Common or Garden
by Ken Thompson (Profile £14.99, 240pp)
How does your lawn grow? If it’s looking shaggy and full of dandelions, clover and buttercups, then give yourself a gold star.
Unkempt lawns dotted with weeds are now the height of fashion; in fact, a third of the main show gardens at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show incorporated weeds (now optimistically rebranded by the Royal Horticultural Society as ‘resilient plants’ or ‘hero plants’).
Ecologist Dr Ken Thompson doesn’t quite go that far, but points out that without weeds ‘most parts of the world not covered with Tarmac would consist largely of mud’.
How does your lawn grow? If it’s looking shaggy and full of dandelions, clover and buttercups, then give yourself a gold star
To spot Britain’s 50 most successful weeds, you won’t need to scour the countryside or hike up remote mountains.
Many of them can be ticked off your list in a morning, simply by visiting your local park, road verge or hedgerow. Why are these plants so ubiquitous, he asks, and what do they add to our landscape?
All of the plants in this book are natives, with the exception of the sycamore, introduced to Britain from Europe in the 16th century.
The sycamore may be a fairly run-of-the-mill tree, but one specimen can claim to be among the most photographed trees in Britain.
It’s the one that sits in a dramatic dip by Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland and had a starring role in Kevin Costner’s 1991 blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (you can insert your own joke here about whether the tree was more wooden than the film’s leading man.)
Another unglamorous plant which Thompson enthuses over is ivy, because ‘few plants do more for wildlife than ivy’.
Its dense foliage provides shelter for insects, and in autumn it’s a much-needed source of nectar for bees. In winter, its berries provide food for blackbirds and thrushes.
What’s more, contrary to popular belief, ivy doesn’t damage trees, or the brickwork of your house. It is actually a good insulator, keeping buildings warmer in winter and cooler in summer.
Samuel Pepys used to enjoy nettle porridge, and if you look online you’ll see recipes for everything from nettle risotto to cupcakes with nettle frosting
Elder, often found growing on wasteland, has unpleasantly whiffy leaves, but is surprisingly versatile. If you’re into camping, its pithy shoots can be rubbed together to light a fire — and it can also be turned into a useful weapon.
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, published in 1653, stated that ‘every boy that plays with a popgun will not mistake another tree instead of elder’. The flowers make lovely cordial, and the berries can be made into wine or into a jelly.
Not surprisingly, some of the most common weeds are types of grasses. Lawns, Thompson writes, are pretty much uncontrollable, however hard you try to impose your will on them.
Most of them start off with only one species of grass, but soon all sorts of other grassy invaders will move in, including crested dog’s tail, creeping bent, and the amusingly named Yorkshire fog, which comes out top as the most omnipresent weed in Britain.
If you’ve ever been stung by a nettle, you’ll probably think this is one weed we can do without, although be grateful that we don’t have the New Zealand nettle, which is so ferocious it can actually kill both humans and livestock. Yet our native nettle is probably the most useful of wild plants.
Samuel Pepys used to enjoy nettle porridge, and if you look online you’ll see recipes for everything from nettle risotto to cupcakes with nettle frosting.
French soldiers are said to have worn uniforms made out of nettle fabric during the Napoleonic Wars, and today companies are experimenting with nettles as an alternative to cotton and synthetic fibres.
This charming books zips along at a breakneck pace, much enhanced by Sarah Abbott’s jaunty illustrations.
We should value these familiar plants, Thompson writes, because they are the ones we have learnt to use as medicines, in cookery and incorporate into folklore.
Being common is actually ‘a rare and rather exceptional quality’.
Perhaps weeds really are hero plants after all.