Day 229: enchanter's nightshade

Some weeds – ruderals like chickweed, groundsel and hairy bittercress – are with us all year round. Others are more closely tied to a particular time of year…

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Day 137: wonderful weeds

The garden is frothing over just now – the hedgerows all about too, for May is the month when the cow parsley comes into flower…

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Day 62: perennial nettle

Forget the flowers – maybe the truest sign of spring’s arrival is that moment when the perennial nettles (Urtica dioica) begin to leaf up.

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Day 34: speedwell

Whether or not your flowerbeds and borders currently boast a covering of snow, within the next week or so this little plant will be making a land grab…

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May in the garden

May brought us sunshine and rain, burgeoning borders, a late frost and, of course, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. It’s the month of the gardening calendar when everything goes a bit bonkers – in a wonderful, exuberant way. Always quite nice to reach the end with your sanity intact, and your body parts functioning, though by the final week I was being reminded of the need of a good stretch, and that its about time I really ought to be getting some serious yoga practice in.

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Getting on with it

Not long now till many of our trees, shrubs and perennials divest themselves of their foliage 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 drama, while we pass them by..

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Birdsfoot trefoil

While most people will stroll along the borders marvelling at fabulous specimens, I spend half my time peering at the lawn or at cracks in the paving to see what's taken root of its own accord. It’s in exactly this kind of situation where I’m likely to encounter birdsfoot trefoil, a plant which the Victorians, for reasons best known to themselves, associated with dark feelings of revenge. 

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Hairy bittercress

Some plants are just hard to love.

The admission causes me a degree of discomfort, having on numerous occasions made my admiration for weeds a matter of record, but even I find it hard to wax lyrical about hairy bittercress.

“Hairy bastard cress, more like”, a gardening friend of mine once quipped. It’s hard not to sympathise. Whilst the leaves of Cardamine hirsuta – a plant in the brassica family, closely related to mustard and also to garden cress Lepidium sativum – might possess a certain peppery, cress-like taste, it’s difficult to know what it’s good for. You would be bonkers to go out of your way to deliberately grow a crop, not least because surely every plant container in Christendom is sure to become home to at least one or two specimens in any given year.

It’s a nuisance in the nursery – perhaps not to the same degree as the liverworts which blanket the surface of the growing medium, but nonetheless a pretty ubiquitous presence, stealing nutrients and acting as a host for numerous glasshouse pests.

It’s also something of a gremlin in the garden, and you need be in no doubt that you will have hairy bittercress in your garden. Possibly also its cousin, wavy bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa) – very similar in appearance, though the small white flowers have six stamens to the four of its nominally more hirsute relative (the hairs on the leaf margins and axils aren’t particularly noteworthy, in spite of the name). As long as extremes are avoided, bittercress can’t bring itself to be discerning over the pH of the soil, seeming just as at home in acid, neutral or alkaline conditions, and will grow in shade, part shade or sun, in either moist or dry conditions. A hardy annual (C. flexuosa sometimes persisting as a short-lived perennial) it behaves as an ephemeral weed, producing several generations in one growing season, and each plant can produce up to 5,000 seeds.

Not wavy, but downy. Four stamens, so Cardamine hirsuta
Garden designer Chelsea Uribe (@CUgardendesign) pithily summed up generally held opinions on the plant. “That sodding little ruderal. I wish it every ill.” A coloniser of recently disturbed ground, it’s readily identifiable from its rosettes of bright green pinnate foliage with almost circular leaflets at the base, becoming more elongated higher up the plant. Weeding it out isn’t a particularly satisfying experience – although not deep rooted, it’s quite fiddly to handle when it first emerges, and so you might be tempted to allow a clump to grow to a more convenient size for hand-pulling. In which case, you’d best ensure this forward-dated task doesn’t slip your mind, due to the speed at which it will flower and seed.

Common names include lambs cress, spring cress, hoary bittercress, wood cress and flickweed. This last name is particularly descriptive of the manner in which the plant goes about dispersing seed, a trick which anyone who has carelessly reached for a plant which has gone to seed will be only too able to describe. The characteristic long, thin seed pods (known as a siliqua), common to many members of the brassica family, split open when dry, ejecting their contents with some force and scattering seed over a distance of up to six feet, unless prevented from doing so by some intervening object. Such as the face of a surprised gardener.

The ripening seed pods, or silique, ‘overtopping’ the flowers
In Old English herb-lore, bittercress is known as Stune, and included as one ingredient in the Nine Herbs Charm recommended as a cure for poisoning and infection. Given the generally poor state of health and hygiene we can assume in Dark Age Britain, this suggests that each of the nine herbs would have been in constant demand. I have my suspicions regarding the efficacy of bittercress a medicinal plant, but, by including it on the list of ingredients, our ancestors had clearly devised a way to guarantee a sustained and wide-ranging harvest of the stuff. They probably didn’t like it any more than we do

Let me know what your thoughts are on hairy bittercress, either on Twitter, or by leaving a comment below.

Enchanter’s nightshade

As fond of weeds and wildflowers as I am, it wasn’t without a wry smile that I acknowledged the arrival of this plant in a bed from which I’d only recently been congratulating myself for liberating from ground elder.

Circaea lutetiana, or enchanter’s nightshade, has a similar creeping habit to that carrot which fills some gardeners with horror, but which I’ve always found myself able to tolerate, as long as it doesn’t object to a triple whammy of vigorous forking and pulling out, and a good strimming of its aerial parts when the urge comes upon me.

The botanical name possessing twice the magical power of the common (Circe being the sorceress of Homer’s Odyssey, and Lutetia referencing an old Latin name for Paris, the ‘Witch City’), Circaea isn’t part of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) at all, but rather a relative of willowherbs and the evening primrose (Onagraceae). It’s generally described as being “not particularly toxic”, so you probably won’t want to be dashing out to gather it up by the armful for pesto. As a plant of woodland glades and edges, it revels in slightly damp, light shade, and can establish large colonies if allowed to grow unchecked, in which situations it might reach its full height of around 60 centimetres, though I’ve rarely encountered it in a garden at more than a third of that size. While its underground rhizomes will take it only so far, its hairy oval seed capsules facilitate any designs it might have on wider conquest; towards the end of summer, it’s not uncommon for the dog owner to find several in the coat of their furry friend.

Although it’s not tiresome to pull out, it’s probably not something the gardener would want to encourage, unless in a woodland setting. That said, when in flower, I find it rather pretty – above the spear-shaped, opposite green leaves a spire-like raceme, rather openly (some might say ungenerously) populated with tiny flowers (reminiscent of some of the less abundantly-floriferous heucheras). The flowers themselves are white, sometimes with a pink tinge, and have two, deeply divided petals.

A large patch of the stuff in your borders is probably not be what you want, then. But if you should catch the odd plant out of the corner of your eye, flowering daintily away in some forgotten leaf litter under a large shrub, you might want to leave it be. Noone likes to run the risk of upsetting an enchantress.

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Musk mallow

It seems to be a month for happening across plants with deeply cut leaves. This cheery customer has made its presence known in several gardens – sadly, not mine – over the past few weeks, having certainly found its way there of its own accord. If God loves a cheerful giver, then the gardener can spare the odd warm fuzzy for the generous self-sower, particularly in the case of one as pretty as Malva moschata f. alba, the white form of the musk mallow.

Standing at around 60cm high (two feet in old money), with five pure white, crepey-textured petals surrounding the typically exotic-looking pistil and stamen arrangement of the mallow and hollyhock family tinged, in this case, with the pale pink of the anthers. Although some of the flowers are born in the leaf axils, a characteristic of this plant is the collection of fat, round flower buds with pointed tips, opening in order from the outer edge towards the centre.

In the border, this achieves an effect of white, butterfly-like flowers floating over frothy fresh green foliage, in much the same way as Cosmos bipinnatus 'Purity', or one of the white flowered forms of Nigella damascene ('Miss Jekyll White', for example), while in height occupying a position somewhere between the two.

Weedy? Not particularly, it would seem, although its prowess at seeding itself about has been referred to above. I think its somewhat refined features might cause the discerning to refer to it being in possession of more ‘garden-worthy’ credentials than certain of its burlier relatives – certainly rather more genteel than Malva sylvestris with its whopping great leaves. Now there’s a plant that invites itself in, smokes your pipe, drinks your brandy and sticks its feet up on your table.

The white musk mallow is an altogether more restrained affair, albeit one that found its own way in uninvited. That said, you can be sure I’ll be saving seed as soon as it appears ripe.
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Cut-leaf cranesbill


The rear third of my garden is a wilderness, in which long meadow grasses and wildflowers frolic with abandon. I imagine the neighbours must hate it – this being the only part of the garden they can see from their windows. Bill, on the other hand, loves it, sniffing about for traces of fox and cat, and self-medicating by consuming vast quantities of cleavers – which makes him immediately sick – and then reappearing with the fur around his muzzle ebellished with clusters of tiny green seed capsules. I know he will complain with plaintive whines as I pull these free, but the memory of this procedure never seems to deter him from repeated forays into the undergrowth.

The wildflowers here are, of course, not the kind of wildflower that anyone seems to want – certainly not to be found as constituents of the more fashionable of wildflower mixes you might find in a garden centre or online, but rufty tufty native fare. You know – weeds. So if goosegrass isn’t your thing, we can do you buttercup, dock, woundwort, rosebay willowherb, ribwort plantain, and several varieties of thistle. And nettles. Lots of nettles.

And romping through this lot a kind of wild geranium that I haven’t noticed here abouts before. I’m used to working in the company of Herb Robert, with its pink flowers and red stems like strawberry bootlaces (I’m noticing an increasing habit to draw my metaphors from either the confectioners or the cake shop), but what struck me most about this obvious relative of that worthy weed was the discrepancy in size between the leaves (up to two and a half inches round, and so heavily dissected that the lobes appear almost like antlers), and the pink flowers which, by comparison, are tiny. This is Geranium dissectum, the cut-leaf cransebill, and the disparity just mentioned appears ludicrous, like some comic character in a cartoon strip with a burly frame and shrunken head. But the flower itslef, with its is five heart-shaped, sugar-pink petals, contrasting with the noticably hairy sepals, is exquisite.

The Plants for a Future database records a whole host of medicinal uses, both internally and externally, and both the leaves and roots are rich in tannins, and can be used to create a brown dye. All parts of the plant are edible, though it’s probably not something you’d want to seek out as a delicacy.

It’s all gone over now, at least in my garden, doubtless a few weeks early due to the particuarly dry conditions. This is rather a shame as I’d have liked to have got some better pictures of it. Looks like I’ll have to wait until next year, though I have my camera ready in case I catch it lurking in the shade under a hedge somewhere before this summer’s out.

Weed or wildflower?

Mock outrage at Friday evening’s Gardeners World as the very splendid Monty Don refers to Corydalis lutea as a weed. He was speaking of it with affection, so I think he’s excused, though I like to think of it as a wildflower. Granted it has a wondrous faculty for self-seeding, but it rarely has it inserted itself in a position where its presence has done anything other than brighten the immediate environment and, should it do so, it’s not hard to pull out.

I love it for its soft, ferny leaves, which remind me of aquilegias or the maindenhair fern Adiantum capillus-veneris, and yellow, trumpet-shaped flowers. It’s a delightfully unfussy plant, liking the margins of things, and will cope as happily with the shade under a tree or hedge as with a position on a sunny wall, in the cracks of which it frequently stations itself. All it requires is moderate drainage, and a slightly alkaline soil. In the shade, it looks great planted with epimediums and its not-too distant relative Dicentra ‘Ivory Hearts’.

It catches my eye, peering back at me from under the pyracantha hedge opposite the kitchen window. Company for when I’m doing the washing up.