At this time of the year weeds can become a bit of an obsession for me. In the warm, wet weather of spring they will sprout seemingly overnight in my beds and borders, and their triffid-like growth threatens to rapidly engulf whatever space they can.
One of the ultimate skills of a gardener must be our finely-honed weed identification skills. After a few years of sifting through them, I feel I now have the innate ability to spot the difference between a seedling of a plant I want, and one that I don’t. This uncanny knack rests on a knife-edge definition of what a weed is. Most of us would agree that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place.
Some doubt begins to creep into my mind when I begin to consider that every plant has an ecological value, and if it has chosen this as the ideal spot to grow, can it really be in the wrong place? Who am I to rule this herbaceous border like an iron-fisted dictator, eradicating any of the diverse species that choose to make it their home. What many gardeners may consider a weed could be seen by a bee as a source of nectar, by a bird as nesting material or by a butterfly as the ideal food source for their caterpillars. Would I look at dandelions and daisies with the same disdain perhaps if they were hard to grow or exotic; is it just their familiarity and ease of cultivation which breeds contempt? Some people spend their lives trying to rid their gardens of crocosmia, yet others would love to have the same problem.
Many of these plants which have been branded by the gardening fraternity as weeds are also included into the group of horticultural hooligans known as ‘invasive species’. I sometimes find this title to be a bit of a misnomer. When I see a plant that I want successfully establishing, spreading and colonising an area, I like to think that it has found its ecological ‘niche’. A plant that is able to do this more rapidly than anything else is then perhaps just telling us of the instability of an ecosystem where a large niche is currently being under-utilised.
There seems to be a commonly held fantasy of a ‘climax community’, that all plants aspire to be part of, where population size and species mix never fluctuates, and everything lives in perfect harmony for eternity. Unfortunately this utopian dream has never been true, and the opportunistic nature of most organisms instills in everything the desire to proliferate.
Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t just learn to appreciate the bold, pioneering nature of these ‘weeds’ a bit more and maybe encourage some of the more attractive candidates to reach maturity so that they can fulfil their ultimate purpose, and not leave a gaping hole waiting to be filled in the ecosystem of my border.