I think this really must be the thinkingardener’s weed book. Reviewed by Barbara Abbs. Anne Wareham, editor
Like all hands-on gardeners, much of my gardening time is spent weeding.But what is a weed? As a novice gardener I remember being surprised when a much more experienced horticulturalist described Alchemilla mollis as ‘a pernicious weed’ and advised me not to plant it. I had already done so, in several places and all I can say is that it was never a pernicious weed with me and in fact, I have just been out into my garden to discover that this year I have lost it. Real weeds are never lost completely, as William Edmonds says, ‘weeds are the plants which nature selects for our gardens – the outstanding survivors of the plant world … Their life force is formidable – they will return week after week throughout the year…’
Weeds, Weeding (& Darwin) is a delightful book: it is practical, historical, botanical and even philosophical and literary. It is a book for referring to, and a book for browsing in. The illustrations are beautifully varied, with a reproduction of Durer’s ‘Great Piece of Turf’ adjacent to photographs of blackberries and dandelion clocks, a painting of Darwin as a child, pictures of Down House, plus Samuel Palmer’s ‘Cowshed with a Mossy Roof’, woodcuts and early prints and many specially taken photographs by the author himself.
The section on ‘One hundred weeds to know’ is based on the new Tree of Plant Evolution from the scientists at Kew. We have advanced from monocots and dicots and now there are such things as ‘early diverging eudicots’ and ‘core eudicots’ which are themselves divided into ‘asterids’ and rosids. At the base of the tree is Algae – in this case blanket weed – and at the top, the most complex and latest arrivals, the compositae. Some of our most notorious weeds, dandelions, ragwort and daisies are at the top of the tree. Surprisingly, buttercups are very low down in the scheme of things.
‘The whole evolution of plants is truly wondrous and that just of our weeds goes some way to providing a spectacular select illustration of it.’ I have to come clean and confess to knowing the author, who gardens, as I do, on the South Downs. Even so some of my ‘devils’, ‘brutes’, or ‘rascals’, as he so engagingly describes many of the weeds, do not appear in his 100 weeds section. One is Geum urbanum or Herb Bennet. This features in books of ‘wild flowers’ so it is not really a weed at all, except that it is in my garden. When trying to dislodge it, you have to make sure you get the whole plant in your grasp before you try to tug it out or even lever up its roots. One or two leaves will not do, they just come off in your hand like a lizard’s tail leaving the main organism to flourish.
Another ‘brute’ in my garden is Alkanet, Pentaglottis sempervirens, a coarse borage-y comfrey-like plant with tiny blue flowers and a tap root that is like a dandelion’s, ie. both tough and ready to snap at the same time. When it first appears it looks rather like a foxglove, which I am always trying to grow and keep but without much success. Thus, I leave the seedlings until the leaves are big enough to feel (the alkanet is rough and hairy very unlike the young foxglove leaves which are soft and velvety to the touch.) but by then the tap root is well away.
One of the most interesting accounts is that of Taraxacum officinale, the dandelion. ‘If ever a weed has the intelligence to size is up and outwit us where it really annoys – while exploiting to the full both annual and perennial capabilities – the dandelion has to be close to it.’ In spite of this, there are dedicated fans of the dandelion. After each weed description are suggestions of ‘What to do.’ I like the suggestion ‘Eat them’ for dandelions, nettles, shepherd’s purse etc. Following on from ‘One hundred weeds to know’ comes ‘Twenty ways to weed.’
The chapter kicks off with a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson ‘Nothing is so interesting as weeding. I would rather do a good hour’s weeding than write two pages of my best’. Darwin himself, the author tell us, didn’t weed. He had gardeners to do that for him. Anyway, for us, here are the tools and how and when to use them. (See also here. Sorry – being sneaky. ed.)
The book concludes with a chapter on Darwin in the garden. He may not have done any proper gardening, but he walked round his garden daily, looked and thought. He sounds very endearing. And to prove his theories of the survival of the fittest, this quotation: ‘… on a piece of ground three feet long and two wide, dug and cleared, and where there could be no choking from other plants, I marked all the seedlings of our native weeds as they came up, and out of 357 no less than 295 were destroyed, chiefly by slugs and insects.’ Weeds, Weeding (& Darwin) is full of such fascinating snippets which make one look at weeds, gardening and the universe in a new way.
Weeds, Weeding (& Darwin) The Gardener’s Guide By William Edmonds. Published by Frances Lincoln. £20. ISBN 978-0-7112-3365-2
And: warning – advert: Anne’s latest blog post – Wild gardening, Veddw style.