On a dull morning, it gave me a thrill to light upon this multi-coloured weed garden flourishing with all the rampant insouciance of a gypsy festival. Here are most if not all the usual suspects that we love to hate in our fields and gardens: a sunburst of yellow ragwort, much reviled by the equestrian community for poisoning horses despite the fact that grazing animals all avoid it when it is growing and it is only dangerous when cut; bindweed with its twining tentacles and trumpet-shaped white flowers above the ground and a subterranean spaghetti tangle of " devil's guts" below; the rusty spikes of the doctoring dock plant whose leaves soothe nettle rash; two kinds of willowherb or fireweed such as sprang up to cover the scorched bomb craters of the London blitz with a gauze of shocking pink; the purple fronds of Buddleia, beloved of butterflies, brought back from China by a Jesuit missionary for a garden shrub (and named after a 17th century botanizing vicar) but now seen fixed to many an urban roof gutter or chimney pot; bird-friendly ivy and juicy-fruited brambles. All that's missing here is the notorious Japanese knotweed but that is dead and gone now, killed earlier by its sole assassin, glyphosate weedkiller.*
Many of our terms for these fast-growing, fertile and opportunistic plants echo the words used over the centuries for unwelcome incomers of a different ethnic origin: aliens, invaders, migrants, non-natives, and so on. They're branded as threats and competitors that disrupt the status quo, grabbing space and resources. But to look at it another way they're colonists using their speed, strength and vitality to conquer and control territory. Centuries ago the Anglo-Normans took over large parts of Wales and set down roots here. Later, British and other European powers straggled into the paradise gardens of the wider world, spread and seeded themselves with weedlike proficiency and little mercy for the indigenes. Often, plants were spread, deliberately or not, by people as they travelled to and from their homelands.
Richard Mabey whose recent book Weeds is subtitled 'How vagabond plants gatecrashed civilisation and changed the way we think about nature', highlights the paradox of these maligned species and suggests we have, by damaging and misusing the earth, created a world in which unwelcome plants flourish. "Every single weed nuisance has been the consequence of thoughtless and sometimes deliberate disruption of natural systems. Weeds are our most successful cultivated crop". He suggests that if we learn to be more accepting and less destructive of the natural world then 'weeds' can be seen as less of a threat, more as a normal and manageable part of the living world.
My thoughts have drifted, like airborne seeds, far from this empty lot in my local town but here you have it all: unpopular plants that are edible, medicinal, fragrant, colourful, butterfly-attracting and bird-nourishing - all growing in one small area of vacant land. The magic of evolution!
*Certain 'superweeds' have evolved resistance to glyphosate.