Nettles

Urtica dioica

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Every child has been warned to stay away and every gardener has been stung. It is one of the hazards of life. The good things about nettles are that you can eat the young leaves in soup and even as a spinach substitute. Try a bed of steamed nettles topped with a poached egg.

Nettles provide one of the primary food sources for caterpillars of the comma, tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies.

They are also very rich in nitrogen so can be used to make a liquid feed. Put chopped nettles into a container, cover with water and chuck in a couple of bricks to stop them floating. After 3-4 weeks you will have a very smelly liquid that, diluted 1:10 in water will work as a great plant food.

Bindweed

Convolvulus arvensis

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Oh dear, oh dear.

This is not something you want.  About the most persistent perennial weed you can get.  It has heart shaped leaves and scrambles and climbs through borders with alarming speed. The roots also go down a long, long way.  In its favour it does have quite pretty white trumpet shaped flowers.

It is difficult to eradicate as even the smallest bit of root left in the ground will make a new plant. The best thing is persistence, the more you pull the weaker it will become and, eventually, you will prevail.  It is not, however a task for the faint hearted or those without great patience.

If it gets too bad or if you are taking on a new and empty garden it will respond to spraying with glyphosate, or you could cover the ground with black plastic to keep out the light. If you remember your school biology lessons, without light plants cannot photo-synthesise and will die. Slowly.

Buttercups

Ranunculus (repens and acris)

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

There are two sorts of buttercup: one is marginally less annoying than the other. The most irritating is creeping buttercup which you often find colonizing lawns. As the name suggests it creeps along the ground sending out stems from which drop more roots – it is like a slow growing monster crawling across the grass.

The second is the field buttercup which is altogether more elegant and distinguished: tall stems and the distinctive yellow flowers.

The field buttercup is not a native of this country.  In fact it is native only in Greenland and Alaska so you can see it is a pretty tough cookie.  Fine in a field but not really needed in borders.

I remember, as will most of you, the thing about picking a buttercup and holding it under somebody’s chin to see “if they liked butter”.  If they did then a little yellow glow would reflect onto their throat, if there was no glow then it was probably a really overcast day.

And they did not like butter.

At the time I remember finding this whole process most disconcerting as I definitely did not like butter in any form and yet the scientific evidence (that little yellow glow) was very firmly and unarguably against me.

Ground elder

Aegopodium podagraria

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

This plant was imported into the UK by the Romans.  Thanks a bunch guys: your roads, culture and interior plumbing we appreciate very much but would rather you had left this somewhere along the Appian Way.  It is persistent and almost impossible to get rid of, I’m afraid, without covering the ground for a couple of years in a thick, impervious mulch.

It can be eaten but only the most enthusiastic among you is going to be able to eat it all. Here is a soup recipe to get you started:

2 bunches of ground elder

Knob of butter

Tablespoonful of flour

1 small onion

1 rasher of bacon (for non veggies)

Salt and pepper

500ml chicken stock

250ml single cream

Pick the leaves from the ground elder and rinse in cold water.  Shake off excess water and put in a clean pan.   Set on medium heat and sweat for a minute then set aside.

Soften the onion in the butter (with the bacon, if using) and add the flour.

Slowly add the stock, stirring all the time to make a smooth soup.  Stir in the leaves and simmer for five minutes or so before blending or rubbing through a sieve.  Add in the cream and season to taste.  Serve with crispy croutons.

Cow parsley

Anthriscus sylvestris

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

A gorgeous thing on a woodland edge or alongside a country road.   This is one of the sure signs of approaching summer and a very elegant and lovely plant, tall umbelliferous white flowers of fringed and feathered foliage.

It is the perfect example of a weed just being a plant in the wrong place because as soon as cow parsley gets into the garden it is a complete and utter pain.  It seeds itself all over the place and has a long taproot that is difficult to dig out.

If you must be tempted then try its better behaved relatives like Anthriscus Ravenswing or, the most perfect umbellifer, ever: Seseli libanotis.  Which is extra marvelous because its common name is moon carrot.  Which sounds like something from a children’s television programme from the 1960s.

Hairy bittercress

Cardamine hirsuta

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

The bane of my life.  It is not that it is difficult to weed (it pulls out very easily) or perennial it is just very, very profligate.  And it grows all year round.  In times before supermarkets this was a useful addition to the medieval diet – especially as it was about the only greenery available in the dead of winter.  It tastes bitter – which, given its name, will come as no surprise.

It has little white flowers in the spring that rapidly set seed, the seedpods explode when touched blasting seeds all over the immediate area.  It sounds dramatic and it is quite admirable, except that you know that each time it happens up will pop another 50 of the blighters.

It is like the bit in the Aeneid when Jason and Cadmus sowed dragon’s teeth into the ground which then sprouted fully armed warriors who promptly attacked. They solved the problem by throwing a jewel into the melee over which the warriors fought until only five survived.  These five went on to help found the city of Thebes.

A long way from weeding but you get my drift.

© John B

Dandelions

Taraxacum officinale

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Universally recognized, this is one of the fastest growing plants around.  They have a long tap root that is very difficult to remove intact and, if you don’t, they will spring back with renewed vigour.  They seed themselves with gay abandon from the distinctive globular seedhead: the slightest puff of wind will distribute the seeds over a wide area.

The cunning plant also has children on its side.   They all love blowing the seeds from a dandelion clock.  You can, of course spray them off – although this is tricky in existing lawns without access to some clever agricultural chemicals which recognize the difference between grass and broadleaved weeds.  Without that you will kill everything and, even with a plague of dandelions, that is going a bit too far

As with many weeds persistence will be rewarded.  Provided you stop them from setting seed (by pulling off the flowers) you can keep them within bounds.

Dock

Rumex obtusifolius

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

It is true that a dock leaf can help to ease the irritation of a nettle sting.  I think it is probably to do with acids and alkalis, but it does work.   Do not, however, rub too vigorously.  It is better as a sort of poultice.

The dock leaf is a pain but nothing in comparison to some weeds we have covered here.  It has a big old root but a spade and a modicum of elbow grease will sort things out.

There is an old saying that “One year seeding means seven years weeding” which basically means that you are in for many years of backache.  You can try and make it a bit better by, whenever possible, cutting the heads off any weeds before seeding time.

Celandine

Ranunculus ficaria

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

It is arguable whether this really qualifies as a weed.

People get most fearfully agitated about it in the spring as it spreads like the pox and has loads of (quite attractive) little yellow flowers but – and this is a huge plus – it vanishes back into the ground by April where it sits quietly until the following spring.

This is the process of aestivating – the seasonal opposite of hibernating.  Bears sleep all winter, celandine sleeps all summer.

It is better for your blood pressure just to be a bit relaxed about this plant.  Yes, it can be invasive, but it  is a hell of a struggle to get rid of it and it is at least cheery when the weather is generally dismal.

Ash

Fraxinus excelsior

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Again, is this a weed? Yes it is if your garden is being taken over by seedlings each one of which is capable of turning into a towering 100 foot high tree.  The same can be said of common sycamore trees – they too are very keen on dropping seeds all over the shop.

My garden is right next to a wood that consists largely of ash and I find it both comforting and sinister to know that, if we stopped gardening for even a few years, then gradually the wood would invade the garden and we would return to nature.

A bit like Sleeping Beauty amongst the briars.

Tree seedlings are best pulled out as early as possible as they quickly become firmly anchored and will then require spades and muscle power to get them uprooted.

Japanese Knotweed

Fallopia japonica

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

This is the weed that makes grown men quail. When I was a young landscaper in London I remember that quite a large part of one street in Herne Hill had virtually disappeared beneath knotweed. We spent ages pouring weedkiller into the hollow stems – I don’t know whether we won or lost the battle.

Knotweed was brought over to Britain by a well meaning Victorian planthunter because of its striking leaves and rather lovely white flowers. From pride of place as an exotic addition to the English border it is now seen as a rampant thug with the power to shift buildings, break through tarmac, upend gravestones and block streams. Like asking mild mannered Bruce Banner to tea only for him to transform into the Hulk and rampage through the crockery cupboard.

It is now illegal to plant it in the UK and the rest of the world isn’t at all keen on it either. There is an insect that feeds exclusively on knotweed and it’s help in eradication is being carefully tested at the moment – it would be unnecessarily ironic to introduce another alien species without knowing what else it might get up to.

On the plus side you can eat the young shoots which, apparently, taste a bit like sour rhubarb. If you like that sort of thing.

Creeping thistle

Cirsium arvense

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

“Hoots, Jimmy.  Och aye the noo.” There, that should have successfully alienated at least part of the readership on the grounds of racial stereotype. If you think of things that are peculiarly Scottish then you will come up with a list that reads something like this: bagpipes, haggis, tartan, Irn-Bru, glens, claymores, lochs, Ben Nevis and, of course, the thistle.

This became the national plant of Scotland because it saved the Scots army from an attack by Vikings.  Apparently the no-good Norsemen were sneaking up on the Scots when a shoeless warrior trod on a thistle and his cries of pain alerted the sentries and the attack was repulsed.  The thistle has a striking and attractive flower but it is extremely spiny and very profligate.

The best thing to do is to cut it down before it seeds but don’t do it too early in the season as it will have time to grow again.  The perfect time is just as the  flower starts to colour.

Himalayan balsam

Impatiens glandulifera

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

This is, as those of you who know your botanical latin will instantly realise, a relative of the Busy Lizzie, a well known and very popular bedding plant that does particularly well in a bit of shade.  The Himalayan balsam was introduced into this country by some well-meaning soul in about 1839.  It grows to about two or three metres and is particularly keen on colonising riverbanks.

It is an annual but sets a lot of seed: the seed pods swell and swell until they literally explode from their pods and spread seeds all around the place.  It is a very pretty plant but you would be doing yourselves (and your neighbours) no favours at all by giving it houseroom.

It is not nearly as well behaved as its cousin.

Nipplewort

Lapsana communis

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Not a very lovely name, I am sure you will agree. It is, like the cleverest of weeds, adept at being inconspicuous and lurking among other plants like a private detective in a crowd.

It prefers a loamy clay soil and although annoying is relatively simple to deal with. If you get it all out before it sets seed then you should be fine for the next year. The flowers are tiny yellow dots with very little to commend them and the leaves are, well, generally a bit dull. It is remarkable how many of these weeds have yellow flowers, almost all of them. I have no idea why that might be.

Like so many of these weeds it is edible but you would have to be pretty hungry to want to try a nipplewort sandwich.

Poppies

Papaver rhoeas

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

When you see them like this, a great smear of glorious scarlet across a field then it is difficult to think that anything quite as lovely could ever be seen as a weed. That may be because you are not the poor farmer who has to cope with a pretty much completely adulterated crop. The hope is that the seed will fall from the poppies before the crop – in this case oilseed rape – needs to be harvested.

This is the Flanders poppy made famous by John McCrae:

“In Flanders fields where the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.”

This poppy sprang up all over the battlefields of the First World War because it loves nothing more than freshly disturbed ground. The seeds can live in the ground for a long time without germinating, waiting their moment.

In gardens it gets very messy, very quickly.

Cleavers

Galium aparine

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

We only started getting this weed last year: I’ve no idea where it blew in from but it is not that surprising as it has a very efficient and devious way of spreading itself about. It is commonly known as sticky weed as the whole plant is covered in tiny little hooked hairs that cling on Velcro-like to anything (animal, bird or human trouser) that brushes against it. Some of you may remember childhood games where you throw it at somebody and it will stick to their clothes or hair. What jolly japes.

It has a very tiny white flower and grows from the spindliest looking stem you have ever seen: it looks as thin as a spider’s leg but is remarkably resilient. Tea from it has been used to prevent bladder complaints, scurvy, asthma, gallstones, dropsy and pregnancy (though I would not put too much reliance on that last one if I were you).

Common sow thistle

Sonchus oleraceus

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

This is the flabby version of the proper spiny field thistle.

In fact they are not related at all and the name is completely distracting. This one has soft leaves – that, when young, taste a little like lettuce – and a distinctive daisy like yellow flower. They are very attractive to rabbits so a few scattered around might possibly save some of your precious plants from being nibbled. However, don’t let them run riot as rabbits won’t eat the lot and they will crowd out other plants and take valuable nitrogen from the soil. All things are okay (including weeds) if taken in moderation. Except, of course, incest and Morris dancing (according to Sir Thomas Beecham)

Aphids love sow thistles so they can be used as sacrificial victims to save other plants– pull them up and the aphids come too.