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