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, once upon a time you could not pass an English town hall without seeing a Union Jack made out of red geraniums, blue lobelia and white sweet alyssum, and the latter is still one of the most popular bedding plants in the country. After all, what’s not to like? It flowers abundantly from spring through to the first frosts, is low-growing and non-invasive, and has a sweet smell which many people compare to honey.The Wikipedia entry for the plant describes it as ‘the superhero of annual plants, with unparalleled drought and heat-resistance properties’. The plant was first recorded in our gardens in 1722, and from the wild in the UK by 1807. Its original habitat, as the Latin species name suggests, was the beaches and dunes of the Mediterranean, and sweet alyssum has made itself at home in many coastal areas in the south of England. However, it is also a very adaptable plant, and can be found in many sheltered places, including the decidedly non-maritime streets of East Finchley. Of the two specimens in my photographs, one comes from the N2 Community Garden plot in front of the children’s nursery opposite the station, and the other one has appeared at the bottom of a wall further up the High Street.
Also known as sweet alison or just alyssum, this plant is a member of the cabbage-family – its four petals, arranged into a cross (cruciform) shape might have given me a clue if I’d been paying attention. The stamens are bright yellow, and the whole plant has a great freshness to it. Although I’ve never seen it at the seaside I can well imagine the plant waving its head in the sea breeze. It is an invaluable bedding plant for gardeners, as those little white flowers attract many tiny wasps and hoverflies, which can make short work of your carrot flies and cabbage white caterpillars. For some lovely photos of alyssum used in companion planting, have a look at the Tenth Acre Farm website here, you won’t be disappointed.
Being a member of the cabbage family means that the leaves of the plant are edible, and are described as having a ‘peppery, cress-like taste’. The flowers are also said to be pleasant to eat, and I can imagine them adding a welcome pungency to a salad. The Eat The Weeds website says that the flowers also candy well, which I imagine means somehow coating them in liquid sugar or caramel. In my experience, there are few foods that caramel doesn’t improve.
The Alchemy Works website lists some interesting medicinal uses for this plant in its native range. Sweet alyssum was said to be used in the treatment of rabies (the name alyssum breaks down to a-lyssum, meaning ‘without madness’). In Afghanistan the plant is used for nervous disorders, and in Spain it is considered a diuretic and valuable source of Vitamin C (historically, it was used to treat scurvy).
Dear Readers, I have sometimes been something of a snob when it comes to what I plant in my garden – I tend towards plants that are difficult to get hold of, problematic to raise and temperamental in the extreme. However, just as in my life I have discovered that drama and emotional fireworks are no substitute for steadfast love and loyalty, so I am beginning to think that tried and trusted plants might be a better bet for my north-facing plot than some of the primadonnas that I am currently favouring. In the language of flowers, alyssum means ‘worth beyond beauty’, and I am thinking that a tough little plant like this, with its attraction to predatory insects, might be just the thing for the shallow, semi-shaded area around my pond. My father gardens by planting what is likely to be happy in the location that he has chosen, and he loves plants that thrive without needing to be cosseted like prize Pekingese dogs. I think, at 56 years old, I am finally realising that he’s right.
All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!