The days are on the mend “Nothing is so beautiful as Spring when weeds in wheels grow long and lovely and lush.”
Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poem, a literary ode to Spring in which he tries to create the original Garden of Eden is a poem that sticks in the mind from so many years ago. So does my father’s comment about the weeds being “the natural inhabitants of the soil”. Neither poetry nor lyrical waxing made the subject of weeds and weeding any more palatable to a young teenager delegated to weed onions, carrots, beetroot etc. in the seemingly endless suburban or rural kitchen gardens of the fifties and sixties.
As the original wildwood was cleared and Neolithic man began to farm and plant, a number of previously wild species spread into the new, more open tilled ground. Many of the plants have spread slowly across continents. The arrival of these unintended visitors signals an on-going battle between gardener and botanical invader, the former equipped with a trowel, plant poisons, bark mulch, membrane and low maintenance ground covering shrubs. The invaders have the benefit of thousands of years of breeding strategies that have enabled them to spread and occupy territory for many years. Most weeds of the flower bed are annuals that can get started and do their business before the gardener can pull them out. Others are perennials that thrive on neglect.
Shepherd’s Purse is one of the easiest weeds to identify. It has been growing immediately inside the gate to the left at Cabragh and you will easily identify the flattened triangular shape of its fruits. It produces thousands of seeds and in gardens it thrives at the base of walls that have been cleared by herbicides. Herbicides are not used in Cabragh but a small stone path leads down from the gate to the first pond and this plant seems to have colonized this area.
On farms, where the ground has been turned over and has escaped spraying, various annual weeds predominate in the short term. Poppies, forever associated with Flanders’ fields, are particularly characteristic of this temporary habitat. The common poppy has a smooth seed capsule and stems with protruding hairs. Their method of seed dispersal is ingenious with small windows opening in the capsule as the year progresses. Many weeds appear and disappear only to appear again years later. The Scarlet Pimpernel was also on that path inside the gate, a dry sunny sandy ground, and we may see it germinate again, particularly if the soil is disturbed.
Persistent hard weeding does eventually weaken some species. Deep rooted and expansive perennials are less affected and often inadvertently spread. Two favourites of Cabragh’s wet meadow, the creeping buttercup and the silverweed, are able to regenerate from tiny fragments of root or runner and of course the buttercup is nitrogen fixing and therefore supplies its own fertilizer.
Of all the weeds that demand the attention of the visitor and especially children, the stinging nettles are the most feared. Adored by naturalists as the host plant to the larvae of beautiful butterflies, its natural habitat is fertile, muddy, slightly disturbed ground, especially the lush nutrient rich silt of river valleys and woodland clearings manured by grazing animals. It adapted very easily to the enriched soils of arable and pasture land and to man made sites rich in nitrogen and phosphorous such as churchyards. It spreads by seed and by the aggressive growth of its underground stems which can advance more than two feet a year. Even severed fragments of these shoots can spread horizontally and send down tough fibrous roots which break through the surface to form new leaf bearing stems. Phosphates in the soil can persist for very long periods and nettles thrive on the remains of human occupation for over a thousand years. They are used as an indicator of long lost human settlement or burial. Perhaps fertilizer run off is behind the many clumps of nettles in Cabragh.
In Cabragh at present, the ponds and the water covered areas have all the traits of an airport departure lounge as our migrant birds build up fat and prepare for their long journeys. But amid the still brown vegetation and at the sheltered base of the hedgerow, things are stirring. All the spectacular flowering is yet to come but there is beauty to be gleaned and inspiration to be gained from the “natural inhabitants of the soil” and dare I say, old friends, that bind us to the natural world since time began.
Some dates still available for First Communion or Confirmation celebrations.
Slán go fóill.