In order to imagine the yet un-imagined, i.e. to gain insights into new possibilities for the appearance of designed plantings, and also to develop first hand understanding of the structure and ecological function of unfamiliar plant communities, I have travelled very extensively to study the worlds most interesting temperate herbaceous vegetation.  Travelling to look at plants in the wild is not uncommon amongst plant enthusiasts, and staff in horticultural–botanical institutions.  It is however relatively rare amongst vegetation designers.

Studying plant communities that few others have seen, is a major contributor to my creative design imagination.  On a more prosaic level, it also helps me to identify key species, for use in communities based on biogeographical notions, and or species that are not present in wild occurring vegetation,  but which would allow the creation of a more satisfactory designed version should such a species be available.  An example of this is when making North American prairie vegetation, the European Pulsatilla vulgaris works very well in this foreign plant community, as a dramatic spring flowering element that can tolerate being heavily shaded during summer by the taller American species.

Some of the plant communities and locations I have visited since working at The University of Sheffield are as follows:


Visits to study the vegetation of South Africa have been of enormous value in understanding both the visual and ecological characteristics of this flora as design inspiration, and also helping our scientific research into developing designed communities of South African species as a climate change adaptation.  Our research on the grassland communities of the Drakensberg region (Summer rainfall, cold dry winters) started in 2004, and latterly this research was developed by a PhD student, Zulhazmi Sayuti.  Since 2008 we have also worked on the high altitude, Mediterranean plant communities of Western South Africa (PhD student, Ye Hang).

Year/Month Vegetation Type Location
2014 April

Winter rainfall altimontane Fynbos/Rennosterveld

Western Cape Mountains, particularly the Matroosberg, and Cedarberg, South Africa
2012 September Winter rainfall altimontane Fynbos Western Cape Mountains, and Great Karoo, South Africa
2012 March Winter rainfall altimontane Fynbos Swartberg Mountains, Western Cape, South Africa
2011 August-September Winter rainfall Renosterveld Western Cape Mountains, and Great Karoo, South Africa
2008 February Drakensberg Altimontane and lowland Grassland Eastern Cape, South Africa
2007  February Drakensberg Altimontane Grassland Eastern Cape to Mont Aux Sources, Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa

Bulbinella nutans in Rennosterveld near Sutherland, Western Cape, South Africa. These Mediterranean but continental, valleys at around 1500-1800m altitude experience winter minima as low as -15C.

Gazania othonites (yellow) and G. krebsiana, on saline soil, near Middlepos, Western Cape,South Africa
Gazania othonites (yellow) and G. krebsiana, in saline soil, near Middlepos, Western Cape,South Africa.  Both of these species have potential for use on green roofs in British cities.

Gazania heterochaeta, near Middlepos, Western Cape, South Africa
Gazania heterochaeta, near Middlepos, Western Cape, South Africa. This perennial species is odd amongst gazania in that it is stoloniferous,  forming open colonies, a useful trait in urban plant species.

Delosperma sphalmanthoides at 1800m on the Komsberg, Western Cape, South Africa
Delosperma sphalmanthoides at 1800m on the Komsberg, a particularly cold, wet winter climate in the Western Cape, South Africa.  Unlike most of the Delosperma of horticulture, derived from the winter dry mountains of the Drakensberg, this species tolerates severe frosts whilst in active growth in winter, making it particularly interesting for UK green roofs.

Bulbinella latifolia var. doleritica  near Nieuwoudtville, Western Cape, SA, 900m
Bulbinella latifolia var. doleritica  near Nieuwoudtville, Western Cape, South Africa, 900m.  Although this site generally only experiences frosts of  -2-3C, in our experiments in Sheffield individuals of this species have tolerated -6, making this extraordinary, 1 metre tall geophyte a potentially useful species, in urban heat islands in a time of climate warming.

Kniphofia northiae and K. caulescens drainage swales, Tiffendal, Eastern Cape, 2700m
Kniphofia northiae and K. caulescens in natural drainage swales, slopes of Ben Macdhui, Eastern Cape, 2700m. Unlike the first 5 images, all of which show essentially Mediterranean, South African plants and plant communities, this is a summer rainfall climate.  Kniphofia northiae forms huge rosettes 2 m across and tall, and is incredibly exotic looking, yet completely cold tolerant in the UK.

Kniphofia caulescens, with Euryops tysonii, Tiffendall, Eastern Cape, 2700m
Kniphofia caulescens forms with narrow grey, almost stiletto like leaves dominate in wet mountain swales in the Eastern Cape, and are very different to the Kniphofia caulescens  forms most common in nurseries in the UK. The yellow daisy is the shrub Euryops tysonii,  Ben Macdhui, 2700m.


Year/Month Vegetation Type Location
2014 January Mohave Desert Cactus Forest Tuscon, Arizona
2008 July High altitude Steppe, Temperate grassland Zongolica to Valley of Mexico and Iztaccíhuatl
1997/8  July Short to tall grass Prairie Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Wisconsin, USA
1997  August Mountain Woodland Under-storey Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina, USA
1996  August Short to tall grass Prairie Wisconsin, USA
1995 September Coastal to Altimontane Steppe Santiago to Temuco; Chile


Year/Month Vegetation Type Location
2013 September Kwongan heath Western Australia
2013 September Steppe Grassland Melbourne, Australia


To date most of our work on developing plant communities of Chinese species has focused on the genus Primula, where we have looked at mixing these species with low productivity native wet meadow species (see Hitchmough and Wagner, 2013:  Hitchmough and Innes, 2007. We would like however, to play a much more significant role in developing the regional herbaceous floras of China as designed plant communities both in China and in Western Europe. We look to working with Chinese collaborators to achieve this.

Year/Month Vegetation Type Location
2013 July-August Alpine Meadows and xeric grassland Western Sichuan, China
2012 August Montane meadows and Herbfield Chumbai Mountain, China
2012 July Continental Steppe Inner Mongolia, China
2011 July Sub alpine meadows Bai Hua Mountain, near Beijing, China


Corydalis pseudobarbisepala and Primula meadow, W. Sichuan, 4000m
The extraordinary “lampshades”  of Ajuga lupulina are creamy white in north facing meadows on the Balang Shan. In other parts of W. Sichuan and Tibet they are rich purple crimson

Corydalis pseudobarbisepala and Primula meadow, W. Sichuan, 4000m
Corydalis pseudobarbisepala (blue) in species rich meadow on Balang Shan Mountain, W. Sichuan, 4000m. This is an amazingly “wow” species, known, but little cultivated in China and the West.

Corydalis calycosa and Pedicularis davidii on semi-shaded slopes on the Balang Shan, Western Sichuan. Both of these species have high potential in temperate climates in designed meadow-like vegetation.

Wet meadow vegetation  of Iris laevigata and Hemerocallis middendorfii in NE China near Chumbai Mountain.  Urban SUDS schemes in China might one day look like this?


In addition to native British wildflower meadows, we have been particularly interested in the species of European dry meadow and steppe. Many of these species are likely to play increasingly important roles in urban landscape if climate change leads to drier warmer summers.  Many steppe communities are a rich source for planting design on extensive green roofs in Britain.

Year/Month Vegetation Type Location
2013 August Alpine Meadows and Steppe Zermatt, Switzerland
2013 June Steppe and xeric Meadow White Carpathians, Czech Republic
2013 May Sub-alpine woodland field layer Valle D’Aosta, Italy
2012 May Continental Steppe and montane Meadows Romania and the Carpathian Mountains
2012 April Mediterranean Steppe Sicily
2011 June Alpine and subalpine meadows Alpes Martimes, France
2010 April Steppe and Alpine Meadows Monte Baldo, Italian Lake District, St Bernards Pass
2009 June Alpine and subalpine meadows Grand Paradisio, Valle D’Aosta, Italy
2005  May Karst steppe Puglia, Italy
2004  June Limestone Mountain Grassland/steppe Dolomites, Northern Italy
2002  July Limestone Mountain Grassland/steppe Picos De Europa, Spain
1999  May Limestone Steppe Eastern Austria


Silene exscapa above Zermatt, Switzerland, 3000m
Silene exscapa forms domes in open alpine grassland above Zermatt, Switzerland, 3000m. A potential  green roof species for cool sites.

Ferula communis and Asphodelius albus, Sicily
Ferula communis and Asphodelus albus, Sicily 1000m; extraordinary architecture.

Saxifraga callosa, Alpes Maritimes, France,  1000m
Saxifraga callosa, Alpes Maritimes, France,  1000m. Although only a small growing species confined to rock faces,  this species is, when in flower in June, the character species of this region of the southern Alps.

Laserpitium siler, Alps Martime, France 
Laserpitium siler, Alps Martime, France. This is a tall (1m) highly drought tolerant species of dry slopes, with very beautiful grey green leaves and magnificent umbels of white flowers. A classic designers plant.

Alpine hay meadow, Alpes Maritime, France
Alpine hay meadow, Alpes Maritime, France;  the stereotypic  image for all perennial meadow designers.