Once upon a time, away in the distant past, when the scythe and binders cut the oats and sheaths of corn were built into stooks, which stood in the fields to dry and await uplifting to be built into stacks for thrashing in the winter, it is reputed our corn fields were full of wild colourful flowers, then, with the advent of selective weedkillers, combine harvesters and deep ploughing they have all disappeared.
Three of the most colourful were Cornflower with brilliant blue flowers, Poppy with intensered flowers and the bright golden yellow flowers of Marigolds. Today the Cornflower is a popular garden plant. It is a hardy annual whose seeds are on sale in every garden centre, easily grown, all you need to do is scatter the seeds on the surface in a sunny position, lightly rake them in and stand back, they will soon grow up two to three feet tall and flower for a long time from mid-summer until well into the autumn. Very occasionally a few wild plants turn up in corn fields near Chirnside, when long dormant seeds reach the soil surface and are lucky enough to miss the weedkillers sprayed on the fields and they can make a small splash of blue flowers amongst the golden grain.
Quite often in the fields along side the A1, particularly in East Lothian, the red Poppy makes a nice display. Poppy seeds can remain viable in the ground almost indefinitely if they do not receive light. When cultivation brings them to the surface germination is triggered and up they spring. Each poppy plant will have many flowers and each individual flower can produce hundreds of small seeds, with the result that a few plants can soon build up the seed bank in the ground again.
This past summer in a wheat field between Eyemouth and Burnmouth a great bank of Corn Marigolds turned up. The Marigolds are normally a rare sight in Berwickshire, but a little part of that field must have been cultivated in some different way, allowing the long dormant seeds to be brought up to the surface where they found ideal growing conditions and their flowers made quite a spectacular display. Hopefully they will have shed a considerable quantity of seed which may find ideal conditions to grow and flower for many years hence.
In eastern Europe and along the Mediterranean where cultivation is not so intense those hardy annuals still thrive. There the seeds germinate in late winter the rainy season and the plants grow fast in the spring, they soon flower and by the time the hot dry summer arrives the plants have completed their life cycle, shed their seeds, dried up and disappeared.
Similar conditions occur in parts of South Africa and in California where a host of other species of annual plants make a spectacular display in years when there are ample rains. Again the seeds can remain dormant almost indefinitely in the dry, arid conditions and can provide our birds with a good source of food in the winter and the flowers supply nectar for bees and many insects when in flower.