Wednesday Weed – Fox-and-cubs

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…..

Fox-and-cubs (Pilosella aurantiaca)

Fox-and-cubs (Pilosella aurantiaca)

Dear Readers, rarely does the common name of a plant reflect so accurately its nature as with this member of the Asteraceae or daisy family. With its copper-coloured petals and tight groupings of buds, Fox-and-cubs clearly brings to mind a vixen and her youngsters. I was pleased to find it in full bloom on the unadopted road close to my house in East Finchley, especially because, of all the ‘wild’ daisies hereabouts, it’s the only orange one, and so is relatively easy to identify.  Note also the hairy stem and the lack of leaves apart from in a rosette at the base.

IMG_4703Fox-and-cubs comes originally from the Carpathian mountains, and we have noticed before how often plants that are used to the harsh conditions of drought, ultra-violet light and thin soils that are encountered at altitude find themselves at home on our city wastelands. The plant was first seen in the UK in 1629, and was recorded in the wild in 1793. It is a close relative of our native Mouse-ear Hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum), and in some places forms a hybrid. In London it is usually a garden escape, although its light, fluffy seeds can transport the ‘cubs’ a long distance from their mother.

Anne Burgess [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mouse-eared Hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum). For photo credit, please see below.

Fox-and-cubs has a variety of other vernacular names. ‘Devil’s Paintbrush’ is wonderfully descriptive. ‘Orange hawkweed’ is obvious. However,  I find myself very puzzled by one of the others: ‘Grim-the-collier’. I have read several explanations for the name, including one which says that the plant resembles a collier’s beard because of the tiny black hairs on the buds.

The buds have tiny black hairs, but is this enough to establish a link with the mining industry?

The buds have tiny black hairs, but is this enough to establish a link with the mining industry?

To add further to the confusion, a play called ‘Grim the Collier of Croydon’ was published in 1662, in which the titular Grim is a kind and simple-hearted soul who finally wins the hand of his sweetheart in marriage after the intercession of a small devil. The first question that sprang to my mind was why we would be having colliers in Croydon, but apparently it was the one of the centres of the coal trade in the seventeenth century. Of course, this brings me no closer to understanding the link between the play and the plant. Could the actor who played Grim have been a red-head, I wonder? And did the play-going public make a link that has stuck for 400 years? Well, maybe not, because there is an earlier reference in a herbal by Gerard going back to 1633 in which the plant is called ‘Grimme the Collier’, which suggests that the play was based on a story which was already extant then. Who knows? Suffice to say that this interloper was already familiar enough to have a very English name just a few years after it arrived.

IMG_4706As with so many of the plants that I feature, the arrival of Fox-and-cubs in other parts of the world has not been treated with unalloyed joy. It is on the noxious weeds lists of of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and parts of British Columbia. It is on the quarantine list in Australia, and is a noxious weed in Tasmania. Part of the problem is that it reproduces not only via its seeds, but also vegetatively by runners, like a strawberry. On the other hand, like so many members of the daisy family it is very attractive to pollinators. It seems to be liked very much by hoverflies, but is also visited by bees. This last is something of a puzzle, because orange and red flowers are almost invisible to these insects. However, there is evidence that Fox-and-cubs also features ultra-violet patterns which make it able to be seen. Certainly, it is a plant that is often added to green roof seed mixes, both to give a splash of russet to the colour palate and because it reproduces so readily and looks after itself so easily. I must confess that it is one of my favourite ‘weeds’, one that always cheers me up when I find it peeping out from a mass of grass, or forming part of an alpine meadow. Orange is such a rare colour in nature that we should treasure it whenever we find it.

Photo Credits

Photo of Mouse-eared Hawkweed is by Anne Burgess [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

All other photos are copyright Vivienne Palmer.

 

 

9 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Fox-and-cubs

  1. melissa

    This is one of my favourite wild flowers. Our garden in east London is full of Fox and Cubs, as is the nearby churchyard. I love the flowers but Have to be careful that it doesn’t take over.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      It’s always interesting trying to keep a vigorous plant in check. Turn your back for one minute and the whole garden’s gone orange! But I think that the churchyard must look very pretty with the Fox and cubs amongst the tombstones and all the cypresses and yew….

      Reply
  2. Tom Raw

    “Collier” was also the name for men who made charcoal for a living. Hence the many woods around the country called “Colliers Wood” (the area of South London of that name was built on one such wood, not far from Croydon). The Sussex/Kent Weald was also a big producer of charcoal – maybe it came up to London via Croydon?

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hi Tom, fascinating stuff! I hadn’t made the link with Colliers Wood, nor did I know the link with charcoal. And yes, maybe it did come to London via the route you describe. I love how the mystery of one vernacular plant name opens up such a window into history….

      Reply
  3. Marla

    Here we do call it the Devil’s Paint Brush. I remember this plant from childhood and have always loved it for its color and the image that comes to mind when I hear the name! In this green field what could he be painting with this drench of burning orange?

    Reply
  4. somewhere nowhere

    Thanks for such a wealth of information about this humble little plant. When I first got to know it in a hedgerow near Hawkshead, I liked it so much I brought it into the garden (unawares how easily it spreads!). Because of the link with Hawkshead I’ve always muddled the name and call it Hawk’s Beard … but you have now set me right!

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hi Harriet, the Hawk part of the name apparently came about because it was believed that birds of prey would use the petals of the plant to sharpen their eyesight. I would love to know what incident brought that belief about!

      Reply
  5. Ann

    My beloved dictionary of historical slang says that ‘old Mr Grim’ was a colloquial term for death in 18/mid 19 c.and that grim could mean to swindle in late 16/early 17 c. No help at all, really! But I bet someone will track down the meaning eventually.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I love how words and phrases have such varied and changeable meanings. This week, I found out that the word ‘pedigree’ comes from the French ‘pied de grue’ or crane’s foot, referring to the three toes coming out from a single point like a family tree.

      Reply

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