The Legacy: Miriam Rothschild, the pioneer of organic and wildflower gardening

The celebrated entomologist and Bletchley Park codebreaker was also way ahead of the times when it came to gardening.

Miriam Rothschild’s gardening style was the very antithesis of manicured. Writing in Country Life, Mark Griffiths describes her as a ‘pioneer’ of organic and wildflower gardening who ‘dared to entertain the idea (heresy in the 1970s) that it was not only beautiful, but beneficial to find a corn poppy or a corn cockle lurking — like some hidden jewel — in a field of wheat’ (January 17, 2008).

Indeed, her first seed mix was called ‘Farmer’s Nightmare’. Dame Miriam (1908–2005) described her conversion as ‘a complete and drastic metamorphosis’, explaining: ‘One day the penny dropped and I realised with dismay that wildflowers had been drained, bulldozed, weedkillered and fertilised out of the fields and that we were now in a countryside reminiscent of a snooker table.’

‘She was the first person to understand and describe the jumping mechanism of the flea’

Her own garden, at the family estate, Ashton Wold, Northamptonshire, which she described as ‘John Clare’s countryside resurrected’, mixed wild with cultivated — her kitchen garden abounded with harebells, daisies and poppies — and is an SSSI. She campaigned to plant wildflowers in parks and next to motorways, co-wrote the book The Butterfly Gardener and advised the then Prince of Wales on his meadow at Highgrove — they collaborated on a wildflower seed mix containing 120 species.

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But of course it wasn’t just wildflowers that made Dame Miriam famous. A member of the famous banking clan, she became a self-taught entomologist, and was the first person to understand and describe the jumping mechanism of the flea — she kept them in plastic bags in her bedroom. A life-long advocate of social justice, she campaigned for free school milk, the humane slaughter of animals, gay rights and for seatbelts.

During the Second World War, she worked as a codebreaker for the Enigma project at Bletchley Park, working with Alan Turing and winning a defence medal. She also published books, produced more than 300 scientific papers (including one on gull territorialism) and held eight honorary doctorates.

The Legacy is a new series about people from the past who did extraordinary things in the world of Country Life