We all know about weeds. We pull them out, we throw them on the compost – and then we do it all over again. And again. But weeds are far far more than never ending irritation and fodder for the compost heap as this elegant little book reveals. They’re simply fascinating, as RHS Weeds by Gareth Richards proves.
Looking closely at fifty plants that most of us would rather not have in the garden, we learn why they succeed, why they’re difficult to eradicate and also why we should admire them.
I have to say, though, that throughout this book there’s a definite feeling of support for the underdog. The more that Japanese knotweed or Himalayan balsam or ragwort is added to lists of banned weeds, the more Gareth feels the urge to remind us of the plants’ good qualities and the intriguing associated stories.
He airs his respect for Japanese knotweed, pointing out that bees love its generous late season nectar supply; he explains how the toxins that make ragwort so unpalatable, indeed poisonous, to cattle are passed on to the luridly striped cinnabar moth caterpillars that feed on its leaves; he notes the irony of Spanish bluebells being weeds in native bluebell woods, while native bluebells can be weeds in the garden.
Setting the tone for the whole book, in the very first entry, Gareth sets out his admiration for the sycamore, explaining how it behaves in the same way as native forest trees and fits well, visually, into the British landscape. Rather than be derided, sycamore should be welcomed as a replacement for the elm and ash that have been laid low by disease. What’s more, it turns out, sycamores support a greater mass of insects than oaks.
Clearly, Gareth has a rich understanding of what he calls these “vagabond plants”, these plants in the wrong place, yet this impressive appreciation is passed on to us in a very readable style, helped along by the beautiful historic botanical illustrations. So, when we’re finished heaving out brambles, we can relax with a cup of pineapple weed tea, and nurse our wounds as we discover why it is, exactly, that the bramble stems, and even the backs of the leaves, come with so very many vicious thorns.
I know it’s a cliché to say it, but in this case it’s actually true: this is a book that all gardeners will enjoy.
RHS Weeds by Gareth Richards is published by Welbeck.
Declaration of interest: the author is a friend and the book was supplied free of charge by the publisher.