The beautification of weeds

You can be a long way into a game before you even realise that’s where you are, let alone find the space or time to wonder who’s making the rules. This is as true in the garden as it is in the playground, or the workplace. Who defines the field of play, the value of each piece, the manner in which one element should engage with the others? And if you happen to find yourself in a game where there’s a disconnect between an objective assessment of your attributes and your worth as a player, how long before you realise? You might wonder what the Cinderella syndrome could possibly have to do with gardening, but consider how we designate certain plants as weeds, and all should become clear.

Think of all those times in a movie when a character – let’s face it, it’s almost always a woman – goes through a process of beautification. From My Fair Lady/Pygmalion, through Pretty Woman to The Princess Diaries, it’s a process that renders a person socially acceptable, rather than intrinsically better. Often, it involves having all the rough edges smoothed off, to create something inoffensive, superficially attractive, a consumable commodity to be objectified but often without characteristic wildness, the individual spirit, that attracted our attention in the first place. Invariably this is the reason every person with a soul is disappointed at the moment Belle’s Beast turns into the Handsome Prince (and that’s about the only example I can think of where the transmogrification happens to a feller). 

Thankfully, most of the time even the movies can’t quite believe this beautification process is a good thing. Vivian refuses to be quelled, and Eliza’s awkward moment at Ascot (“Come on, Dover! Move yer bloomin’ arse!”) is glorious. In spite of the princess makeover, by the end of the film Mia’s still Mia, and picks her guy because he “saw her while she was invisible”. Common sense prevails. So what’s this got to do with weeds?

Weeds get a bad press. Derided for being – well, weedy, which is odd, because one of the issues the gardener has with a weed is it’s potential to make better use of the available resources than the preferred cultivated plant, growing away more strongly and depriving the cosseted specimen of nutrients and light.  

I was interested to see the effect of removing weeds from their garden context and arranging them in an interior setting, with all the accoutrements of the floral still life – the controlled natural lighting, the polished wood table, the smooth forms of different vases and containers as a counterpoint to the organic complexity of the plant material. 

Through this exercise, I’m not seeking to improve upon my source material, after the manner of Henry Higgins. Nor to subvert a genre – that’s been happening ever since someone stuck Albrecht Durer’s “Great Piece of Turf” in a frame in the sixteenth century. If anything, it was as much a test for myself – not so much to see if it could be done, but if I could do it. 

In my choice of plants, I have not gone for the most weedy of weeds, but for hedgerow wildflowers and persistent self sowers. There were spanish bluebells, forget-me-nots, perennial cornflowers, ladies mantle, red valerian, green alkanet, daisies, cow parsley and wild garlic. Evidently plant selection was behind the comment I received through social media, in précis, “very nice. Now do it with yellow weeds.” Which is a challenge I’ll be taking up – not least as the yellow-flowered weeds are often my least favourite.

And what have I learnt, or, if not learnt anew, had confirmed? Foremost, that weeds can be just as attractive in a formal setting as their cultivated relatives. That, to me, was always self evident, but sometimes you need to see the outworking of your ideas, if only to refresh your confidence in them. And then that once cut, weeds are not hugely robust, and you have to shoot quickly on a warm day and keep them well watered or sprayed if you’re to avoid a memory card full of wilted greenery. A more practiced hand at styling the floral still life would have been better prepared, and I was learning on the hoof. And finally, that cow parsley, whose floral froth is such a useful filler in arrangements, whiffs a bit in the house. Presumably this is why Mother Nature invented ammi. 

Of course this post’s title is a complete straw man – any follower of this blog will know there’s a slim chance of my believing that weeds are in any need of beautification. Still less of being harvested to be stuck in a vase in the house, though the process, admittedly, is rather fun. And isn’t that what posy jars are made for?

At the risk of boring you with the repetition of what I’ve written elsewhere, it’s worth understanding that, contrary to the oft-heard saying, the weed in your garden isn’t quite “a plant in the wrong place”, but rather, “a plant in a place you might not want it”. Which isn’t quite the same thing, because, frankly, who put you in charge? Oh, you say, but I am the gardener of my garden, the arbiter of taste, and the maker of decisions within the bounds of that space. And, to the extent that nature will indulge you, you’d be correct. But when it comes to deciding what’s in, and what’s out, with plants – as with so much else in life – have you ever noticed that the categorisation of individuals into a system often reveals as much about the one doing the labelling, as the one being labelled?

What are your thoughts on weeds, whiffy cow parsley in the home, or anything else in this post? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below, or let’s chat on twitter here