lages. To­day, how­ever, more vis­i­tors are com­ing to its hills to see the wild­flow­ers. From late spring to midsummer the green farm­land vis­tas of this re­gion of rolling marl hills magically trans­forms into a grass­land gar­den of colour, scent and hum­ming in­sects. Ev­ery­where, a bright ta­pes­try of wild­flow­ers en­folds and trans­fig­ures road­side verges and banks, hay mead­ows, sheep and cat­tle pas­tures, scrubby hill­sides and wood­land mar­gins. It is a spec­ta­cle to lift the heart.

The grass­land flora is a mix of western and cen­tral Euro­pean, step­pic and Mediter­ranean plants, to­gether with some moun­tain plants. The re­gion’s cen­tral Euro­pean cli­mate means hot summers and cold win­ters, and the plants that thrive here are both drought­tol­er­ant and re­sis­tant to low tem­per­a­tures. This dry or semi-dry meadow-steppe is an in­ter­na­tion­ally im­por­tant veg­e­ta­tion that has re­treated through­out cen­tral Europe, at its best in patches of true step­pic grass­land on south-fac­ing slopes and steep marl hum­mocks that are a fea­ture of the area known as the Saxon Vil­lages. Here, from early May, among sparse tus­socky fes­cues and feather-grasses ap­pear spe­cial wild­flow­ers, sev­eral on the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture Red List of Ro­ma­nia’s rarest plants, in­clud­ing Crambe tatar­ica, Dic­tam­nus al­bus, Echium mac­u­la­tum, milk-vetches, mulleins, yel­low, blue and pink flaxes and, most spec­tac­u­lar of all, the tall, bowed spikes of vi­o­let-blue Salvia nu­tans, which look like gi­ant, branched blue­bells, are vis­i­ble even from a dis­tance. By con­trast, in the Carpathian foothills, as well as in a few low­land sites that have es­caped 20th-cen­tury drainage, the flora of damper mead­ows on north­fac­ing slopes and along val­ley bot­toms in­cludes or­chids, globe-flower, bis­tort, marsh marigold, monks­hood and glad­i­oli.

But th­ese fields of wild­flow­ers are no mere or­na­ment. In this part of the world grass­land has long been a cor­ner­stone of the econ­omy, yield­ing meat, milk and cheese, as well as honey, wild herbs and fruits, and medic­i­nal plants. Vil­lagers graze their cat­tle on the lush lower pas­tures and their sheep higher in the hills. The greensward pro­vides qual­ity feed for farm an­i­mals and is a ge­netic re­source of fod­der crops; around 60 of the 1,200 or so wild plants found in south­ern Tran­syl­va­nia are crop rel­a­tives. Hay mead­ows es­pe­cially are a colourful car­pet of grasses and wild­flow­ers – many fa­mil­iar from our own coun­try­side, in­clud­ing or­chids, sages, rat­tles, bed­straws, bellflow­ers and ox-eye daisies – and the hay is of­ten still har­vested by hand us­ing tra­di­tional scythes.

Th­ese old pas­toral sys­tems lie at the heart of Ro­ma­nia’s ru­ral econ­omy, but life is inevitably chang­ing as trac­tors grad­u­ally re­place horses. Sadly, over the past 18 years th­ese farm­land agri­cul­tural ecosys­tems and their rich bio­di­ver­sity are be­ing in­creas­ingly dam­aged. Eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment is def­i­nitely needed, but it needs to be en­cour­aged in a way that can main­tain this plant di­ver­sity and be­come a model for sus­tain­able farm­ing.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists re­gard th­ese wildf lower-rich grass­lands as a pri­or­ity, as they of­fer an in­te­grated model of sus­tain­able use of nat­u­ral re­sources, qual­ity food pro­duc­tion and bio­di­ver­sity con­ser­va­tion. Rel­a­tively in­tact ecosys­tems that main­tain vi­tal eco­log­i­cal ‘goods and ser­vices’, they re­duce or pre­vent soil ero­sion, lock up car­bon and soak up rain to slowly re­lease clean wa­ter into wells, streams and rivers, en­sur­ing both flood pre­ven­tion and a se­cure wa­ter sup­ply.

Since the 1990s, bio­di­verse grass­lands such as th­ese have been given spe­cial sta­tus by the EU as High Na­ture Value (HNV) grass­lands, which un­der re­cent EU Ru­ral De­vel­op­ment leg­is­la­tion are des­ig­nated ar­eas that need spe­cial at­ten­tion. This pro­vides both an eco­nomic in­cen­tive for lo­cal farm­ers to stick with low-im­pact farm­ing as HNV sta­tus means the area is el­i­gi­ble for EU sub­si­dies that en­cour­age non-in­ten­sive agri­cul­ture, and a great mar­ket­ing op­por­tu­nity for their pro­duce. The re­gion’s milk, cheese and ham – un­pro­cessed, chem­i­cal-free and with a dis­tinct lo­cal f lavour – of­fer con­sumers taste and qual­ity that is sec­ond to none. Its polyf lora honey and jams made from fruits such as black­ber­ries, cher­ries, wild straw­ber­ries and rose hips are noth­ing short of bot­tled bio­di­ver­sity. The mead­ows them­selves are also now gen­er­at­ing in­come from vis­i­tors who come not only to en­joy the wildf low­ers and pro­lific wildlife, but also for the re­gion’s crafts and to wit­ness a ru­ral way of life that has all but dis­ap­peared from the rest of Europe.

Con­ven­tional na­ture re­serves, which in the UK and else­where in Europe are merely is­lands of di­ver­sity in a dam­aged land­scape, can­not pro­tect th­ese grass­lands and their wild­flow­ers. Nor can they help the com­mu­ni­ties who cre­ated and main­tain them. For Tran­syl­va­nia’s wildflower mead­ows to sur­vive they need to be in­te­gral to sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment, con­tribut­ing to a pros­per­ous fu­ture for lo­cal peo­ple and bio­di­ver­sity.

USE­FUL IN­FOR­MA­TION

Au­thor John Akeroyd, is a botanist and a lead­ing author­ity on Tran­syl­va­nia’s wild flora. He has re­cently con­trib­uted the botan­i­cal text for a new Tran­syl­va­nia Flo­ri­legium, which fea­tures more than 120 spe­cially com­mis­sioned wa­ter­colours of the re­gion’s flora. Vol­ume one of the Tran­syl­va­nia Flo­ri­legium is pub­lished by Ad­di­son Pub­li­ca­tions at the end of May, and a se­lec­tion of its botan­i­cal il­lus­tra­tions will be on dis­play in an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Ro­ma­nian Cul­tural In­sti­tute from 21 May to 12 June. 1 Bel­grave Square, Lon­don SW1X 8PH. Tel 020 7752 0134, icr-lon­don.co.uk You can find out more about the con­ser­va­tion of the mead­ows at Fun­da­tia ADEPT ( fun­da­tia-adept.org). If you want to see Tran­syl­va­nia’s wildflower mead­ows for your­self then the best time to travel is from the end of May un­til early July, and you can find use­ful in­for­ma­tion on vis­it­ing the re­gion at Dis­cover Târ­nava Mare ( dis­cover­tar­nava­mare.org).

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