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…..
Dear readers, if the county plant of London is the Rose-Bay Willowherb, then the Postal Code Plant of East Finchley must be the Green Alkanet. As I wander the streets, it seems to be obligatory to have at least one of these hairy-leaved beauties peering out from under the Buddleia, or popping forth boldly from the bottom of a fence. And yet, I cannot remember it from my childhood in East London, so I wonder if it has a preference for the heady heights of North London.
It is, in fact, a member of the Borage and Comfrey family, and, as you might expect, is popular with bees, especially early in the season when there isn’t much else about. Its leaves survive right through the winter, hence its Latin moniker, sempervirens, which means ‘always green’.
Green Alkanet was introduced into gardens in 1700, and was first recorded in the wild in 1724, so it has been with us for a long time. It is a true Londoner inasmuch as it can’t abide acidic soils, and so the cold, claggy clay of the capital suits it down to the ground (literally). It is a very hairy plant – the stems are hairy, the lavender buds are hairy, the leaves are hairy (and sometimes feature white spots as well). It is readily attacked by rusts (as in the specimen above). All in all, it is something of a bruiser, a street-fighter of a plant whose toughness belies its delicate flowers.
‘Alkanet’ is an interesting word, thought to derive from the Arabic word for the plant-based red dye Henna. The word is also the root of the names of Dyers’ Bugloss (Alkanna tinctoria) and Common Bugloss (Anchusa arvensis), to which Green Alkanet is closely related. In fact, Anchusa is derived from the Latin word for paint. The books that I’ve read seem to agree that a red dye can be extracted from the sturdy root of the plant, and the WildflowerFinder website, which has a special interest in plant chemistry, goes further, suggesting that the extracts from the root can be used to make a purple or burgundy dye, with alkaline compounds being used to increase the blue pigment, and acid ones turning it red again. There is also a strong suggestion elsewhere that the plant was deliberately introduced to provide dyes for cloth, being cheaper than true Henna, which is extracted from the Henna tree (Lawsonia inermis).
Green Alkanet has several other uses – the flowers are apparently edible, and I can just imagine them frozen into ice-cubes and clinking away in a gin and tonic. Being a member of the comfrey family, the leaves can also be composted, or rotted down to provide liquid fertiliser. But it’s as a plant for pollinators that it finds its true vocation, the white heart of the flower acting as a target for all those thirsty early bees. It is yet another of those plants that we would be delighted with if we planted it deliberately, but which is undervalued because it’s just a ‘weed’. It seems as if we find it difficult to appreciate the beauty that comes to us for free, like grace.