Getting on with it

Less than a week till the clocks go back, and the leaves are just starting to colour. Not long now till many of our trees, shrubs and perennials divest themselves of their foliage in one final dramatic gesture before swooning into a hibernal slumber. Meanwhile, less glamourous things – semi-evergreen, hardy biennial and annual things – are quietly going about their business, apparently unfazed by the theatrics, while we pass them by.

What do you see? 

A collection of evil weeds, complete with stings and prickles, and perhaps an imminent trip to the medicine cabinet for ointment to salve the scratches, or calm a rash? I remember on more than one occasion tumbling from my bike into patches of similar looking vegetation on the allotment when I was a child. You’d think I’d be immune by now – perhaps to the scratches, though the stings still tingle for days, especially if I’ve been strimming. 

Presented with the same image, the horticulturalist might see the host for any number of pests and diseases which might transfer to your cultivated fruit, veg and ornamentals: raspberry anthracnose, spotted wing drosophila, aphids, carrot fly, iris rust... a seemingly endless list. The naturalist might point out the value of the nettle patch to the larval stages of moths and butterflies such as the comma, red admiral, peacock and the spectacle moth. Similarly the dandelion can lay claim to enjoy the favour of a long list of Lepidoptera

The herbalist would find in a handful of these leaves everything needed to treat warts, improve digestion, alleviate gout and provide relief from the symptoms of rheumatism. Not forgetting that almost every plant in a dictionary of medicinal herbs claims to have mild diuretic and laxative properties. Unless it kills you first. It’s all a question of degree.

Assuming this plot would escape the attention of the over-zealous council contractor (the Tidy Police), the forager would return throughout the year to harvest fruit for pies, jams, and crumbles, leaves for salad, for tea – even for pesto. I’ve a recipe for nettle leaf and parmesan fritter knocking about somewhere. Apparently the cooking process destroys the sting, though I’ve yet to muster the courage to try. 

Making the most of the failing light and the falling temperatures, each of these plants is putting on growth and building its stores of energy before the winter, ready to grow away apace come spring. Just like the hardy annuals we sowed in September. Only without the faff. 

What do I see?

All of the above. And while the trees and the hedgerows begin to deck themselves out in their gorgeous garb of jewel-like berries and show-stopping autumn tints, I look down at my feet and see patches of these glorious, ordinary, unlovely things, quietly getting on with it, with no help from us, nor any such need.

Weedy, we sneer. Who are we trying to kid?