Thanks to herbicides, the cornflower has disappeared from the corn – together with other plants which were probably more toxic. Disappeared along with the word ‘corn’ – until the 18th century, all grain was called ‘corn’, and after that the term was gradually applied exclusively to Indian corn or maize (Zea mays). But thanks to the European Union policy of ‘set aside’, where farmers can be paid to leave fields fallow (jachère in French) rather than grow crops for which there is already a surplus, the idea of sowing with an annual flower mix which won’t persist into the next year (jachère fleurie) and which almost always includes cornflowers, has taken off. I’ve seen it a lot in central France, and local authorities are encouraged to sow flower mix on any empty ground they own, but this is not widespread in the Midi, where vines are predominant – if they are grubbed up, winter wheat or maize are often sown.
So I was very pleased and intrigued when a neighbour sowed this lovely jachère fleurie in his small field on the way up to our garden. When I asked him about it, he said he just wanted to use the land for something, and that he’d got the seed mix from the chasseurs – the village hunting association. He explained that they sow this mix, and also pea plants, in wild spots where they want to attract game. You can get ‘tall mix’ (1m), ‘short’ (0.5m), and ‘new wave’ – this is a mix of sizes which provides good cover for game and increases the insects and other invertebrates on which partridges feed. I know this neighbour also keeps bees, and I asked him if the seed mix was a special honey-assisting one (mélange mellifère). He said no, though all flowers will help the bees. He keeps bees partly I think because he also has a lot of peach and nectarine trees he wants to have pollinated.
Research has also shown that the flower mix increases the number of true wild flowers, since the fields are untreated with chemicals and undisturbed all year. It made me think how all the activities of a village are connected, so that hunting is tied in by many links to other crops and products, to biodiversity and sustainablility. In fact I found that the Departmental Federations of Hunters are the main bodies giving advice and distributing seed.
You don’t have to drive to France to see it – you can get screensavers of jachère fleurie here (Télécharger = download), and the photos give a good idea of the effect.
On the other hand of course, if you leave land fallow, it will soon be colonised by herbs, then perennials and shrubs, and finally by trees, and eventually the biodiversity will be even greater. Fifty species per square metre is possible for old hay meadows in northern Europe, which are cut every year and hence avoid the shrub/tree succession (as opposed to four or five species in jachère fleurie). There remains only one per cent of the meadows which existed in 1940 (more here).
However, this recolonisation takes many years, and may not be realistic for former agricultural land with a depleted seed bank, while the jachère fleurie is an instant, artificial solution, and presumably brings the partridges in that much quicker for the hunters. All this reminds me to have a close look at the flora in some abandoned vineyards, and at the succession of plants here which is not the same as in northern Europe.
Time for Etta James and Burn down the cornfield (originally by Randy Newman) – an incitement to passion, or a protest against monoculture? You decide. There’s some debate whether the slide guitar is by Lowell George or Ry Cooder – for anyone with ears, it’s definitely George.
Etta James died in January. I can’t imagine her resting in peace now – burn on, Etta.