Alec on Weedy Plants

by Alec McCarter   2000


The subjects of today’s rant, and homegrown philosophical musings, are those companion plants that the gardener has deliberately acquired, but which by their exuberance and profligacy have made themselves unloved and unwanted.


The order in which I discuss these poor creatures has nothing to do with their relative unworthiness or the trouble that they cause the gardener.  I shall stick to common names, because, to be frank, I do not know the botanical names of most of them.


Grasses:  The current craze over grasses has a distinct down-side.  Some of them are downright nasty.  When we had a little dog, a Yorkie/Lhassa-Apso cross, the resemblance between him and a tuft of reddish-brown, long-haired grass was so strong that we planted it in a conspicuous place in the garden where it grew until it was hard to tell which was grass, and which was sleeping dog.  Unfortunately, the grass multiplied, setting up new colonies far from the original spot.  We dug it out.  The much-loved dog died five years ago, but we still have the unloved red-brown grass – everywhere.  Fortunately, it is easy to spot and pull out, but some of it has reverted (or something) to a green variety, not so easily seen.


Then, there is the tall grass that our neighbour planted close to the fence between us; its very ornamental seed-heads tower droopingly over the fence, and its thickly sown seedlings have invaded our garden.  The new clumps are easily seen, but we do not want them.


Lastly among the grasses, there are the tiny clumps, some the colour of the earth, that occupy any places where bare earth is exposed.  Some of these are lawn grasses that have had their seed-heads chopped off and cast afar by a lawn mower.  They are,  possibly, our worst weed, because, as long as we have a lawn, we shall also have these detested offspring.  Why is it that they always have gone to seed before they can be seen?

A terrible spreader, sold in packets as a choice plant, is Oxalis adenophylla.  It might be easily controlled if grown in a dry, well-drained rock garden, but in our moist clay it has found its ideal breeding ground.  There is not a square metre in the garden that does not have its colony, or many colonies, of this shamrock-leafed, pink flowered nuisance.  Pulling it or digging it out leaves tiny offsets from which new plants soon grow out.

The worst weed in our garden for persistence is Nothoscordum inodorm, (False Garlic?)  This was deliberately introduced because someone said it was a choice plant.  It is quite attractive with shiny, flat, grass-like leaves, a tall, graceful, flowering stalk with an umbel of small, creamy-pink flowers having a sweet scent.  But it rapidly goes to seed and every seed germinates.  Not only that but below ground, at a depth that can be as much as 20 cm., there is a bulb that sends out dozens (hundreds?) of small bulbils, resembling apple-seeds in size and colour that remain in the ground when one attempts to pull - or even dig out the plant.  A relative of the onion, the plant itself is odourless.  I have dug over the same plot of soil and sifted it to remove bulbils 6 or 8 times and still have not got them all.  Furthermore, some must have migrated into the compost because we now find them far from the original site of their planting.


Now, to cope with these problems one must have a philosophy.  One might be to love them, another might be to leave them, which could go so far as to think of selling the house and moving away.  A more practical approach would be to accept that Mother Nature has decreed that all her creatures must reproduce at all costs, and must do whatever is necessary to ensure that this foremost of Nature’s Laws is not broken.  Thus, the clumps of grass go into camouflage mode, or grow high enough to surmount the fence, or put out such long, hairy streamers carrying seeds so tiny that the chances of reproducing without being discovered are optimized.  Or, other plants produce so many miniatures of themselves that it is not likely that the gardener can find and destroy all that he does not want.  What marvelous ingenuity!  This philosophy, the acceptance of Nature’s law, concludes with the injunction just to put up with it.  What else can one do when the means of distribution is a weed-eater or a lawn-mower?


Perhaps what distinguishes these horrors from some of our favourite garden plants, is that our loved ones, for their success, must rely more on their human companions, than on their innate, limited resources, whereas weeds, having recourse to such ingenious inheritance, challenge the resources of the gardener.