Gardeners usually spend a good part of their life battling against weeds. Some gardeners take a more laid back approach and profess that a weed is simply a plant in the wrong place and say that they are happy to have ‘wild flowers’ mingling in their borders. I feel happy for anyone that is content with this but I think they are just kidding themselves and they won’t kid me! Weeds are the plants that are naturally the best adapted to your garden conditions and, if you let them, they will take over the whole plot. The good thing is that no garden is perfect for all weeds – oops, wild flowers – so you won’t have them all, but I think that gardening necessarily requires some control of the native plants.
I happily agree that some weeds are beautiful. Of course most wild flowers are beautiful but there are some that are not likely to increase to such an extent that we would regard them as weeds, increasing so fast that they swamp cultivated plants. If someone has a battle to control bee orchids or blankets of thrift (armeria) then you don’t have my sympathy – I would spray off my camellias and rudbeckias to let the weeds thrive. But the rest of us have to control bindweed and dandelions: and though they are both supremely beautiful they need to be shown who is boss.
But although I am generally pretty strict when it comes to weeds there are two categories of weed that I will not lose sleep over.
The first group is actually a small one and the most important member is mare’s tail (equisetum). This group is where retreat is the better part of valour or ‘know when you’ve been beat’. I have mare’s tail here and I tolerate it. I could wage war on it but if I did it would be just like the big fight scenes in most of this year’s blockbuster movies* where two, perfectly matched superheroes slug it out on screen in an interminable battle that you know just won’t be resolved and the baddie will escape and be back to fight in the sequel. I could waste a lot of effort in this battle but I know I won’t win. And if I did manage to clear mare’s tail from an area it would spread back with renewed vigour next year. So I will use my time on something more useful.
The other category is weeds that are either not that much of a threat to cultivated plants or that are attractive enough to tolerate. One such is enchanter’s nightshade and although it is no beauty I find it curiously handsome. You can see it below in a clipped box hedge. I have cleared it from the border but it clings on in the hedge.
First of all, this may look like a delicate creature but it is a thug that spreads through white, underground stems in the same way as bindweed or ground elder, though maybe a little less fast. It is naturally a plant of damp, heavy soils, often at the edge of woodland and grows to about 40cm high. It has rather brittle stems with pairs of leaves in bright green, often flushed with red in poor, dry soil or in sun and eventually has sparsely branched, terminal stems of tiny white flowers.
Now this plant is related to fuchsias and willow herbs (Onagraceae) and if you look at the flowers carefully (they are tiny) you can see that they do look like miniscule fuchsias.
There is the tiny fruit behind the flower, the flaring sepals and the skirt of petals with the stamens and stigma poking through. But whereas fuchsias have their parts in fours, enchanter’s nightshade has two of each.
Although this is a ‘nightshade’ it is not related to the solanaceous nightshades at all and is probably not poisonous. Its botanical name is Circaea lutetiana which is derived from Circe a Greek sorceress. Lutetiana comes from an ancient word for Paris but this may be because the city of Paris was once known for its witches or from Paris of Troy. Either way the plant is associated with witchcraft and is used for spells.
I love the tiny flowers but it is certainly not a plant I would introduce to the garden despite it being quite good summer ground cover in shade. There is a variegated cultivar with pretty, pink and white splattered leaves. Appropriately it is called ‘Caveat Emptor’. Keep it in a pot!
* Just to show I do get out now and then I recommend Guardians of the Galaxy. It is as good as the reviews suggest and if you want an action movie with a great sound track, humour, a good-looking hero, a gun-toting racoon and a talking tree you will not be disappointed.