I’ve learned a lot about weeds over the decades, but I was never given the ominous warning “one year of seed, seven years of weed” until last year. I think every novice gardener should be given a t-shirt with this bit of wisdom. On the other hand that bit of wisdom might be too discouraging for a beginner.
The truth is that if you are a gardener, you will have weeds. All kinds of weeds, and all are fascinating in their own right.
Today I was trying to weed around the Rose Walk. The weeds here are very familiar to me. First there is the prettiest weed, galium or bedstraw. When I first noticed this weed many years ago I thought it was so pretty coming up in the middle of a rose bush that I hardly bothered to pull it out. I thought it turned the whole rose bush into a bouquet, like adding a bit of baby’s breath, gypsophilia, to a handful of flowers. Unfortunately, the variety of galium growing in my garden, Galium mollugo, has invaded thousands of acres of pastures and hayfields and been an enormous problem for farmers. In spite of the legend that Galium aparine was in the manger where the Christ Child was laid on Christmas, leading to the name Lady’s bedstraw, cows won’t eat this bedstraw. Do not be seduced by the delicacy of the foliage and flowers; galium is a bad weed.
Another pretty weed is purple vetch. Vetch in my garden is fighting with the bedstraw on the Daylily Bank, right next to the Rose Bank. Purple vetch, like the galium has long loose stems with tendrils and fine foliage that will climb up and through other plants. I have to find an end of a vetch vine, and plow my way down the stem, through the heavy daylily foliage until I can put it out by the root. If I don’t weed it out, the whole daylily bank will be covered with a purple haze of the flowers – and then the seed pods will drop hundreds more seeds into the soil.
Less pretty is the stinging nettle, Urtica dioica. Children who spend any time in a garden learn to identify stinging nettles pretty quick. Every part of the stinging nettle plant has tiny hairs that are like little hypodermic needles that release a venom into your skin. The sting will vary in intensity person to person.
A traditional soothing agent is the crushed leaves of curled (or curly) dock, Rumex crispus, which often grows near nettles. I can testify that curled dock does indeed grow near nettles in my garden. Dock is tall, about four or five feet, with narrow lanced shaped leaves, large at the base and smaller near the top. It took me a long time to recognize that the upright spike sections were made of scores of tiny flowers. There are many surprises when you really get to know your weeds.
Nettles are easy to pull out of the ground when wearing gloves, but dock is something else. The roots are tenacious and greenish-brown stems are very fibrous requiring a garden clippers to cut.
Nettles sting, but burdock grabs you and won’t let go. The burrs on burdock are one of the ways Mother Nature make sure seeds are carried hither and yon. You don’t have to be a gardener to recognize burdock. These weeds are everywhere.
Purslane, Portulaca oleracea, is one of the commonest weeds in the vegetable garden. I can never rid my Herb Bed of purslane. When I read Charles Dudley Warner’s delightful and humorous book My Summer in a Garden about the trials and tribulations of a vegetable gardener, I echoed his complaints about “pussley” which was the scourge the garden. Purslane is a succulent weed that creeps along the ground that produces tiny white flowers that will quickly turn to seed. But I have found that if I leave the tiniest bit of root or a leaf of purslane in my soil it will never be eradicated.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “a weed is just a plant whose virtues have not been discovered.” According to that definition most of these plants are not weeds because generations of gardeners, herbalists and apothecaries have found them useful and full of virtue.
Galium aparine has been used in spring drinks to purify the blood for centuries, and treated skin complaints including psoriasis. Its been used as a diuretic and as a remedy for scalds and burns – as well as many other medical problems. Dock shares many medicinal properties with Galium aparine.
Nettles were once used to make linen even as late at World War I when many materials were in short supply. Dried nettles and nettle seed have been used as feed or cows, horses and birds. They have numerous medicinal properties, treating conditions as different as arthritis and migraines. Nettles have also been used for nutritious soup or in puddings. Purslane, too, is edible and nutritious, but has fewer medicinal uses.
Burdock is a big imposing plant each part has been used medicinally. Decoctions of the seeds are said to improve the skin, bruised leaves will soothe various bruises, swellings and even gout. In the Middle Ages burdock leaves macerated in wine were considered a cure for leprosy. The roots are still used as a vegetable, most frequently in Japan.
That leaves us with the pretty and useless vetch. Do not eat it. It is toxic.
Useful or not, all the weeds I have pulled or dug these past few days have been dumped in the weed pile.
Visitors to the Last Rose Viewing at the End of Knott Rd in Heath on Sunday, June 27 from 1-4 pm will surely find more weeds, but we can celebrate everything – summer, roses and weeds.