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, 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.
Fox-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.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.
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.
As 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 of Mouse-eared Hawkweed is by Anne Burgess [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
All other photos are copyright Vivienne Palmer.