Wildflower? Weed? Herb?

In the foreground Creeping Thistle, and in the background Ragwort

Allotments very quickly get out of hand, such is the vitality of nature, and so the photograph of this neighbouring allotment isn’t the product of idleness or long abandonment but simply because the allotmenteers were unable to tend their plot for a couple of months due to circumstances beyond their control. Most interesting to me is the fact that the shot shows two of only seven UK plants which are legally notifiable. They must be removed by law. If Ragwort is incorporated into hay and dried it’s capable of killing livestock – whereas whilst growing in the ground – livestock avoid it. Creeping thistle is a menace because its rhizomes spread aggressively – rather like bindweed – so from an allotmenteers’ point of view it’s the more pernicious of the two. I won’t bother to illustrate the bindweed because anyone who’s ever gardened will instantly recognise those white underground rhizomes. But the Creeping Thistle is tricky because most ordinary gardeners are less likely to recognise it. Here are some more photographs :

It’s all too easy to uproot one of these thistles and, finding something that looks very like a tap root, conclude it’s one of the other less pernicious ones. Unfortunately you have to dig deep – really deep – to find the thick white rhizome that spreads like wildfire. Those plants that grow from seed – and it produces a great number – grow a tap root in the first year and then develop the rhizomes in the second. Fortunately the seeds aren’t that successful, but even a tiny percentage of many thousands can soon turn into a problem. The best way of dealing with them is to uproot them before they flower – as in the left hand picture – when much of their energy has gone into making seeds. The four roots in the middle picture were loosened with a fork and pulled firmly to extract as much as possible, but even so they snapped off leaving much of the rhizome intact and ready to produce more plants. All we can do is hope to weaken it by frequently pulling them up. Madame and I were talking about this yesterday and we thought that the only domestic animal capable of eating thistles is probably a goat. We kept one back in the seventies and she would eat absolutely anything. Brilliant for clearing scrub!

Ragwort is a biennial and, once again, needs careful pulling to reduce numbers; but neither plant will ever be eradicated entirely because they have developed resistance to farm chemicals. Organic control (there’s a good leaflet on the Garden Organic website) is the only option for those of us who opt out of using chemicals.

Of course there’s a downside to controlling these plants because they are both highly attractive to pollinators and they make a lot of nectar ; so removing a weed also removes an important nectar or pollen source as well as a food plant for some of the butterflies and moths we most treasure. Our attitude towards so-called weeds exposes the mindset that places our human needs above the needs of all the other creatures. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should let these weeds take over our plots, but I am suggesting that many of the small decisions we make on the allotment have an ethical and philosophical component that make our lives that bit more complicated; more morally responsible.

I’ve spent fifty or so years working with people who’ve got themselves into terrible trouble, because they came to a tipping point through countless tiny steps. Nobody sets out to kill all the bees, but they die anyway because a lot of people making little bad decisions can add up to a crime against the earth. These days we’re all creating wildflower gardens, but we shouldn’t neglect the contribution of less popular weeds. Even couch grass offers a particular niche for the Gatekeeper butterfly, and stinging nettles are vitally important for the Comma. Ragwort too is the foodplant for caterpillar of the Cinnabar Moth. While I was taking the photos for this piece I noticed that our Buddleia was devoid of butterflies, whereas I spotted five separate fly/insect/beetle species on the Ragwort. So what I’m suggesting is probably enough to give many gardeners apoplexy, but what is the real danger to an allotment site that would result from a few neglected patches around the edges? Another of our neighbours had an allotment that was truly out of control and, when she got a rude letter from the council, she sprayed it with glyphosate. The grasses and “weeds” all dutifully turned brown and keeled over which, in the present drought, presented a distinct fire hazard. But now after a couple of thundery downpours, they’re nearly all growing again.

So here’s a thought that dropped into my mind yesterday. Many of us enjoy watching gardening programmes on TV. We also love watching celebrity chefs promoting regional foods from across the world and cooking perfectly irresistible dishes. We watch nature via the TV screen and could almost come to believe that all’s well in the world. My challenging thought is this – do television, newspapers and magazines present a falsely rosy view of our situation within global ecological and climate breakdown? And if that’s the case are they functioning as a Panglossian ideological tool which, by presenting a false picture, allows us to think that things aren’t that bad after all?

I spend much of my life in a kind of enervating despair when I look at the present crop of politicians in the UK; the overwhelming majority of them unwilling to act effectively to address the challenges that face us. News bulletins recycle the dangerously stupid ideas dreamed up by politicians so morally corrupt you wouldn’t let them look after your pet dog for an hour. They cry “peace! peace! when there is no peace”.

I even worry that the Potwell Inn, when I write about the way we try to live in the midst of a collapsing culture, might feed the impression that at least some bits of the world are working optimally. They’re really not. We’re lucky enough to live in the centre of a World Heritage City and on some days as we look out over a green space lined with trees we could almost believe that we’re in the grounds of a Georgian stately home. But more often than not we look out on a public space where addicts gather to buy drugs from dealers on bikes (easier to escape on). The air we breathe is dangerously polluted by the constant traffic and the river is polluted to the extent that great rafts of foam float down it during flood conditions. While hundreds of dwellings have been taken out as AirBnb rentals, the waiting list for decent affordable housing in the City grows longer and longer. GP appointments are almost impossible to get; the waiting list for NHS dentistry is a minimum of three years and the local hospital is frequently overwhelmed. Meanwhile the more photogenic parts of the City are regularly closed off to facilitate the filming of endless TV series that draw ever greater crowds to see the places where invented characters do imaginary things. We live in a hallucinogenic haze of Jane Austin, TV soaps and Roman centurions suffused by fast food and the aroma of chip fat.

It’s the political roots of the present crisis that need to be dug out. We’re all too ready to ignore the roots of the pernicious weeds that thread through our political culture, choking out anything that might feed and sustain us. We don’t live the good life. The most we can hope for is to live the best possible life within a broken culture. Our tomatoes are just a tiny skirmish in the battle against climate collapse.

“This is my favourite season” – I say, almost every month.

Although I’m bound to say that we’ll be pleased when this endless, wet renegade October spring finishes – hopefully some time mid week. A couple of weeks ago one of our sons was remarking how short the cow parsley was – half its usual height at this time of year, but now it’s properly caught up and looking lovely. This old horse chestnut tree has an unusually large foot, I think, because it’s perched on the raised bank of the towpath next to the river on one side and the Green on the other. We don’t have that many hedges in the centre of Bath, but what we do have is an abundance of paths and their verges alongside the river, and they never look better than they do right now.

But there’s a conundrum here. Hedgerows have their own built-in supporters clubs but verges? Ironically, the local council have designated the edge of the Green as part of a wildlife corridor, so on the other side of the tree in the photo is (at last) a wide unmown verge. It’s taken several years to convince the tractor drivers that these weeds are allowed to stand, especially when the same department sends out the spray gang every spring to ensure that their less fortunate kin are given a good dose of glyphosate. The pavement outside our block was just beginning to fill with plants when they were felled by the sprayer. We’d actually thought of taking up the challenge of naming them all with chalk, on the pavement after very successful trials of the idea in Oxford and London; but the neighbours would probably get up a petition to get us banged up for criminal damage.

The contrast between the wild areas and the ones the council maintains is painful to behold. One of our very favourite walks takes us along the river between the bus station, the railway station and the entrance to the Kennet and Avon canal. It’s not the most salubrious path in the city. The railings under the railway bridge are encrusted with a thick layer of pigeon guano and there’s a good deal of broken glass, abandoned bottles and cans. Alongside are some of the shabbiest boats in the fleet; the leaking superstructures covered with improvised tarpaulins. On the far side of the river are the backs – the bits of the city that we don’t advertise; the bus station doesn’t have the same glass panelled appeal at the back – (there’s not that much at the front either!). Brunel’s architectural ambition didn’t stretch to the back entrance to Bath Spa station either, and the sounds and smells that drift across from the far side are inclined towards diesel and burgers, accompanied by extractor fans that never seem to go quiet . It’s a path used more by commuting cyclists and locals. Further along the river approaching Pulteney bridge it gets better once you’ve got past the Royal Mail sorting office.

For me the great redeeming feature of that section of the path is the weeds. Many of the photos I’ve posted on this website were taken there. It was there I learned to sort out the ragworts; there I fell upon a group of greater celandines with real pleasure; there the usual suspects like willowherb which is a more diverse family than I ever knew. There’s nothing of any interest to a box ticking collector; but at this time of the year the gloomy path is normally illuminated by splashes of bright colour and a seminar’s worth of leaf shapes if you’re into the naming of plants. However, by the curious logic of the council, these plants are weeds, and have therefore been sprayed. For goodness’ sake, they’re mostly perennials and early seeders so they’ll be back up again next year probably inducing another spasm of indignation and chemical abuse; some of which treatment will drain immediately into the river – or water supply as it’s known in other places!

I’m interested in this human capacity to reduce so much of the natural world to the status of pest and weed, while simultaneously revering nature, except manifestations where it interferes with our pleasures, appetites or profits. If you’re a cinnabar moth you don’t spend all day flitting from ghost orchid to ghost orchid – what gets you going is ragwort. Moths like weeds and bats eat moths, so killing weeds disrupts a whole food chain. Red admiral, small tortoiseshell, painted lady and comma butterflies all prefer to feed on nettles rather than red list rarities. In fact many of our most threatened species of butterfly and moth like feeding on what we choose to call weeds, growing in environments that we like to think are ideal sites for building people-warehouses – and irony of all ironies, this patch of neglected and chemically blasted tarmac could be a tributary of a much advertised “wildlife corridor” running from East to West through the city. There are otters swimming less than half a mile downstream and herons are two a penny. Why has nature got to be tidy? The worst these weeds could do is brush against your legs and for large parts of the year they virtually disappear. Are we going to erect a large illuminated sign advertising that wildlife should cross the river at the sorting office and fly across the shopping centre in the direction of Royal Crescent and Victoria Park in order to rejoin the corridor just after the Territorial Army centre?

This is one of the terrible effects of a culture that separates us entirely from anything except the human – and precious few of them too! Growing our own food, or even a small part of it, teaches us very quickly that we’re a part of nature. Recent discoveries have deepened our understanding of how intensely related we are to the natural world, and how, by failing to acknowledge our dependence on nature as part of us – and ourselves as a part of nature; we are rapidly destroying trillions of tiny threads that – like invisible circuitry – keep the show on the road.

The language of science and the culture of materialism have enabled us to do with the earth pretty much anything we please. Except that by thinking that knowledge always trumps wisdom, we’ve spent a couple of centuries behaving like a teenager given a powerful motorcycle. It won’t end well. Our imaginary teenager will protest that they’ve never yet had an accident; that they’re having the best fun ever and motorcycling is a human right. But the metaphor breaks down at the funeral because there may not be any mourners left to say what a great person they were and how they lit up the room with their personality.

Here are some bits of the Bath earth that were neglected this spring. Thank goodness – left to right the towpath, the Potwell Inn kitchen and the allotment.

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