Wednesday Weed – Phacelia

Phacelia tanacetifolia and some California poppies

Dear Readers, you might remember that a few weeks ago I had a walk in St Pancras and Islington cemetery, and noticed one grave that had been planted up with California poppies and Phacelia tanacetifolia , a plant in the borage family that is a great favourite not only with pollinators, but with allotment holders and gardeners, who use it as a green manure (a plant that is grown for a season and then ploughed back into the soil to help to enrich it). Well, I have had limited success in growing this plant in my shady garden, but it is so useful that I thought it deserved a blogpost. Do let me know if you’ve grown it yourself!

Phacelia is also known as blue or lacy tansy – its species name means ‘leaves resembling those of the tansy‘, although the plant is only very distantly related to that small yellow member of the daisy family. In my book ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ by Adrian Thomas, Phacelias are described as ‘scorpion weeds’, so I wonder if this is how they are known in their native south west USA and Mexico. It’s apparently also known as ‘fiddleneck’, presumably from the shape of the stem.

Photo One by By Walter Siegmund (talk) - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70834984

Phacelia tanacetifolia (Photo One)

My book describes Phacelia as a top plant for flowering in June and July, and it is so popular with bees and hoverflies that it’s often planted in orchards to encourage pollinators, though I assume this is for later flowering trees than our spring cherries and plums. My book includes Phacelia along with many other ‘exotic’ annual cornfield plants, such as red flax and fairy toadflax, poached-egg plant and opium poppy. Certainly I’ve seen some very ‘exotic’ meadows in my time, such as the one from the Churchill Estate in Pimlico, shown below. I’m not sure that I don’t prefer the look of the native meadows with their mixture of ox-eye daisies, cornflowers, poppies and corn marigolds, but I can see the appeal.

‘Exotic’ meadow on the Churchill Estate in Pimlico

Like many of the borages, this plant is a bit on the furry side, and as you can see the stems are covered in short spikes. Some species of Phacelia are said to cause contact dermatitis, but apparently not this one.  The seeds are ‘negatively photoblastic’ (who knew?) which means that they will only germinate in the dark. The plant is also a bit droopy and straggly, but then so am I on a bad day, so it seems churlish to complain.

Although Phacelia doesn’t fix nitrogen in the same way as beans and some other plants do, ploughing it back into the soil at the end of the year does seem to enhance the amount of nitrogen that’s available for other plants in the soil.

Photo Two by By Meneerke bloem - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82587604

Phacelia (Photo Two)

In North America, there is a species of mining bee that specialises in Phacelia, called, not surprisingly, the Phacelia Mining Bee (Andrena phacelia). And very nice it looks too.

Photo Three by Michael Veit, from https://www.discoverlife.org/mp/20p?see=I_VEIT201&res=640&flags=subgenus:

Phacelia bee on a species of Phacelia (Photo Three)

And finally, a poem. I was not hopeful of finding anything that mentions Phacelia but here it is, a poem by Natalie Diaz, a Mojave American poet. Her collection ‘Postcolonial Love Poem’ won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2021. I am running off to buy it shortly, on the strength of the poem below and of this review from The Guardian. Here’s the title poem. Tell me what you think!

Postcolonial Love Poem

I’ve been taught bloodstones can cure a snakebite,
can stop the bleeding—most people forgot this
when the war ended. The war ended
depending on which war you mean: those we started,
before those, millennia ago and onward,
those which started me, which I lost and won—
these ever-blooming wounds.
I was built by wage. So I wage love and worse—
always another campaign to march across
a desert night for the cannon flash of your pale skin
settling in a silver lagoon of smoke at your breast.
I dismount my dark horse, bend to you there, deliver you
the hard pull of all my thirsts—
I learned Drink in a country of drought.
We pleasure to hurt, leave marks
the size of stones—each a cabochon polished
by our mouths. I, your lapidary, your lapidary wheel
turning—green mottled red—
the jaspers of our desires.
There are wildflowers in my desert
which take up to twenty years to bloom.
The seeds sleep like geodes beneath hot feldspar sand
until a flash flood bolts the arroyo, lifting them
in its copper current, opens them with memory—
they remember what their god whispered
into their ribs: Wake up and ache for your life.
Where your hands have been are diamonds
on my shoulders, down my back, thighs—
I am your culebra.
I am in the dirt for you.
Your hips are quartz-light and dangerous,
two rose-horned rams ascending a soft desert wash
before the November sky untethers a hundred-year flood—
the desert returned suddenly to its ancient sea.
Arise the wild heliotrope, scorpion weed,
blue phacelia which hold purple the way a throat can hold
the shape of any great hand—
Great hands is what she called mine.
The rain will eventually come, or not.
Until then, we touch our bodies like wounds—
the war never ended and somehow begins again.

—Natalie Diaz

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Walter Siegmund (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70834984

Photo Two by By Meneerke bloem – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82587604

Photo Three by Michael Veit, from https://www.discoverlife.org/mp/20p?see=I_VEIT201&res=640&flags=subgenus: 

7 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Phacelia

  1. Anne

    I have not heard of seeds only germinating in the dark – I love finding out new things! The poem, I find, requires reading more than once: it is filled with powerful imagery.

    Reply
  2. AlisonC

    I have got a bit of phacelia as well – mainly because I got the idea that it might be a provider of pollen in winter, but I think I must have misunderstood as it only seems to flower in summer? The flowers are certainly pretty but I haven’t noticed it being especially popular with the local pollinators.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Ah interesting, thanks Alison! What are the most popular pollinator plants in your patch? I’m always curious as to what works and where….

      Reply
  3. AlisonC

    I haven’t observed them systematically enough to be confident, but I think the most popular here are probably native wild plants (or cultivated versions of them) like foxgloves, comfrey and white dead nettle, and also bolted brassicas. Angelica is good, as you’ve noted – and now I have a lovage about to flower so am hoping that will be.

    In winter, broad bean flowers seem popular, along with the mahonia and winter honeysuckle. This is in SW London.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Excellent, thanks Alison – I’ve just planted a winter-flowering honeysuckle in the hope of providing some winter sustenance for the bumbles. I haven’t tried lovage, but must definitely give it a go. I was in our local community orchard today and the bumbles were all over the hedge woundwort!

      Reply
  4. Liz Norbury

    Now there’s a coincidence! I didn’t have time to read about your Wednesday Weed on Wednesday itself (yesterday), but today I’ve been on a guided walk with a leading Cornish botanist, during which we looked across St Ives Bay to see several large fields completely covered in purple flowers – a striking sight.. Somewhere from the depths of my memory, the name “phacelia” flashed up – but I had forgotten that it is generally planted as a green manure until the botanist told us.

    Reply

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