Olympic spectators can’t stop taking pictures of them. Passersby point when they see them. They’ve even generated fan mail. They’re British wildflowers, and they are the breakout stars of the Olympic Park.
They appear in yellow, blue, purple and white, running down the Olympic Park’s river banks and up its hills. The vibrant display — more than 10 hectares of carefully cultivated cheer — is the largest ever man-made wildflower meadow and the centerpiece of the Park’s landscaping. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” says Nigel Dunnet, who created the fields of waist-high cornflowers, marigolds, poppies and prairie flowers with fellow University of Sheffield professor James Hitchmough. ”We wanted people to be absolutely awestruck by it.”
So far, Dunnet and Hitchmough seem to have succeeded. “I’ve had loads of complete strangers emailing me saying, I just had to let you know how wonderful the meadows were,” says Dunnet, who settled on a career in horticulture after spending his childhood wandering the woodlands of southeast England. “I found myself thinking, this is far more beautiful than anything I’ve ever seen in gardens,” he says. “I’ve tried to bring that sense of joy and uplift that I got from seeing those fantastic flowering landscapes in the wild.”
Making millions of wild flowers stick to a strict schedule isn’t easy, however. In order to be ready for the 2012 Games, Dunnet and Hitchmough had to conjure blooming fields from mud flats in a matter of weeks. The feat required five years of meticulous planning, including two years of trial runs on site to hold off the spring blooms until July. The horticulture team also developed elaborate pruning, irrigation and seed sewing regimes to make sure the plants peaked for the opening ceremony. “It’s quite a trick to have them looking at their best on one particular day,” he says.
Color also presented a challenge. In addition to pink, white and blue-colored fields, Olympic organizers requested ribbons of gold around the Olympic Stadium. Dunnet and Hitchmough chose to use prairie tickseed, which flowers from July until September. “It’s a North American plant that is really fantastic,” says Dunnet. “It’s so cheerful.” And after they’d dealt with color, there were dying flowers to worry about — as blossoms wilted during the Games, others would have to be ready to come up in their place until mid-September, when the Paralymics end, meaning the meadows would be in constant flux. “If people go back in a month’s time, they’ll probably see something very different.”
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Despite all the complexities, the philosophy behind the project was relatively simple. “The intention from very early on was to show a different way that our public landscapes could be designed for wildlife and for people,” he says. This meant avoiding the tidy elegance of tulip, rose and hyacinth plantings that have decorated London‘s Royal Parks for centuries. “We could easily have gone into some sort of glory of the British past,” he says. Instead, they chose to showcase the best of what English horticulture is now. ”We very much looked to a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly way of working,” says Dunnet.
Despite the overwhelmingly warm reception, not everyone is a fan of the meadows. “At first glance it looks a little unkept,” says Jay Ross, a 30-something San Diego native sporting a plush stuffed Stars and Stripes hat. “I’d prefer a neater more manicured look.” His wife René hadn’t even noticed them. “They don’t bother me,” she says, mentioning that she would have opted for something like the Carlsbad Flower Fields — an massive annual Southern California flower display planted in neat color bands. Her husband agrees. “It’s so manicured and elegant,” he says of the Carlsbad fields. “This doesn’t look like it was done intentionally.”
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But most Park visitors, whether lounging on grassy lawns or recording every bloom with their camera, give the meadows perfect marks. “This is my sixth Olympics, and this is the best time,” says Dave Carmichael of Nova Scotia, an elderly man in a fishing hat relaxing on a bench. “I haven’t seen bachelor buttons in 25 years.” The only thing that bothers him, he says, is the “inconsiderate stupidity of people” who stand in the middle of the fields to get a picture, trampling them in the process. Another elderly Canadian enjoying the display agreed that despite the tromping visitors, the flowers are a triumph. “It looks like the English countryside,” says Linda Vetrie of Ontario. “That’s where we are, and that’s what it should be.”
The flowers seem to have the support of the home crowd as well. Deborah Prince, a pony-tailed park worker in magenta lipstick, calls them “a delight for the eyes.” Standing next to a planting crowded with cape marigolds, she ushers visitors into a nearby McDonald’s. “It is absolutely stunning,” she says, waving her arms as spectators trudge past. “These are the wildflower you see all over our countryside. It makes me proud to be British.”