Top Flowering Plants
Flowers are more than just plants that make your garden visually appealing throughout the year. Flowering plants are also crucial for wildlife attraction, and most especially for attracting in the pollinators we need to pollinate many common plants within our growing systems.
Flowers are of course far more than an aesthetic feature in the garden. Flowers are fascinating things, and looking at them in a little more depth can bring a range of often unexpected insights into the natural world and how it works, insights that can help us to garden in more effective, sustainable and nature-wise ways.
Why Grow Flowering Plants?
Aside from their aesthetic appeal, flowers are of course essential to the life cycles and propagation of many plants. Flowers attract pollinators, allowing the processes of fruit development and seed production to take place.
Flowering plants help to draw in pollinators which can then also pollinate other plants nearby. They can also attract predatory insects for pest control, and other wildlife that is beneficial for pest control in an organic garden.
Types of Flowering Plant
When you think of flowers, your mind may leap first of all to herbaceous plants commonly planted in gardens, or those herbaceous species found in the wild in your area. Remember, however, that flowering plants can not only be herbaceous species, but also those with a persistent woody framework – flowering shrubs and flowering or blossom-bearing trees.
So when you are considering which flowers to plant – there are a huge range of flowering plants to consider, some perennial, some biennial and some annual.
Plants that bear flowers and fruit are called angiosperms – they form the clade Angiospermae. This clade is by far the most diverse group of land plants, and within this group are over 300,000 known species of plant, within around 13,000 genera, 416 families and 64 orders.
Looking at Flowers
The closer you look at flowers, the more fascinating they can become. Learning a little more about flowers can allow you to appreciate them in a range of new ways, rather than just as aesthetically appealing additions to your garden.
Evolution of Flowers
Plants have grown on land for around 425 million years. But the first plants were not angiosperms but rather different types of gymnosperm, from which flowering plants are typically believed to have descended.
Interestingly, we do not have complete fossil records to tell us precisely how, and from which other plants, flowering plants evolved. Their characteristics may have evolved over a series of steps but it is broadly believed that the first plants to flower did so around 180 million years ago, or perhaps as many as 250 million years ago.
One important thing to remember as we look at flowers is that their primary purpose, from the outset, was to involve animals in the process of plant reproduction.
There were likely a number of key points in the evolutionary process during which there was a high level of speciation and specific flowering plants evolved to develop highly specialized relationships with specific wildlife species. Flower evolution continues to this day.
Biology & Anatomy
Flower form and structure can be considered in two parts: the vegetative part, consisting of non-reproductive structures such as petals; and the reproductive or sexual parts.
A stereotypical flower is made up of four kinds of structures attached to the tip of a short stalk or axis, called a receptacle. Each of these parts or floral organs is arranged in a spiral called a whorl.
The four main whorls (starting from the base of the flower or lowest node and working upwards) are the calyx, corolla, androecium (stamens), and gynoecium (carpels – stigma and ovary).
Together the calyx and corolla make up the non-reproductive part of the flower called the perianth, and in some cases may not be differentiated. If this is the case, then they are described as tepals.
Although this arrangement is considered "typical", flowers can differ greatly in their structure and form. Many fascinating adaptations have taken place which has allowed flowers to thrive in a particular environment, and/or work with specific wildlife species.
Choosing Flowers for a Permaculture Project
Selecting the right flowering plants for specific permaculture projects in specific locations can be very important. It can at times be important to achieve desired aesthetic effects. But primarily, of course, in permaculture, choosing the right plants is about making sure that they meet the needs of the functioning ecosystem we are creating, and our own needs.
Whenever we are selecting flowers for a permaculture project, no matter what our other aims may be, we should always aim to have species in bloom over as much of the year as possible. This is important because it helps us to cater for native insects and other wildlife throughout the seasons, and draw in those creatures to help us in our gardening/ growing efforts.
When choosing flowering plants for any permaculture project, whether it is a home garden, farm, or rewilding project, here are some tips:
- Consider the lifecycles of different flowering species you are considering.
- Take a look at flower form and attributes, such as period of bloom, colour etc...
- Consider which specific species specific flowers can attract.
When choosing flowers, a good place to begin can be with thinking about the lifecycle of the plants. You should ask yourself whether, in a particular scheme, you are looking for annual, biennial or perennial options.
Annuals only live for a single growing season, but they can bloom prolifically and over a relatively long period.
Biennials flower in their second year, before they set seed and die. There are sometimes options that self-seed successfully, bringing colour and filling gaps in a garden or growing area.
Perennial flowering plants are those that will live, and bloom, over multiple years. Plant them once and you can enjoy their blooms or blossoms for a number of years to come. Some perennials will of course last much longer than others. Shorter lived herbaceous perennials may only flower well for a handful of years. But trees and shrubs can often potentially last decades or even a lifetime.
Understanding the lifecycle of different flowering plants will help make sure you understand how to integrate them more effectively into any design.
Flower Form & Attributes
The shape, colour and other attributes of specific flowers can, of course, also be very important when it comes to making your choices.
Not only will the visual and scent characteristics of different flowers be important aesthetically, and in terms of creating a pleasing environment for us. They can also determine how successfully the flowers boost biodiversity in our planting schemes, and the wildlife that benefits from the blooms.
Attracting Specific Species
By looking at different flowers, when they bloom, and their specific characteristics we can begin to see how they can be useful in particular within a given permaculture scheme.
Certain flowers will attract a specific pollinator, or a specific predatory species to help keep pest numbers down. So learning about the species present in your area and any symbiotic relationships that have formed between native flowers and native wildlife can be important to achieving desired results.
Of course, we may also select specific flowering species not only for the wildlife and the benefits that wildlife can provide, but also for the yields certain flowering species might provide for us.
Flowers & Their Uses
Numerous flowers provide yields that we can use in our homes and gardens. For example, flowers can be:
- Used in cleaning, health & beauty.
- Used in floral art, floristry and cut flower displays, fresh or dried.
- Used to make dyes & pigments.
When choosing flowering plants, as when choosing other plants for a permaculture project, we should have an eye on yields, both tangible and intangible. Yields from flowers can be yields for our homes, as well as yields for and in our growing areas.
Some flowers can be used as picked, some can be distilled for their essential oil, or infused to bring out their colour and/or fragrance. Some flowers or their petals are also dried and then used in different ways.
Many of those new to edible landscaping are also surprised to learn just how many flowers usually considered to be ornamental options are actually edible too. These plants, sometimes called 'edimental plants' are both beautiful and provide an edible yield.
In all your beds and borders, you can integrate edibles to forage from among other ornamental planting. You might even be able to create flower gardens that are entirely filled with edible flower species.
There are more edible flowers than you might imagine to choose from. Just make sure that you choose species you can definitely identify, and also ones that are suited to the conditions in that specific part of your property.
Where Flowers are Grown in Permaculture Projects
One of the things that sets permaculture gardeners apart from others is that they integrate rather than segregating. Flowers in many gardens are confined to specific areas, often separate from food producing zones. But in permaculture gardens, flowering plants, even those typically only grown as ornamentals, are introduced into all types of growing scheme.
Rather than having flower beds or borders, and separate veggie garden areas, permaculture practitioners will typically combine the two – growing edibles in their herbaceous borders, and using flowering plants as companions in their vegetable gardens.
Remember, companion planting can be useful to:
- Make The Most Of Your Space
- Improve Environmental Conditions For Neighbouring Plants
- Maintain Fertility in Your Growing Areas
- Repel, Confuse or Distract Pest Species
- Attract Beneficial Wildlife
These plants are often flowering plants, of course, since so many plants have flowers.
There are of course many different flowers to use as companion plants in a vegetable garden, but here are some examples of just some of those I have found useful in my garden:
- Alyssum – intercrop as a living mulch with brassicas, lettuce, for example. Helps attract predatory insects to reduce aphid and other pest populations.
- Borage – excellent nectary plant for bees and other pollinators and attracts predatory insects – companion plant widely in fruit and vegetable gardens (perhaps allowing to self-seed). Also edible.
- Calendula – beautiful edible and useful annual also good for intercropping or companion planting with a range of common crops.
- Clovers – nitrogen fixing, good for living pathways or as cover crops.
- Comfrey – excellent perennial for edge planting – deep rooted dynamic accumulator which can be used for mulches and liquid feeds in your polytunnel. Also attracts bees and has medicinal uses.
- Cosmos – attract pollinators, trap crop for aphids. Good close to insect pollinated plants or for borders of beds as trap crop.
- Echinacea – good for bees and other pollinators, placed in perennial edge planting. Useful medicinal plant.
- French Marigolds – great universal companion plant for vegetable gardens. Attract beneficials and may help control nematodes in the soil.
- Lavender – fragrant and useful insect attracting perennial plant for edge planting.
- Lupins – nitrogen fixing legume, good for bees, used for intercropping or interspersing.
- Nasturtiums – edible, trap crop for aphids and distracts, repels or confuses many pests. Plant with squash, courgettes, cucumbers, brassicas etc...
- Phacelia – shallow rooted nectary plant, good for living mulch or potentially as a cover crop/ green manure.
- Sunflowers – trap crop for aphids, thrips etc., great with corn, beans etc..Edible flower, seeds.
- Sweet Peas – nitrogen fixing, attracts pollinators, good near brassicas, spinach, lettuce (trellised it can provide shade as well as nitrogen)...
- Vetch – nitrogen fixing companion plant or used in cover crops.
Flowers are important in many wildlife-friendly perennial permaculture planting schemes, from the shade-tolerant species, fruit trees etc. in a forest garden, to the native plants in a water-wise scheme like a rain garden, or native wildflower meadow. I have plenty of flowering plants within my forest garden, too numerous to name but each very useful within the system as a whole.
Having flowers rather than just grass in a lawn, and introducing more species to any area with a limited plant palette can help us all make sure that we are promoting a healthy biodiversity where we live.
Choosing the right species, combining plants in the right ways, and often embracing native wildflowers or weeds, allows permaculture practitioners to enjoy beautiful blooms on their properties over as much of the year as possible, while also obtaining useful yields and doing the right thing for the wildlife with whom they share their space.