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The Ways of Weeds:
Better Living through Botany

[1]3,018 words

The singer Édith Piaf famously, and throatily, regretted nothing [2] about anything. But the poet John Betjeman wished that [3] he’d had more sex. And the economist John Maynard Keynes that he’d drunk [4] more champagne. Me? I regret two things much more important than recreational sex or champagne.

Enhancing and illuminating life

First, I wish that I’d listened to more classical music when I was younger. Second, I wish I’d paid more attention to plants and flowers when I was younger. I can’t go as far as Wordsworth [5]: “To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” — but I can now count myself among the lucky people who know how plants can both enhance and illuminate life. And plants have brought me closer to two of my favorite writers, as I’ll show below.

But I don’t want to value plants for their importance or meaning to human beings. I agree with Cicero [6] that anyone with a library and a garden lacks for nothing, but it’s weeds and wildflowers that I enjoy most. Out in the woods and wild places, they have the spirit that Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) celebrated here [7]:

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

But weeds and wildflowers survive in towns and cities too. I love their energy and irreverence there, the way they can survive in the unlikeliest places and under the harshest persecution. But sometimes they survive by following the advice of Epicurus [8] and living so as not to draw attention to yourself. That way you don’t attract enemies. Some weeds are drab, understated, unflashy, haunters of shadows and side-streets. If I put the memory into words I’ll weaken it, but I’ve long remembered a wall lettuce, Mycelis muralis, growing in a dark alley just off the busy and brightly lit high street of an old English city.

Call of the wall

Alas, that city is losing its history and its Englishness, filling now with Muslims and modernity. But the wall-lettuces are still there, quiet and unassuming, oddly attractive in their spindliness and with their small yellow flowers. They were there before the city and before England, and they’ll be there after both have gone. In recent centuries they’ve shared the city with a floral invader that turned out to be an enhancer: the almost-as-easy-to-overlook ivy-leaved toadflax, Cymbalaria muralis. As the literary scholar and naturalist Geoffrey Grigson said in The Englishman’s Flora (1958): “In just over three centuries [Cymbalaria] has conquered most of the walls of Great Britain. It must now come to a halt in the age of fences and barbed wire.”

[9]

Wall lettuce, Mycelis muralis

Yet Cymbalaria conquered without displacing: there are no comparable native species, perhaps because walls were once much rarer on the British Isles than in Cymbalaria’s homeland of Italy. Grigson says that when more walls started going up here from the seventeenth century, Cymbalaria began to spread. Now you’ll see it everywhere on old walls if you care to look. I love its fresh green leaves, cascading quietly down stone or brick, and its myriad tiny but attractive flowers, lilac with a yellow-and-white center and a little spur behind.

More with moss

Cymbalaria is in the snapdragon family, but it isn’t flashy like its garden relatives. I suppose that’s why it’s so little-known and is given such an ungainly English name in the wildflower guides: ivy-leaved toadflax. I prefer a popular name from Cheshire: thousand-flower. It might be unassuming, but it’s prolific. I’ve seen that close-up for myself — out of the green, as it were. I once brought home one of those disks of moss that you sometimes see lying on the pavement after they’ve fallen off a roof. I call them moss skullcaps and I love moss too: its green, its quiet, and its air of primitive purity and eld. So I brought this moss skullcap home, put it on a saucer, and watered it to enjoy the green and the quiet.

But I got more than moss, because a weed with roundish green leaves started to grow from the disk. It took me a while to identify it — as I’ve said, I should have got interested in botany much younger. At first, I thought it might be navelwort, Umbilicus rupestris. Then flowers appeared and I realized it was ivy-leaved toadflax, growing quite happily from moss in a saucer on a windowsill. It grew well, seeded abundantly, and has flourished on my windowsills ever since, even managing to pot-hop on its own and share soil with other plants. Something similar happened with one of the willowherbs (I’m still not sure which species). I did knowingly bring seeds home, but I didn’t knowingly introduce them to every pot willowherb is now growing in. Willowherbs are at home in Hopkin’s “wildness and wet,” but their seeds are light and feathery and fly on the slightest breeze. And that’s how they’ve escaped my supervision and appeared unexpectedly elsewhere.

King re-crowned

But wildflowers don’t need flying seeds to appear unexpectedly elsewhere. On the day I’m writing this I saw some biting stonecrop, Sedum acre, high on the façade of an old house, with some ferns growing around a drainpipe a little to its left. The ferns weren’t unexpected, but the stonecrop was. I usually see it low on the ground, not high in the air. It gets its common name from its acrid-tasting leaves, but I prefer the name Grigson says is given to it in Berkshire: golden stonecrop, from the beautiful color of its five-petaled flowers. Tolkien must have preferred that too, as you can see in one part of The Lord of the Rings (1954-5). Stonecrop appears after the power-loving, green-loathing necromancer Sauron has filled the sky with the black smoke of Mount Doom. The setting sun finds “the hem of the great slow-rolling pall of cloud.” It shines on the hobbits Frodo and Sam as they stand at a crossroad on their way to Mordor:

The brief glow fell upon a huge sitting figure, still and solemn as the great stone kings of Argonath. The years had gnawed it, and violent hands had maimed it. Its head was gone, and in its place was set in mockery a round rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead. Upon its knees and mighty chair, and all about the pedestal, were idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot-folk of Mordor used.

Suddenly, caught by the level beams, Frodo saw the old king’s head: it was lying rolled away by the roadside. “Look, Sam!” he cried, startled into speech. “Look! The king has got a crown again!”

The eyes were hollow and the carven beard was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed.

“They cannot conquer for ever!” said Frodo. And then suddenly the brief glimpse was gone. The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the shuttering of a lamp, black night fell. 

(The Two Towers, closing paragraphs of chapter 7)

That’s weed-wit: “They cannot conquer for ever!” Stonecrop is gold for the soul, but not for the purse. As I’ve learned more about flowers and trees, I’ve appreciated Tolkien’s writing more. And I sympathize more with Tolkien’s ents, the walking-and-talking tree-giants whose leader and spokesman is Treebeard. After meeting two other hobbits, Pippin and Merry, Treebeard explains to them how the male ents became estranged long before from the female entwives. While the ents loved to speak with “the great trees” and wander “the wild woods,” the entwives turned to “the lesser trees” and “the herbs” of the meadows.

However, Treebeard goes on, the entwives “did not desire to speak with these things.” Rather, “they wished them to hear and obey what was said to them. The Entwives ordered them to grow according to their wishes, and bear leaf and fruit to their liking; for the Entwives desired order, and plenty, and peace (by which they meant that things should remain where they had set them).”

Order and obedience

The entwives didn’t love wildness and liked wet only for the useful work it could do. Although the ents didn’t hunt — they “ate only such fruit as the trees let fall in their path” — their estrangement from the entwives echoes the old enmity between the hunter and the farmer. Tolkien was a lover of the wild and had a healthy suspicion of female conformism and love for order and obedience. So did George Orwell, whose work I’ve also learned to appreciate more by learning more about botany. In one section of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Orwell’s doomed protagonist Winston Smith recalls an outing with his estranged wife Katharine. She too is a conformist and lover of order and obedience:

It was three or four months after they were married. They had lost their way on a community hike somewhere in Kent. They had only lagged behind the others for a couple of minutes, but they took a wrong turning, and presently found themselves pulled up short by the edge of an old chalk quarry. It was a sheer drop of ten or twenty metres, with boulders at the bottom. There was nobody of whom they could ask the way. As soon as she realized that they were lost Katharine became very uneasy. To be away from the noisy mob of hikers even for a moment gave her a feeling of wrong-doing. She wanted to hurry back by the way they had come and start searching in the other direction. But at this moment Winston noticed some tufts of loosestrife growing in the cracks of the cliff beneath them. One tuft was of two colours, magenta and brick-red, apparently growing on the same root. He had never seen anything of the kind before, and he called to Katharine to come and look at it. 

(Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part 2, chapter 3)

But Katharine is reluctant, not sharing Winston’s enthusiasm for wildness and two-colored loosestrife. Orwell shared his protagonist’s enthusiasms and that description of the quarry and its unusual flowers was presumably drawn from Orwell’s own life. Elsewhere he wrote of how [10] the English “love of flowers” was bound up with what he called the “privateness of English life” — the enthusiasm for hobbies and pastimes, unregulated and even ignored by the state. But in totalitarian states like the USSR — or Sauron’s domain in Middle-earth — everything in life was watched and regulated.

Defying the killjoys

Orwell knew that many people in England would enthusiastically crush private life there too. In his wonderful little essay “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad [11]” (1946), he pointed out one of the great truths of existence: “a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature.” But he also said that “I know by experience that a favourable reference to ‘Nature’ in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters.”

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Field bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis

I doubt that Orwell would have liked Tolkien, but those writers of abusive letters had the spirit of Sauron or of Sauron’s servants the orcs. The letter-writers hated beauty or nature and wanted to stop other people enjoying them. Orwell ended the essay defying that Sauronic spirit:

At any rate, spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. 

(“Some Thoughts on the Common Toad [11]”)

Unluckily they can in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Part of Winston’s doom is that his enjoyment of flowers and nature will be tortured out of him in the cellars of the Ministry of Love. As his torturer O’Brien tells him: “Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.”

Blazing with golden flowers

Winston will never again find pleasure in loosestrife “of two colours, magenta and brick-red, apparently growing on the same root.” Or in any other aspect of nature. But that totalitarian impulse, that desire to rule over and ruin the lives of others, exists in many real people who lack O’Brien’s intelligence and articulacy. My own explorations in nature haven’t just made me feel closer to Orwell: they’ve brought me the attention of people who think like O’Brien or like Sauron’s orcs. I’ve learned not to pay obvious attention to interesting flowers when I’m surrounded by houses. Why not? Because a certain kind of person enjoys destroying what other people take pleasure in.

[13]

Ragwort and butterflies

An example: one sunny day I stood and looked at a ragwort, Senecio jacobaea, that was blazing with golden flowers and swarming with hoverflies. The ragwort had been standing on a verge for weeks, but the next day it was gone. I think someone had seen me enjoying it and decided to remove the source of enjoyment. Another time I stood and looked at a rich crop of fascinatingly grotesque Jew’s-ear fungus, Auricularia auricula-judae, growing on an elder branch (the legend is that [14] the Jew’s-ear fungus grew on elder after Judas hanged himself from the tree — auricula-judae means “little ear of Judas,” but jelly-ear fungus is the politically correct modern name). The next day, the branch had been torn down and thrown some distance away. Yet another time I stood and looked at a juicy patch of moss growing beneath a dripping pipe on the wall of a warehouse. The conditions were ideal and the moss was richly green and beautiful, swarming (I could imagine) with microscopic life like rotifers and tardigrades.

Floral flames conquering lawns

When I looked at the wall again soon afterwards, the moss had been scraped away. England is an overcrowded country with far too many prying eyes and poisonous brains. So I no longer pay obvious attention to interesting flora or fauna when I think there’s a good chance I can be seen from houses. But in some ways, that increases the value of what I see. And it’s good to be reminded that the orc-spirit and the O’Brien-spirit aren’t literary inventions. Then again, some weeds don’t need attention drawn to them. They draw it for themselves. Orange hawkweed, Pilosella aurantiaca, isn’t a fan of Epicurus and quietism. It’s a garden escape like ivy-leaved toadflax, but it isn’t understated and unobtrusive in the same way.

[15]

Orange hawkweed, Pilosella aurantiaca (also known as fox-and-cubs)

Instead, its flowers blaze with a rich orange-gold, almost like floral flames or minute setting suns. This year I’ve seen a lawn first conquered by orange hawkweed, which stood there in wonderful, weedy dozens; and then mown flat and smooth and hawkweedless. But not so far away is another house whose owner doesn’t seem to mind a hawkweed invasion. Last year they flowered right till winter, and this year they’re back in multitudes. Like a lot of other wild flora, orange hawkweed has enjoyed this year’s good blend of strong sun and occasional heavy rain. It’s growing on pavements in a way I haven’t seen before. Or haven’t noticed before. In the past, I might have thought it an unusually colored dandelion.

Archetypal and impressive

It is in the dandelion family, after all, and I’m still learning about botany. True dandelions, Taraxacum officinale, have their delights too. If they weren’t so common and so ungovernable, I think gardeners would be delighted to cultivate the rich golden flowers of dandelions. As it is, gardeners wage war on dandelions. They’re archetypal weeds, too obtrusive, too eye-catching, energetic, and autonomous. Scarlet pimpernel, Anagallis arvensis, by contrast, sounds eye-catching and isn’t. I knew the name first: it’s the nom de guerre of the daring hero in novels by the British-Hungarian writer Baroness Orczy (1865-1947). Her Scarlet Pimpernel [16] is a sword-fighting English aristocrat who rescues French aristocrats during the revolution. And I assumed his floral namesake would be large and dominant.

[17]

Sea ivory, Ramalina siliquosa

It isn’t. But it is impressive, despite its smallness and delicacy. The rich color of a scarlet pimpernel’s flowers is a delight as it grows in a gutter or at the foot of a wall. According to Geoffrey Grigson’s The Englishman’s Flora, “drops-of-blood” is one common name in Wiltshire. Many of its other common names refer to weather — “poor man’s weather-glass” and “shepherd’s clock,” for example — because the flowers open fully only when it’s sunny and dry. In Ireland, Grigson says, it’s called seamare mhuire, “blessed herb.” That would be a good description of all the plants I’ve described here. They are blessed and they do bless, undoing what the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-30) so astutely called Entzauberung, the disenchantment worked on the world by science, industrialization, and modernity.

Wildflowers re-enchant the world, whether gloriously and gaudily like orange hawkweed, or quietly and calmly like enchanter’s nightshade, Circaea lutetiana, whose odd little white flowers glimmer in the shade of woods at this time of year. If you want better living, you can find it through botany.

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