Natives (British)

Soapwort: a useful alien found in almost every state

Soapwort, Saponaria officinalis, growing by a PA roadside. Image ©
At least when you see this plant by the side of the road, the answer to the question: “What’s that doing there?” is clear. This is soapwort, Saponaria officinalis, growing by the roadside here in Pennsylvania and since earliest times it’s been used to make soap.

Found wild in Southern Europe, and growing over much of Britain but perhaps native only in the south west (the botanists seem undecided), this pale form is the one seen in here in PA though in some areas a darker rose pink form is seen, and a pale semi-double form (‘Rosea Plena’) also sometimes establishes itself in the wild.
Soapwort, Saponaria officinalis, is established in 48 states. Image ©GardenPhotos.comIt was brought to North America by colonists specifically for its use as soap and for use in brewing, and long ago escaped from homesteads. It can be made into a very gentle soap - it’s said to have been used to clean the Bayeux Tapestry - and there’s little in the North American native flora that will do the job, especially in colder areas. Soapwort is hardy down to zone 3 (-40C/-40F). Boil it in rainwater to create a mild soapy lather. It’s been used to help create a head on beer, and is also used to make halva.

To be honest, the plant is a bit of a thug, even in poor soil it grows vigorously as long as it has plenty of sun, and it takes the salty run-off from roads in its stride. In fact it’s so adaptable that it’s naturalized in every American state except Alaska and Hawaii. Here in Pennsylvania, it often grows along roadsides with double-flowered daylilies – about which more next time.

Beware beautiful bugleweed

A neighbor came round to take a look at the garden yesterday, and one of the things she was most impressed by was – bugleweed (or simply bugle, as Brits say).

We have quite a few different forms, none of them in flower of course, not in July, and while she admired the prettily coloured variegated sorts like ‘Burgundy Glow’, she was especially struck by the efficient ground covering prowess of the plant in the picture (above, click to enlarge). And it’s certainly impressive.

From a single root dug up from under the satellite dish at the radio station where I do my music show every week, in five years it’s spread to this dense covering about 5ft x 6ft. The only plants to penetrate are self sown helleborine orchids.

But this is not just any old bugle. The reason I dug up a little piece in the first place was because it looked so dramatic with tall white spikes of flowers, instead of the usual blue. In the shade under our maples and oaks, the tall spikes look wonderful in full flower. And they’re good cut for spring posies, too. AjugaWhiteFlowers

It looks as if the name for this plant is Ajuga reptans f. albiflora ‘Alba’ (right, click to enlarge) but I remember seeing a white-flowered bugle at the Chelsea Flower Show a few years ago under the name of ’John Pierpoint’ which seemed to be more compact, with much shorter flower spikes. White frorms turn up in the wild in its native Britain, occasionally, but I've only seen ever seen one spike - on a farm track near where Cream drummer Ginger Baker used to live years ago...

So, anyway, our neighbor will be receiving a batch of little parcels, small pieces of the various bugles we have around to get her started. And she’s already received a warning about how rapidly they can spread. You should see our “lawn” in the spring… More blue bugle flowers, than green grass.

Vexing nettles

White dead nettle, Lamium, in flower with the paler foliage of stinging nettle, Urtica. Image ©

There are nettles, and there are nettles.

The perennial stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, is often the first British wild plant that kids learn to recognise - because they get stung. The leaves are covered in stinging hairs which contain formic acid, histamine and seratonin. Its annual relation, Urtica urens, actually has a denser concentration of stinging hairs, but the plants are much smaller so the damage to a tumbling child is usually much less.

In the US, two native American subspecies are found as well as the European form which is naturalised over most of the country.

The stings are not dangerous, although a related species in New Zealand is rumoured to have killed horses! But they are not pleasant and come with a red rash – especailly after you’ve scratched it. The cure often grows conveniently alongside – rubbing the stung area with dock leaves, broad-leaved dock, Rumex obtusifolius, for example, takes the edge off the pain.

But also often growing with stinging nettles is white dead nettle, Lamium album (above, click to enlarge) – “dead”, with no sting. When not in flower, stinging nettle and dead nettle look alike with the similarly shaped and sized leaves gathered in pairs along upright stems.

The dead nettle stems tend to be fatter and more obviously square, but when the two-lipped white flowers open the distinction is obvious; nettle flowers come in relatively unobtrusive green tassels. Kids tend not trust the distinction.

Stinging nettles are actually very useful plants; paper can be made from the stems; the foliage is important as food and shelter for many caterpillars; the young shoots can be eaten steamed or made into soup. Nettles have also been used to treat a wide variety of maladies.

And keeping nettles in your pocket is said to protect you from being struck by lightning. Of course, if you misidentified the plant and keep dead nettle in your pocket by mistake – when the lightning strikes, dead is exactly what you’ll be.

Acres of celandines

As far as the eye can see… Celandines, carpeting the damp woods at Black Brook Park in Union County, New Jersey. We were out there the other day, taking a family stroll.

And after marveling at vast acres of skunk cabbage growing along the muddy stream, we turned a bend in the trail and, on slightly drier ground, were the celandines, like a vast green ballroom carpet scattered with yellow confetti. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in one place.

Lesser Celandine, Ranunculus ficaria, is a widespread British native perennial with roots like tiny dahlia tubers. Very early into growth, its waxy green leaves are topped with flowers like buttercups. Later in the season it completely dies away. The whole plant rarely reaches 8in/20cm in height. It’s common wildflower and an irritating garden weed in Britain, spreading by seed but also when the clusters of tiny tubers break up. RanunculusficariaBrazenHussy700

In North America it’s known as the Fig Buttercup – from the shape of its bright green leaves and its yellow flowers - and is becoming widespread in the east and Pacific North West. Its rated as “Invasive, banned” in Connecticut and “Prohibited” in Massachusetts. Looks fantastic, but big big trouble: like the kid you saw at the bus stop on the way to school…

At Black Brook Park it was present in acres of vast drifts although in places spring beauty, Claytonia virginica, was holding its own. But it’s plants exactly like claytonia, the early spring ephemerals, that are smothered by the mass of dense early celandine foliage. However, I was also surprised to see a few patches of snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, looking lush as their foliage stretched after flowering last month.

I could have spent all day examining this huge population of celandines, but a short look indicated that they were very uniform, apart from a few with unusually narrow petals and a few with paler flowers.

Ranunculusficaria-foliage23009In Britain, it’s different. While everywhere at Black Brook Park, New Jersey, the plants had plain green leaves, in Britain the foliage can vary enormously. I picked the leaves in the picture (left, click to enlarge) from a few hundred yards along a quite Sussex lane. The bronze-leaved variety that Christopher Lloyd named ‘Brazen Hussey’ (above, click to enlarge) was found wild in a wood on his property. Other unusual forms, like doubles, also turn up.

But here’s the thing… That sunny carpet of color, disappearing into the distance in that New Jersey park, looked absolutely magical. Is it less beautiful because we know that the plant is not a native?

Coltsfoot: the bad and the good

Coltsfoot by a Pennsylvania roadside, with cigarette butt. Image ©Garden
This week, here in Pennsylvania, the roadsides are bright with a colorful wildflower at its peak. OK, of course, it’s not actually a Pennsylvania native, or even an American native, but it sure looks sunny.

Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara (above, click to enlarge), is a widespread British plant which presumably came over with colonists. In Britain it grows in many sunny places, often on heavy soils, and it’s been a difficult agricultural weed; its white runners are certainly very resilient.

In the US, it’s now found in much of the east and north east, and in the Pacific North West, while in Pennsylvania the USDA distribution map reveals that our county, Pike County, in the east of PA, is one of the few where it’s not found. Don’t think so: see pictures.

Pennsylvania roadside population of coltsfoot, with beer can. Image ©GardenPhotos.comHere in the US, I’ve only ever seen it on roadsides (left, click to enlarge) and in roadside parking areas although the Flora of Pennsylvania reports it “on roadsides, railroad rights-of-way, stream banks, and waste places” – which is pretty much exactly the language used to describe the distribution of Japanese knotweed. The implication being that man’s activities spread it along roads and where road meets river the river takes a hand. In Alabama it’s noted as “Class A noxious weed”; in Connecticut as “Invasive, banned”; in Massachusetts it’s “Prohibited” while in Oregon it’s an “"A" designated weed”. Sounds like it can be a bit of a beast.

But why “coltsfoot”? Well, this more or less describes the hoof-shaped leaves which emerge when the flowers are done. So it’s also been known as horse-hoof, and foal’s foot.

But this is actually quite a useful plant. It turns out – courtesy of Geoffrey Grigson’s wonderful book The Englishman’s Flora – that not only were the dried leaves once smoked to alleviate asthma, but that it’s still an ingredient of herbal tobacco. And, in the long gone days of tinder-boxes, the silver down on the backs of the leaves was collected as tinder. (What a job that must have been.) So perhaps plants were brought to the new world because they were so useful. It seems, in the US at least, they’re now becoming rather the opposite.

But, here in Pennsylvania, I like to see them brightening up the roadsides in spring. Just warming us up for the dandelions - of which more another time.

Shamrocks and four-leaf clovers

Four leaf purple clover - Trifolium repens 'Purpurascens Quadrifolium' Image ©GardenPhotos.comJust a quickie for St Patrick’s Day on the four-leaf version of the Shamrock. Got to be extra lucky, right?

The Irish Shamrock is usually what the rest of us call white clover, Trifolium repens, or sometimes lesser clover, T. dubium. But there’s at least one variety that always produces four leaves, and sometimes five.

Trifolium repens 'Purpurascens Quadrifolium' – a bit of a mouthful, I know -not only has almost all its leaves with four divisions, there are sometimes five. What’s more, they’re purple with a slender green rim (left, click to enlarge).  It’s very pretty.

But what about that clover in the top of the picture? That’s ‘Green Ice’, one of a number of attractive varieties that turned up by chance in a project designed to develop better varieties for forage.

These are both great foliage plants, but susceptible to attack from weevils which nip the edges of the leaves – and also attack garden peas.

But hey, seems like cheating, doesn’t it, to actually plant a four-leaf clover? Don’t you have to find them by chance for them to be lucky?

That Plant’s Odd

Any idea what teratology is? I’ll tell you: “the study of abnormalities of physiological development”. And for almost twenty years Martin Barber, from Wiltshire in the west of England, has been producing a newsletter devoted to abnormalities in plants. It’s called That Plant’s Odd. Says it all, really.

The newsletter deals with unusual forms of mainly wild plants and, as the introduction to the very first edition in 1993 says: “The scope of the newsletter is to include any material concerning native plant aberrations.” That is: odd plants. Variegations of various kinds feature often, as well as yellow- and purple-leaved forms, and there are plants with flowers in unusual forms or in unexpected colours; as well as plants with contorted branches or with strangely formed flower spikes. Anything that is, frankly, just a bit odd. The yellow-leaved form of the British native stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus ‘Chedglow’ (above, click to enlarge) is one of Martin’s finds.

That very first issue of That Plant’s Odd includes records of a white annual corn poppy with red blotches at the base of the petals (sounds gorgeous), of wild elders with pink flowers and another with purple stems, while issue two discusses two variegated wild roses, variegated dandelions, and forms of the classic British native bluebell with leafy growth amongst the flowers.

I’ve found a few plants that qualify, over the years, including two or three very attractive lawn daisies with yellow leaf veins one of which was in a lawn at the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin. Last spring, at the MercuralisPerennisPlusGoldBarnack Hills and Holes Nature Reserve, I came across just one plant of the common British woodland flower, Dog’s Mercury’ (Mercuralis perennis) which was almost completely yellow (left, click to enlarge).

It’s also worth remembering that many of today’s most dramatic varieties of Heuchera are derived from unusual forms collected from the wilds of the American forests.

As well as publishing That Plant’s Odd, which I have to say is more appreciated for its content than for its elegant design, Martin also runs a small nursery specialising in these unusual plants called Natural Selection and is the author of Appreciating Lawn Weeds and of Botanical Monstrosities: A First Step in Plant Teratology though both these are hard to find.

A two year subscription to That Plant’s Odd (six issues) by costs just £7.00 for British subscribers. Send a cheque to: That Plant’s Odd, 1 Station Cottages, Hallavington, Chippenham, Wilshire, SN14 6ET. Martin hopes to be able to deal with international subscriptions soon.

Book Bullet: Weeds by Richard Mabey

Weeds by Richard Mabey - Book ReviewBritain’s most distinguished writer on natural history brings his accessible erudition to bear on plants which can both destroy precious ecosystems and beautify urban dereliction and war torn landscapes.

Considering both how eucalyptus took over the Florida Everglades to such an extent that in some areas there were 8 million trees per square mile and how native poppies sprang up so memorably on European battlefields, this effortlessly wide ranging and engagingly written book.

"Weeds, as a type, are mobile, prolific, genetically diverse,” says Richard Mabey. “They are unfussy about where they live, adapt quickly to environmental stress, use multiple strategies for getting their own way. It's curious that it took so long for us to realize that the species they most resemble is us."

Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey was published recently in North America by Ecco and last year in Britain by Profile Books.

  • Combines scientific research, folklore, personal experience, fun and fine judgment in one enjoyable book.
  • A vital read for gardeners, naturalists, and anyone interested in both native plants and invasives.


Invasives in Britain: a balanced view

Himalayan balsam: 'largely only displaces other aliens or thuggish natives,' says David Pearman. Image used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.There’s a lot of nonsense talked about invasives so it’s refreshing to see one of Britain’s most respected botanists talking some real sense. David Pearman is a former President of the Botanical Society of the British Isles and a leading light in the development and publication of one of the most vital British plant publications of our times, the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora.

In a piece entitled The Alien Invasion Myth which appears in the current issue of The Garden, the membership magazine of the Royal Horticultural Society, he writes: “For the last 20 years I have coordinated our Society’s largest network of botanical recorders (from the Botanical Society of the British Isles): together we have accumulated about 18 million records, covering the entire area and 4,000 species. In simple terms, the data shows that most aliens are rare; that they occur overwhelmingly in and around towns and transport networks; and they are generally uncommon in the semi-natural habitats that we most want to preserve. Recording alien plants is, broadly, a recent phenomenon, and all extrapolations are to be taken with a pinch of salt.”

He goes on: “But the real, inescapable line is that our countryside and flora is changing like never before, mainly from abandonment of traditional management practices and pollution. It is largely ‘native’ plants that are to blame – look at the chalk downlands of southern England (choked with gorse on the dip slopes) or our rivers (a vast increase in reeds, due to higher nutrients).” 'Native Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, are under only a minute and local threat from garden outcasts,' says David Pearman. Image © (all rights reserved)

Of course the situation is slightly different in North America where there’s more genuinely natural habitat; in Britain almost all habitats are, as he puts it, “semi-natural” – most woodlands, meadows, mountains and aquatic habitats show the hand of man in some form. But in North America there’s also a tendency to rip out any non-native plant that turns up before anyone has had the chance to record its distribution or study its tendency to spread – or, perhaps, its tendency simply to fade away.

Changes in management, and pollution, are the drivers of change in Britain’s natural habitats, says David Pearman. We can hardly blame plants for what happens as a result.


Himalayan balsam image by ArtMechanic used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Thank you.

Ivy reveals how nature is nuanced

Ivy growing on a stone wall. Image © (all rights reserved)In North America, in spite of uncertainty about exactly which species is involved, ivy is widely condemned as an invasive plant that smothers natural vegetation. And it’s true, whether it’s Hedera helix or H. hibernica that’s causing the problem, ivy can be a menace in some areas although in much of the country it doesn’t grow at all and in other areas it remains well behaved.

But seeing this ivy on the wall of an English stone cottage (left, click to enlarge) reminded me that ivy can cause other problems even in Britain where it’s a valuable native plant popular with insects and birds and a widely popular ornamental climber for walls.

It has clearly once covered this limestone wall but has been cut off at the root and most of the growth removed. But it’s still growing, rooting into the mortar and renewing its hold. Looks like a job for Round Up, now, because the mortar traditionally used between the stones is relatively soft; when it’s pulled off, the mortar tends to come away too. Click he picture to enlarge it and you can see.

On modern walls built of hard bricks and hard mortar, a completely opposite problem can arise. In the picture below (click to enlarge), the bricks and mortar are so hard that the short aerial roots with which ivy stems grip their support have failed to take hold well. The weight of a rainstorm has pulled the ivy right off the wall.

These situations serve to remind us, on both sides of the Atlantic, that enthusiasm for a plant, and condemnation of it, are not simple black-and-white issues. Nature is nuanced, rarely is a simplistic view justified.
Ivy falling off a brick wall. Image © (all rights reserved)