The meadowlands of Romania: remarkable Romanian flowers and plants
Some of our most familiar plants hail from the remarkable and traditional grasslands of southern Transylvania in Romania. Find out more about their heritage and the amazing plants. Words Dr John Akeroyd, photographs Richard Bloom
For some time now, foreign visitors have been flocking to southern Transylvania in Romania, largely drawn by the remarkable architecture of its medieval towns and villages. Today, however, more visitors are coming to its hills to see the wildflowers. From late spring to midsummer the green farmland vistas of this region of rolling marl hills magically transforms into a grassland garden of colour, scent and humming insects. Everywhere, a bright tapestry of wildflowers enfolds and transfigures roadside verges and banks, hay meadows, sheep and cattle pastures, scrubby hillsides and woodland margins. It is a spectacle to lift the heart.
The grassland flora is a mix of western and central European, steppic and Mediterranean plants, together with some mountain plants. The region’s central European climate means hot summers and cold winters, and the plants that thrive here are both drought tolerant and resistant to low temperatures.
Here, from early May, among sparse tussocky fescues and feather-grasses appear special wildflowers, several on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Romania’s rarest plants, including Crambe tatarica, Dictamnus albus, Echium maculatum, milk-vetches, mulleins, yellow, blue and pink flaxes and, most spectacular of all, the tall, bowed spikes of violet-blue Salvia nutans, which look like giant, branched bluebells, are visible even from a distance. By contrast, in the Carpathian foothills, as well as in a few lowland sites that have escaped 20th-century drainage, the flora of damper meadows on north-facing slopes and along valley bottoms includes orchids, globe-flower, bistort, marsh marigold, monkshood and gladioli.
But these fields of wildflowers are no mere ornament. In this part of the world grassland has long been a cornerstone of the economy, yielding meat, milk and cheese, as well as honey, wild herbs and fruits, and medicinal plants – and hay from the fields is often still harvested by hand using traditional scythes.
These old pastoral systems lie at the heart of Romania’s rural economy, but life is inevitably changing as tractors gradually replace horses. Conservationists regard these wildflower-rich grasslands as a priority and since the 1990s, biodiverse grasslands such as these have been given special status by the EU as High Nature Value (HNV) grasslands, which under recent EU Rural Development legislation are designated areas that need special attention. This provides both an economic incentive for local farmers to stick with low-impact farming as HNV status means the area is eligible for EU subsidies that encourage non-intensive agriculture, and a great marketing opportunity for their produce.
The region’s milk, cheese and ham – unprocessed, chemical-free and with a distinct local flavour – offer consumers taste and quality that is second to none. Its polyflora honey and jams made from fruits such as blackberries, cherries, wild strawberries and rose hips are nothing short of bottled biodiversity. The meadows themselves are also now generating income from visitors who come not only to enjoy the wildflowers and prolific wildlife, but also for the region’s crafts and to witness a rural way of life that has all but disappeared from the rest of Europe.
For Transylvania’s wildflower meadows to survive they need to be integral to sustainable development, contributing to a prosperous future for local people and biodiversity.
Author John Akeroyd, is a botanist and a leading authority on Transylvania’s wild flora. He contributed the botanical text for Transylvania Florilegium, published by Addison Publications.
You can find out more about the conservation of the meadows at Fundatia ADEPT. If you want to see Transylvania’s wildflower meadows for yourself then the best time to travel is from the end of May until early July, and you can find useful information on visiting the region at Discover Târnava Mare.
Key plants from the Romanian meadows
An upright perennial that will form small clumps in meadows and low, open scrub on hillsides or sides of steep hummocks. 20-50cm. RHS H6, USDA 3a-7b.
Striking wildflower that grows on dry banks, meadows and woodland margins, variable in height and size of flower clusters. 30-60cm. RHS H7. Don't miss our growing guide to dianthus.
From midsummer onwards it colours fallow fields with shimmering blue. There’s also a white variant. 30cm-1m. RHS H5, USDA 3a-8b.
Common in dry meadows and on steep sunny slopes but rather inconspicuous.
The lips of the flowers are minutely but beautifully marked. 30-80cm.
Aromatic plant found on steep steppic slopes. Forms bluebell-like crowds that are visible from a distance. The flower clusters become erect in fruit. On the Romanian IUCN Red List. 60cm-1.5m.
A handsome wild leek with flat, keeled leaves and heads of dark flowers. Forms patches on dry banks, and edges of meadows and paths. 40-80cm. RHS H5.
A magnificent, almost orchid-like milkwort forming loose patches in dry meadows and open scrub, which flowers over much of the summer. 20-60cm.
The finest of the many Transylvanian meadow clovers, this has scented flowers in heads the size and shape of a bantam’s egg. 30-80cm.
Tufted grass of dry meadow slopes, scrub and woodland margins, described from Transylvania but widespread in eastern Europe. 30-60cm.
Found on dry slopes. One of few bulbous species present in the meadows. 30-50cm. USDA 5a-8b.
Poisonous plant that forms upright clumps and patches, with clusters of waxy flowers. Found on dry slopes, scrub and woodland margins. 50cm-1.2m. USDA 4a-8b.
This elegant orchid is widespread but not, in large numbers, in old meadows or where abandoned arable land has reverted to grassland. On Romanian IUCN Red List. 10-35cm.
Common in dry meadows, pastures and fallow fields, on grassy banks and roadsides; similar to the garden favourite lamb’s ear (S. byzantina) but a more elegant biennial. 30-80cm.
Forms dense vivid patches on steep dry banks and road-verges. One of the more noticeable of several wild sages. 30-60cm. RHS H7, USDA 4a-8b.
A variant of sainfoin with small fruits and pale-pink or yellowish-pink flowers. Widespread in dry meadows. 30-80cm.
Attractively toothed pinnate leaves, pink flower-buds and conspicuous clusters of creamy-white flowers make dropwort a feature of Transylvanian meadows. 60cm-1.2m. RHS H6, USDA 3a-9b.
A showy floriferous vetch with zig-zag stems that forms extended tangled patches in taller meadows, on banks and among scrub. 30cm-1.2m.
An ubiquitous component of the meadow sward and an important plant in Romanian village folklore. 20cm-1.2m. RHS H7, USDA 4a-8b.
Characteristic wildflower of early summer, sometimes colouring patches of dry meadows, scrub or roadside banks. There are purplish-pink and white variants. 40cm-1m. RHS H7, USDA 4a-8b. Here's everything you need to know about salvias.
This familiar, elegant grass of UK downlands, with dainty purplish spikelets that dance in the breeze, is common too in Transylvanian meadows and pastures. 30-75cm. RHS H7, USDA 4a-8b.
An upright rough, hairy plant found on dry meadows and steppic grassland on sunny slopes and the steep sides of marl hummocks. 20-50cm. Read our guide to campanula here.
Often found in combination with Onobrychis viciifolia and Rhinanthus rumelicus, the numerous heads of the scabious dancing above the sward on their long stalks. 40cm-1m.
Dictamnus albus var. purpureus
A showy, aromatic plant of sunny slopes, open scrub and woodland margins, with pinnate leaves and large delicate flowers; on Romanian Red List. 40cm-1m. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 3a-8b.
Tragopogon pratensis subsp. orientalis
An annual or biennial flower common to dry meadows, grassy banks and roadsides. It is a striking, golden-flowered regional variant of the familiar goatsbeard. 30-80cm.
An aromatic plant of taller meadows, banks and somewhat disturbed vegetation, sometimes in dense patches by paths and on roadsides. 40-80cm. RHS H5, USDA 5a-8b.
This abundant, grass semi-parasite tints meadows, often whole hillsides, with yellow, especially where abandoned arable land has reverted to grassland. 20-40cm.