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, on Sunday I made a brief foray into Coldfall Wood to see how autumn was shaping up – after being away in Canada for a fortnight, and then working away from home for a week, I was eager to fit in a quick visit. The area around the winter pond was full of bulrushes and Michaelmas daisies, but the dominant plant was this one, broad-leaved dock.
I know nothing about docks of any kind, except that they are a) the cure for stinging nettle hives if the leaves are rubbed onto the affected area (my dad assures me that dock always grows close to nettles for just this purpose), and b) that they are long-rooted and hence a nightmare to dig out once they become established. My research for this piece has revealed that the taproot can be up to five feet long, which makes me wish that I’d thought about tackling the dock next to my rowan tree a bit earlier. Like, several years ago. But here in Coldfall Wood, in the damp claggy soil of the pond, the broad-leaved docks seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Their rusty-red seedheads have a kind of ramshackle beauty about them.
One way to tell broad-leaved dock from the other members of the family is to have a look at the leaves. At the base, they are distinctly heart-shaped – the leaves of most other docks are strap-like. The fresh young leaves can be eaten like spinach, although grazing animals will avoid them, and the taste is said to be unpleasant. Furthermore, the plant is high in oxalic acid, so eating it should be avoided by those prone to kidney stones or joint problems. The leaves have been used to wrap cheese and butter (it is believed that this will keep the food fresher for longer), and adding a few dock leaves to a pot of water is said to make it come to the boil more quickly. This last belief is rather intriguing: when I have more time, maybe I’ll try a scientific experiment in the kitchen to see if there is something about dock that lowers the boiling point of water, or whether throwing anything into a pot of water would work as well – I’ve certainly seen water suddenly boil over when I’ve added salt or oil. The world is full of mysteries, to be sure.
This is a native plant in the UK, but like so many others it can now be found in North America too. Even in the UK it is designated as an ‘injurious weed’ in the 1959 Weeds Act (who knew there was such a thing?), and it is one of five weeds (the others are Curly Dock, Common Ragwort, Spear Thistle and Creeping Thistle) that the Secretary of State can insist are controlled even on private land. We have already mentioned the plants’ deep tap-root, but as it can produce 60,000 seeds wind-dispersed seeds per year, and as these seeds can survive for up to 50 years (due to a chemical that prevents microbial breakdown), I can see how it could be a problem on cultivated land. However, in my experience this is a plant that pops up in damp, claggy, over-grazed fields, where the competing plants have already given up the ghost. The plant is a symptom, rather than a cause.
In spite of it being part of this ‘hall of fame’ however, broad-leaved dock has a variety of medicinal uses, in addition to its efficacy with nettle stings (to which I can personally attest). A tea made from dock root was said to cure boils, and the leaves have been used to soothe burns and abrasions. The Iroquois Indians used a tea made from the plant as a contraceptive (though how successful this was is not known). The seeds have been used as a cure for tuberculosis and stomach infections, and also as a spice, although the recipes that I’ve seen are for curled dock (Rumex crispus) rather than for broad-leaved dock.
Broad-leaved dock is a member of the Polygonaceae family, which includes two other plants that have already been featured on the blog: Redshank, and Japanese Knotweed. As you can see, it is a family of plants that can be problematic from a human point of view. I prefer to think of them as a family of survivors and opportunists, who will flourish when most other plants would fail. When I look at a stand of broad-leaved dock, I wonder if I am looking at a potential post-apocalyptic plant, one that will be here long after we are all gone. For some reason, I find its resilience strangely reassuring.