Urban gardens are mostly landscaped with horticultural hybrids and commercial ornamentals like the usual frangipanis, adeniums, ixoras, oleanders, balsams and durantas.
But a small portion of the garden devoted to growing wild ornamentals might not only fill your garden with colourful wild flowers that attract butterflies and dragonflies but have also showed tremendous therapeutic potential.
In temperate places, wildflowers like bluebells, button weeds, buttercups, daffodils, honeysuckles, irises, lilies, poppies, primroses, tulips and violets offer a visual treat during springtime in various public routes and also in private gardens. But wild wonders are often bypassed or overlooked in our cities.
The wild ornamentals adapt very easily to home gardens and do not occupy much space. Most of them are small herbs of not more than 15-20 cm in height.
Easily, about 300 species of wild herbs can be spotted in our cities especially in unenviable places like wastelands, institutional campuses, public compounds and uncared areas, a portion of which that has ever remained wild and has escaped the wrath of anthropogenic landscaping with exotic lawn grasses and horticultural products.
The wild herbs are very significant for maintaining ecosystem balance and to sustain food webs but this herbaceous layer is always underappreciated unlike their tree counterparts. These herbs do not require massive spaces and their root systems do not crack buildings. They play a pivotal role in mineral cycling, nitrogen fixation, enriching soil fertility, detoxifying compounds and also provide food for winged visitors like bees, butterflies and moths.
Some plants bear stunningly beautiful flowers and are always found in a patch and not as solitary specimens. Be it the Purple Dayflower (Commelina benghalensis), or pink spade flower (Hybanthus enneaspermus), or popping-pod plant (Ruellia tuberosa), or Ceylon spinach (Talinum triangulare), or yellow-alder (Turnera ulmifolia), or the touch-me-not (Mimosa pudica). Well, the list is endless.
The popping pod plant (Ruellia tuberosa) is a very common herb found in stunning hues of pink and purple (sometimes white too!). A single plant can quickly colonise through its splattering seed dispersal mechanism. Since the pods burst with a crackling noise when they come in contact with moisture, this plant is popularly known as pataasu chedi (cracker plant) in Tamil.
A remarkable resemblance to buttercups, the yellow alders (Turnera ulmifolia) are found in shades of cream. This flower has a beautiful and a generous streak of yellow and a subtle dash of purple in the centre of the corolla and is a preferred host plant for Tawny Coster butterflies.
The bright blue flowers of butterfly-pea (Clitoria ternatea), commonly known as Sangupushpam in Tamil is a very common sight amidst shrubby wastelands. Interestingly, a food-dye is extracted from the flowers.
The wild herbs colonize an area very quickly and transform it into a hub of buzzing activity with pollinators. One of the most common weeds that attract butterflies is the coat-button plant (Tridax procumbens), a tiny plant, which is a great favourite for many low-flying butterflies and can be considered as one of the best options for a butterfly garden.
Another wild plant that attracts a lot of blue-tiger butterflies are the pyramid flowers (Melochia pyramidata). This exotic weed is quite rare but offers copious food for different species of butterflies. Even the common lantana (Lantana camara) is often frequented by multi-coloured butterflies. The milkweed plant (Calotropis gigantea), another common plant of the wasteland serves as a host for the painted grasshoppers, which are a sight to behold. When these flowers vanish because of various anthropogenic reasons, they nonchalantly take away with them their insect friends as well thus ensuring a drab sterility to the region.
The wild flowers not only have attractive flowers and foliage but are also easy to care for. In fact, they require little care, since they have not been pampered like horticultural plants and so can grow easily by taking care of their own needs. Growing these plants in your garden will certainly facilitate a natural science laboratory for kids who will be able to learn and appreciate the biodiversity in their own gardens.
Many urbanites consider these wild flowers as just invasive weeds but actually these have many fascinating attributes that belies their diminutive stature. And most of them are just disappearing because of their struggle to find a niche in concrete jungles, reminiscing William Wordsworth’s poem -
"Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind"
The writer is a botanist and Assistant Professor, Department of Plant Biology, Women’s Christian College