A sprig of cornflower – the intense blue of its flower illuminating the darkest of spaces on Melbourne’s rattling trams – accompanied me on a magical mystery tour of that city’s hidden corners last month.
My trips to Victoria might not always be about nature but all the same I can’t resist pausing to watch bird species we don’t find in Hobart, like magpie-larks on grassy roundabouts at busy city intersections, or red wattlebirds chasing smaller honeyeater species away from pollen-laden plants in parks.
This time, though, it was not birds that held my attention. On my way to the Rod Laver Arena for a day of tennis during the Australian Open I discovered a flower meadow planted to bring a little colour to the grey concrete of the city. And I couldn’t resist picking one the cornflower blooms.
The flower-power experiment on vacant land within sight of the old Herald Sun building on Flinders St was termed a “Landscape Lab” by City of Melbourne planners and I was drawn to it by not just the sight of welcome swallows hawking insects among sunflowers and cornflowers but by hoards of tennis fans stopping to take pictures.
The sunflowers were the biggest attraction, of course. Among myriad other flower species they stood erect, planted in clusters about 10 metres apart, like tall people with round, friendly faces, in a tennis crowd.
Drawn to the garden initially, now I was drawn to the single blooms of the cornflowers. In turn their vibrant blue attracted insects, and these were a lure for the swallows. Among other birds finding a temporary home in the wildflower meadow were magpie-larks, magpies, new holland honeyeaters, red wattlebirds and the crow family member found in Melbourne, the little raven.
Birds for once took a back seat as I descended hurriedly from the tennis shuttle tram to explore the impromptu meadow. The cornflower from my homeland of Britain is my favourite and I had never seen it in Australia before. Sitting in the meadow, having decided to miss the first few games of the match I had gone to see, I was transported back to the fields of Surrey and Hampshire of my youth, where the cornflower, as its name suggests, grew among wheat, barley and oats.
I say “grew” because this once common plant, considered a weed from the time agriculture first came to ancient Europe but tolerated because of its stunning beauty, is now endangered in Britain. Industrial farming and the prolific use of herbicides have seen it banished from all but the most heavily protected corners of the country.
With it, too, has gone the skylark and the yellowhammer, birds whose songs were once symbolic of the British countryside, along with the blooms of cornflower and the poppy. Intensive farming has denied farmland birds of both breeding sites and food, although I am happy to say the skylark has found a happy home in Tasmania and is flourishing here.
From my initial observations, it was clear that the meadow in the city had been planted with some careful planning, but I was disappointed not to find any information about it at the site.
Googling “meadow in the city” when I got home to Hobart, I discovered that the ABC’s Gardening Australia program had featured it, quoting the City of Melbourne Council’s Arron Wood.
“We call this a living lab because we’re experimenting with creating a lot more diversity of species in Melbourne,” he explained. “I think with things like climate change, and with highly urbanised developments, it’s really important to have different landscapes – robust, resilient, bold landscapes.”
“Often cities can be accused of being sort of this grey landscape – you can’t say that about Melbourne anymore.”
The spray of cornflower poked its head from my shirt pocket all trip without wilting – the tennis, Collins St shopping excursions, Lygon St restaurants and finally the Bennett’s Lane Jazz Club. “A nightingale sang in Barclay Square” went one of the numbers there and in the dim light of the window-less club I could see my cornflower aglow.