Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Last Friday, I went for a walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery with my friend Jo. At this time of year there are lots of plants putting in a last burst of enthusiastic flowering. We found a whole patch of Comfrey in full blossom, attended by the last of the Queen bumblebees who are fattening up before they hibernate. And we also found several patches of Smooth Hawksbeard, one of those ‘yellow compositae’ that are so numerous and so tricky to identify, what with all the Hawksbeards and Hawkbits and Catsears and Dandelions.
This is one of those plants that we take for granted. There are so many yellow-flowered weeds around, blossoming from the first dandelions (who often seem to appear as soon as the snow disappears) to the sow thistles and groundsel who, especially in cities, never seem to stop in even in the depths of winter. But a close look reveals how pretty it is, with its blunt-petalled flowers and long, hairless stems.
There are no great stories told about Smooth Hawksbeard, or at least none that I can find. I am even unable to tell you why it, and the other members of the family, are called Hawksbeards. What I do know is that the sunny presence of this unremarked little plant cheered us both up greatly, and that the hoverflies were delighted to find it in flower.
As I was researching this piece, I was also very happy to find another person who appreciated London’s weeds – the artist, Michael Landy. You might know him from his project ‘Breakdown’ where he meticulously catalogued, dismantled and destroyed all of his 7227 possessions, in public . I remember watching him going about this task in a defunct branch of C&A on Oxford Street. However, his weed drawings are called ‘Nourishment’, and here’s what the Tate website has to say about them:
“The etchings are all meticulous, life-sized studies of individual weeds the artist found growing in the street. Landy has described why he was drawn to these ‘street flowers’. He has said, ‘they are marvellous, optimistic things that you find in inner London … They occupy an urban landscape which is very hostile and they have to be adaptable and find little bits of soil to prosper’ (quoted in Buck). Weeds are hardy, thriving in often inhospitable conditions with very little soil, water or direct sunlight. They grow between paving stones or on waste ground in the city, tenaciously asserting themselves despite being overlooked by the majority of passers-by. Landy collected a number of these plants and took them back to his studio where he potted and tended them, making studies of their structures including detailed renderings of roots, leaves and flowers.”
To see his etchings of Smooth Hawksbeard and many other Bugwoman favourites (Herb Robert, Groundsel, Shepherd’s Purse) just click here.
I hereby dub Michael Landy as a honorary Weed Warrior.