Saturday, 24 June 2017

is it a weed?

As I was going out to the greenhouse my eye fell upon a bindweed that was twining its way up the base of one of the tripods in the herb bed, that more properly belonged to a still reluctant Clematis alpina.  The bindweed flowers had a pinkish tinge to them, and were objectively speaking pretty, and I thought how culturally determined our ideas are of what constitutes a weed.  I greatly coveted the bindweed's relative that I saw growing at the foot of Sissinghurst's tower.  Its flowers were a deeper shade of pink than the bindweed in my herb bed, and its leaves were considerably more interesting, but many garden plants with frankly dull leaves are still counted as plants and not weeds.

I am with Richard Mabey and Michael Pollan when they identify the rankly weedy nature of weeds. Their speed of growth, love of disturbed earth and ability to spread themselves mark them out as weeds.  There is a pat saying that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place, but that is not so.  As I argued to the last person who quoted it to me, supposing you had a huge and majestic oriental plane tree that somebody had planted in an inappropriately small front garden.  That would not make it a weed; it would still be a splendid tree but one that someone had planted in a very silly place.

Others see it differently.  The local Chinese were apparently baffled by the interest shown in their wild flora by nineteenth and early twentieth century plant hunters.  There were very settled ideas in Chinese culture about what constituted a garden plant.  Chrysanthemums, Yulan magnolia, plum blossom, bamboo, and other garden plants all had their symbolic meanings and featured in Chinese painting and poetry as well as their gardens.  Wild plants had no meaning and no place in the garden, and the locals did not see why the foreigners should be interested in them.  Modern day east coast Americans have been baffled by the presence of the ephemeral spring flowering Mertensia virginica in English garden borders.  Used to seeing it in huge quantities in the wild, they can't see why anybody would bother to grow it.

I am sometimes asked to identify mystery plants in the gardens of my friends and acquaintances, and I have come to realise that often when they ask Is it a weed they are asking in the Chinese sense, not the Richard Mabey and Michael Pollan sense of inherent weediness.  They do not just mean, Is it a thug, will it smother everything else and seed everywhere or send mad, running roots through the entire border, rather they mean Will I be laughed at for growing it?  Is it a socially acceptable thing to have or will its presence mark me out as ignorant and my garden as unkempt?

I allow quite a lot of cow parsley in the garden, and some hogweed.  I am aware that they both have the potential to seed alarmingly, but I like cow parsley and the hogweed is quite attractive in a coarser and stouter way, and reliably perennial, unlike some of the more refined umbellifers. Some tidier minded gardeners would not approve of them, or the flourishing clump of red campion that has taken up permanent residence at the edge of the island bed.  I keep meaning to try and get parsnips going in the rose beds, since I observed early in my spasmodic vegetable growing career that parsnip flowers were rather pretty.  Cleve West then went and used them in a Chelsea garden so I'd have looked as though I were copying him, but that was several years ago now.  Surely you can have anything in a flower bed that you like and that will grow there and is in rough balance with the other occupants of the bed, vigorous enough to survive but not so rampant it takes over.

I will pull up the bindweed in the herb bed when I get round to it, though.  Digging the roots out completely is almost impossible, but if you keep pulling the tops off that keeps them in check. Bindweed really is too inherently weedy.

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