When is a weed not a weed?

Bog bean - Rowena Millar

Rowena Millar, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's Roving Wildlife Reporter, continues to show us how to make the best of our gardens for wildlife. This week she discusses the benefits of weeds and their value to wildlife.

A photograph of a pavement, onto which someone has chalked name labels for the weeds growing between paving slabs, has gone viral on Facebook. A ‘weed’ may be a native plant that has value. It can be admired for its resilience, its beauty and its usefulness as part of our living environment too – something to think about while many of us have the time to notice.

But what makes a plant a ‘weed’? Native plants grow well in local conditions and nature fills bare patches with life, so why do we fight it? In a way, gardening is about control – imposing your vision on a piece of land … so should we simply alter our vision a little, to accommodate nature?

Bluebells and red campions

Bluebells and red campions

A war on wildlife

Humankind outgrew and rejected the wilderness from which we sprang. The rich and powerful had formal gardens and shut the wilderness out, and public parks for the rest of us followed suit. Now that we had domestic animals and birds for meat and other products, wild animals were seen as ‘vermin’. Certain wild plants contaminated or competed with our arable crops, and we became very successful at eliminating them.

Time for a reprieve

The opinion that wild animals should be exterminated is now less popular, as we begin to realise the implications. As we also become aware of dramatic reductions in insects, we finally realise that the ‘weeds’ that sustain them are essential to the future of the planet.

Understandably, those who garden for pleasure are drawn to the exotic plants discovered by plant hunters in other parts of the world. We have made them even fancier where possible. Sometimes this has meant growing plants of little value to our own wildlife. We have covered over a flower’s reproductive parts with extra petals, removed scent or fertility, or treated plants with poisons to harm or kill the ‘pests’ and diseases that damage them. We have replaced garden cultivars of native species with plants that have not evolved alongside local wildlife.

An insect landing pad on a daisy flower

An insect landing pad on a daisy flower

Exotic vs native

Exotic plants do bring joy, but let’s take another look at our native species, too. Many traditional garden favourites are found wild in the countryside in different forms – clematis/old man’s beard and honeysuckle are two that I see on a daily basis. Other native plants such as foxgloves, now growing strongly ready for full glory in June, have a statuesque beauty that rivals their exotic counterparts. Today, red campions – however common they may be – are putting on a magnificent show now and are there for us in bleaker times. Have you experienced a month in Cornwall when no red campions have flowered?

Local plants want to grow here because they are adapted to their local environment, so let’s give them some leeway. It needn’t mean living amongst a tangle of docks, nettles and brambles – we just need to include nature in our gardening vision.

Red campions by Jenny Heskett

Red campions by Jenny Heskett

Take a closer look

Each insect-pollinated plant has a way of attracting particular species, from the welcoming landing pads in the centres of daisies to the bell-like tubes of the bluebell and bugle that invite a bumblebee to crawl up from below for a sweet reward. The greater variety we grow (but with good numbers of each plant to make insect foraging trips worthwhile), the greater the diversity of insect visitors.

Take the time to look closely at each flower. Sometimes there is more to a flower than you’d think.

The dandelion is a member of the daisy family Asteraceae. Apparently one dandelion flowerhead is many separate flowers. This is fantastic for insects. Those familiar seeds spread far and wide in the wind, enabling the dandelion to colonise bare earth and cracks in pavements. If it were less common, perhaps we would grow these cheerful golden suns deliberately – no more digging out the long taproot, nor dandelion poisoning.

Clover (red or white) feeds our soil with nitrogen as well as attracting large numbers of bees. I have just found out that wood mice use clover in their nests and that the common blue butterfly caterpillar feeds on clover (as well as its main larval foodplant bird’s-foot trefoil, plus lesser trefoil and black medick). For a comprehensive list of larval foodplants for butterflies and moths, see these links.

Britain’s vast array of moths are in decline. They depend on native larval foodplants and (for the nocturnal majority) flowers that are open at night. Today moths were in the news as new evidence shows that they are crucial pollinators.

White clover

White clover

My flowery lawn

Our front lawn is absolutely full of bird’s-foot trefoil, so I am taking part in Plantlife’s ‘No Mow May’ project on this lawn, to let it bloom. In mid-May the starry celandines of early spring are almost over. Buttercups fill the niche for shiny yellow flowers and hawkweeds, cuckoo-flower and speedwells are holding the fort for the local bumblebees while the bird’s-foot trefoil grows and forms its flower buds. The back lawn is full of clover. I will mow around or above the clover flowers and the daisies – and some of the plantains, speedwells and bugle along the edge too. A mown area through patches of flowers gives your garden a fantastic look – neither neglected-looking nor over-tidy and boring.

Shiny buttercup

Shiny buttercup

Some advice

You can scatter a wildflower seed mix on a piece of bare soil (the more local the plant species the better), or you can grow the seeds separately first and plant wildflower plant plugs into your existing lawn (I find this easier), or (by far the easiest of all): see what comes up in selected areas, let those little plants grow to find out what you have, and magically, your wildflowers are already there. Keep what you want, and remember that the occasional thistle or white deadnettle patch is much loved by bumblebees. True nettles sting, but for those who don’t already live surrounded by nettle-filled countryside, they are valuable butterfly foodplants, so a patch in a sunny corner is useful.

Get to know your garden wildflowers and be careful, as certain plants are armed, and not just with stinging hairs, thorns and poisonous berries. I have a nasty burn on my arm after weeding a large, juicy (but normal, not the dreaded giant) hogweed in the garden and being splashed with sap from the stem. I washed it off, but then spent the rest of the day gardening with my bare arm in the sun, with dire consequences. It was a lesson learned the hard way.

So get to know and respect nature. Let native flowers and tall flowering grasses grow wherever you can, for their natural beauty and for the sake of pollinators and hungry caterpillars (remembering the birds that feed them to their young, and the butterflies and moths that the survivors transform into). Some of your ‘weeds’ will be weeds no more, and you will be richly rewarded by all the wildlife in your garden.

White deadnettle and bumblebee

White deadnettle and bumblebee