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Folklore, foraging and floral recipes at Slovenia’s wild flower festival

On a drive through the Julian Alps of Slovenia, the valley grasses sway in the wind, revealing flecks of yellow, pink and purple. Up close, they hum with crickets and bees.

No wonder this area attracts British gardeners looking for tips on how to cultivate wild flowers in their own gardens. Many are here for the International Wild Flower Festival at Lake Bohinj, an annual event that brings together locals, Bohinj botanists and foreign enthusiasts to share advice on how to grow and manage meadows, how to use wild flowers in food and medicine and — most importantly — how to celebrate them.

Festival organizer Klemen Langus says late May to early June is the best time of year for this kind of celebration, before the farmers cut the meadows and make hay. But over the past six years he has persuaded them to cut later than usual so that many late-flowering wild flower species have time to bloom.

When I arrived, there were delicate yellow bird’s foot trefoil, purple meadow sage, the fluffy pincushions of pale lilac field scabious, oxeye daisies, true lovers knot, tiny white wood anemone and wood sorrel and the purple bells of bird vetch, among others.

Local guide Monika Golja leading a tour of edible wild plants © Chris Allnutt

If you are starting a wild flower meadow from scratch, you must first get to know your soil, advised the botanists I spoke to. Many wild flowers are used to tough environments such as high Alpine pastures, and some require poor soil with low nutrients to thrive.

Peter Strgar, a botanist from Bohinj, and one of the festival organisers, told me not to get too distracted by annuals such as cornflowers and poppies. Though vibrant, they are also one-hit wonders that bloom and die all within a year (although new plants will grow if they are good self-seeders). Similarly, biennials such as wild carrot, wild foxglove, teasel and dark mullein germinate in the first year, create a taproot, then flower and seed the following year, before dispersing their seeds and dying.

Perennials will give you a long-lasting, established meadow that will return each year in a bouquet of fluffy grasses and jewel-like flowers. These include oxeye daisies, yarrow, golden meadow buttercups and knapweed, which can be found in good wild flower seed mixes. I bought some at the garden shop in Bohinj, but they can be bought via UK-based Emorsgate Seeds and Scotia Seeds.

Strgar also taught me how to identify certain flowers that are a sign of a thriving meadow. In the UK we might look for yellow rattle or purple meadow sage to indicate strength. “We Slovenians are more fussy though,” says Strgar, who considers orchids and gladiolus to be signs of quality here. The region has more than 40 species and subspecies of orchids, compiled by Strgar in the book Bohinj in Bloom. Some, like the lady’s slipper orchid, are exceedingly rare owing to their sensitivity to soil quality and environment.

We too have many varieties of orchid in the UK — the most common ones found in meadows are the green winged, common spotted and pyramidal orchids — but to get them to thrive amid your grasses requires a delicate balancing act. (The lady’s slipper can be found in the UK too, although it is very rare and has even received police protection).

A cluster of pink, five-petalled flowers with reddish centers and long stamens

Shining cinquefoil (Potentilla nitida) © Peter Strgar

A cluster of yellow flowers with a beak-like shape

Yellow bird’s foot (Lotus corniculatus) © Peter Strgar

Good maintenance helps to bring out these rarer species. Strgar advocates hand-cutting with a scythe, rather than mowing, because the results are more uneven and therefore help plants that have different growing points. Some species, such as the common spotted orchids, can’t deal with a buzz-cut. There may well be orchid species sitting within your grass already, waiting for the right moment to poke out.

Hand-cutting is also less of a bloodbath for insects, bees and birds, giving them more time to escape. This is an important consideration, given that they are the pollinators that will ensure the return of your flowers next year.

However, Matt Jackson, an English horticulturalist formerly of RHS Wisley and a specialist in meadows, believes that machine-cutting is fine as “it still gives the meadows the crucial disturbance they need”. He does however encourage mowers to cut in stages. Leaving some areas uncut, or cutting later, (in August instead of June-July) means that late-flowering species such as devil’s bit scabious, knapweed and orchids have a chance to seed and spread, ensuring their return next year.

A mountainside meadow with spikes of tall purple blooms in the foreground

Purple meadow sage (Salvia pratensis) growing in a mountainside meadow © Mitja Sodja

There are downsides to late cutting — if you’re a dairy or livestock farmer. It reduces the quality of the hay, because grasses lose nutrients after flowering and shedding seeds. Slovenia is a nation of cheesemakers, so there is quality is important, traditionally cut here in May-June. Strong wishes more farmers would cut by hand, or cut later to let the wild flowers bloom longer. However, he acknowledges that “hand-cutting is time-consuming and we can’t expect people to do things that make their lives harder just for the sake of ecology.”

As well as being good for hay, wild flowers in this part of Slovenia are routinely used in recipes — many of them are edible. During the festival, restaurants in the Bohinj area serve wild flower-infused menus, such as elderflower pancakes, nettle pesto gnocchi and wild parsley ice cream.

To inspire me to try these recipes at home, local guide Monika Golja took me on a wild food workshop. She explained that it can take a week or so to get used to the bitterness of wild flowers and appreciate their flavours. “Our taste buds have been spoiled by foods with high levels of salt and sugar,” she says.

Many of the young Slovenes on the outing chimed in with age-old recipes and remedies: beef soup with ground elder, pesto from galium, and various soups and teas with nettles — which are apparently good for the kidneys. I also discovered that red clover is used to balance hormones, galinsoga is a source of iron, and wood sorrel is high in vitamin C. Some of these are found in supplements in British pharmacies. In Bohinj, they go straight to the source.

A summer meadow full of wild flowers in the sun, with a village and a wooded mountainside in the background

The Mojca Odar meadow near the village of Srednja Vas

Elsewhere in Bohinj, I saw how wild flowers are central to celebrations, literature, songs and stories. Jackson says he’d love to see this kind of festival in the UK, “embedding plants in culture through art, festivities and gripping stories, giving people the opportunity to make palpable connections with them.”

“They show how useful flowers are to people, how long they’ve been used for and why we should care about them.”

One of the most popular flower stories in Bohinj is the legend of the Triglav rose, a tiny pink flower named after the highest peak in the Julian Alps. It’s a story about romance and the dangers of impatience and excess: the rose springs from the blood of a goat with golden horns, shot by a hunter in search of riches. The injured goat then kills him.

Alongside the Triglav rose, you will also find blooming in August the purple-blue Gentiana terglouensis, which locals nickname “man’s fidelity” due to its rarity. Once it blooms, it supposedly stays forever. Hopefully any new wild flower meadows will too. But, like the hunter, growers should not expect instant gratification — blooms may not arrive until the second season. In the meantime, appreciate the wild flowers currently in bloom elsewhere.

Camilla Bell-Davies traveled as a guest of the Bohinj International Wild Flower Festival

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