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, I will shortly be jetting off on an adventure for my sixtieth birthday which will involve travelling to a part of the world that I’ve never visited before. But, while I am away, I thought I would revisit some of the ‘weeds’ that grow in my street in East Finchley. The piece below made its debut in October 2014. What a lot has happened since then! This is still a favourite plant, and in spite of many, many sprayings of weedkiller it is still present on the wall in the picture (though the graffiti is gone). It is, like many ‘weeds’, originally an alpine plant, but has been known in the UK as a garden plant since 1596. Mortared walls are a very specific environment, and few native plants have learned to colonise a habitat with sparse soil, high pH and a lot of exposure. In fact, some of the plants that we now think of as native (such as ivy-leaved toadflax ) came originally from the rocky places of mainland Europe.
In London, it is now the twentieth most common alien plant, putting it just behind trailing bellflower and just ahead of horse chestnut. In ‘Alien Plants’, Clive Stace describes how the black, shiny seeds of yellow corydalis are covered with an ‘oil body’ which ants are fond of – they often carry the seeds into their nests for future sustenance, and the seeds germinate once the oil has been consumed, a very handy symbiotic relationship.
Stace also makes some interesting comments about the relative affluence of housing and the alien ‘weeds’ that pop up. When I lived in Islington I was forever peering into the basements of the attractive Georgian houses round about, and these were often a mass of yellow corydalis, pale-lilac trailing bellflower, and baby trees-of-heaven or sycamore, all pushing up uninvited. On the other hand, the house that I lived in when growing up in Stratford had no basement and no front garden (and indeed, no bathroom and an outside toilet), but was often infiltrated by groundsel and sow-thistle, which Mum and Nan would pull up as soon as they showed their innocent heads for fear of what the neighbours might say. You don’t have to go very far in London to see a completely different array of plants, and I find it fascinating how local they can be. Where, for example, can I find some pellitory-of-the-wall, a plant that I’ve been dying to write about? If you live in London, give me a shout and I might come visit with my camera when I get back from my Secret Trip.
Anyhow, here were my thoughts six years ago. See what you think!
Just as the cold nights are coming in, Yellow Corydalis is putting on a last display of its yellow tubular flowers, which remind me of the muzzles of Chinese dragons. It grows very happily in this dark corner, and the lack of soil seems to present no problem – after all, this is a plant which came originally from the Alps and is therefore well adapted for infiltrating its tiny roots into the gaps in ramshackle walls and footpaths. As it has been recorded in the wild in the UK since 1796, however, I think we can consider it as being at home.
The plant is a member of the Fumitory family, and I was delighted to discover that the word ‘Fumitory’ comes from ‘Fumus terrae’ – Smoke of the Earth, in tribute to the fineness of the foliage. The leaves remind me a little of the Maidenhair Fern that I had as a houseplant when I was a student. That too, was one tough plant, surviving beer, cigarettes, being accidentally upended and, on one sad occasion, being pooed in by the newly acquired kitten. Yellow Corydalis is also tough, putting up with all manner of pollution and trampling, and still bouncing back. It is also poisonous, but doesn’t have the seductive qualities of many toxic plants, with their delicious-looking red berries and interesting seeds.
This is one of those plants that is so attractive that, if it were not for its omnipresence in the scabbier spots of the capital, would undoubtedly be on sale in garden centres. As usual, once something is designated as a ‘weed’, it is seen, in general, as having no redeeming features whatsoever. Here at the Wednesday Weed, of course, we have no truck with such silliness.
This plant flowers more prolifically and grows more vigorously than anything else in the alley by the side of my house, and I am grateful to it for covering up the extremely uninspiring concrete path and the gravelly bit at the bottom of the fence. Plus, it provides cover for the froglets as they make their long and dangerous journey out into the big wide world. I could spend a lot of money buying ‘shade tolerant plants’ and be wholly disappointed with the results. Sometimes, we fail to see the beauty of what’s right there in front of us in our perverse desire for improvement and novelty. Certainly I’ve been guilty of grubbing up perfectly happy native plants and replacing them with showier organisms who were miserable from the second that they were planted, and faded away to a few pathetic leaves by the end of the season. But not this time! I am learning from nature, and it will be a life-long endeavour I’m sure. If something is perfectly adapted to its environment, covered in yellow flowers and dainty foliage, why not treasure it?