Wednesday Weed – Green Alkanet

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…..

Green Alkanet (Pentaglossis sempervirens)

Green Alkanet (Pentaglossis sempervirens)

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.

IMG_1883It 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’.

IMG_1887Green 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.

IMG_1888‘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. TheΒ  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).

The Henna Tree (Lawsonia inermis)

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.


20 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Green Alkanet

  1. Laurin Lindsey

    What a wonderful little “weed” I love your description of it and I enjoyed imagining it as a tough hairy Londoner. The flowers are so sweet and I am sure the bees are so happy that it around. I am just beginning to understand the need for native plants (some considered weeds) to help the population of native bees! I always include plants for pollinators in my designs…but I think i can take it to another level. Cheers!

  2. Damian

    Aha, I’ve been waiting for this one. Trust me that evil little plant is alive and well in SE London, despite my attempts to obliterate it πŸ™‚

    You say it was introduced in the 1700s. Where is it’s natural home?

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Green Alkanet will always win Damian, I’d just give up if I was you :-). It comes originally from South Western Europe, and as its name comes via Spanish and Arabic I’d bet that it can be found along the Mediterranean coast in Spain.

      1. Damian

        No I’ll never give up. It’s an ongoing and probably permanent conflict thanks to the large amount of reinforcements coming from the railway my house backs onto. That said after the main initial battle the hoards are being kept at bay by constant vigilance. Shame as, like you say, it’s a nice plant, I just don’t want it ‘over ere’ πŸ™‚ .

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  4. Keiko

    I have had this beautiful but difficult to get rid of plant for ever in my garden, but somehow only recently got around to finding out what it is. Your article has been most useful. And I’m delighted to find the tough and fat roots can be used as a dye. I do some spinning, and experimented with natural dyeing a little in the past. So using green alkanet will be my project this summer. wish me luck !

  5. Angela Kennedy

    Most appreciated. Now I know for sure they’re useful to bees I shall leave most of them alone. I see many bees around them but wasn’t sure if they were helpful or not.

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  7. Sarah

    Green Alkanet is very very common in RH1 (20 miles of South London) too. I welcomed it in my previous garden but am now the custodian of a rather tidier one in a neat suburban street and wondering if I should not let it have such free rein.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hi Sarah, I know what you mean about Green Alkanet, but it was a real favourite of the early bees this year – they seemed to prefer it to almost anything else that was in flower at the time- and so I’ve let it ‘do its thing’. The only thing I’ve been told off for so far in my suburban street was letting my buddleia grow too big, but as it was taking up half the pavement I was happy to trim it back a bit πŸ™‚

  8. Abigail Darling

    Thank you for all the information about this hariy wide boy, I’ve battling with it for years. I live in the Midlands in Leamington Spa and it seems to be very common up here too. I was actually searching to find a way to get rid of it as I notice it has started its yearly rampage to take over my flower borders. Now I know it has some positive qualities my attitude has softened somewhat. My knitting teacher dyes her own wool, so now I am looking forward to sharing the news about its history and dying properties. Also, good to know that it helps the bees so I will give up attempting to eradicate it and carry on ‘keeping it down’ after its first flowering of the year in May/June time. Good to know it is edible too, as I had thought it was borage and have put it in the odd glass of Pimms before now πŸ™‚

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Thank you, Abigail! Yes, it’s a rather ebullient weed, but the flowers are so pretty and so valuable at this time of year. I’m sure the flowers are perfect in Pimms if there’s no borage about, and it is from the same family after all. Cheers!

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  11. Judy Way

    Thank you Abigail, I have been searching for some identification on this plant. I have so much of it that I must ‘tame’ it. It arrives in my garden every spring and the bees absolutely love it. What would be the best way to do this? Many thanks.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hi Judy, I think the only way that’s also kind to the critters in the garden is to dig it out (though I know that the tap root goes down a long way! )


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