29: Spring 2012

Author: Febrin LePadden

A Plant Community

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A Plant Community
Febrin LePadden

I loathe weeding and always have; not because I find the task boring or tiring but because I have a deep aversion to pulling up living plants. Never mind that they are rank intruders like creeping buttercup, chickweed or bittercress, I find the process of pulling them from the soil and casting them aside quite deplorable. If I’m removing young weeds, I’m destroying burgeoning new life; if I’m removing mature weeds, I’m putting an end to stalwart survivors. Either way, I detest the business. But sometimes I accept that it really must be done and a few days ago I decided that I must sort out one section of the main border: it was just a congested mass of plants. So I fetched my kneeling pad and took stock of the situation, wondering where to begin and I suddenly realised that what I saw before me was a perfect example of a thriving plant community and a supremely insect-friendly one. True, there were plant species present that I’d have preferred absent, but by and large any interference by me could only disrupt something rather wonderful.

As I knelt there, it struck me that it would be interesting to make a list of the plants and I went indoors to fetch a pencil and paper, then went back for a tape measure. The section of border I was concerned with was 3’ x 4’. Now that the exact measurements were known I could tell myself that I was engaged in a scientific survey, investigating the botanical diversity of a specific urban environment and not just satisfying idle curiosity. I spent a pleasant five minutes noting down what I saw in front of me and was impressed: eighteen different species in this one small area. After a moment’s thought, I marked bee-friendly plants with a capital ‘B’, plants attractive to hoverflies and jewel wasps with ‘HW’ and self-sown plants with ‘SS’. The list now appeared as follows:

Black horehound (Ballota nigra) B
Black knapweed (Centaurea nigra) B
Tufted vetch (Vicia cracca) B, SS
Hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) B
Betony (Stachys officinalis) B
Red clover (Trifolium pratense) B, SS
Purple toadflax (Linaria purpurea) B, SS
Eastern skullcap (Scutellaria brevibracteata) B, SS
Baikali skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) B, SS
Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) B, SS
Dandelion (Taraxacum hamatum) HW, SS
Cat’s Ear (Hypochaeris radicata) HW, SS
Nipplewort (Lapsana communis) HW, SS
Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) HW, SS
Spotted Hawkweed (Hypochaeris maculata) HW, SS
Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna) SS
Herb Bennet (Geum urbanum) SS
Upright Cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) HW

The bee friendly plants (and we are talking of bumble-bees, not honey-bees) number ten, of which six are self sown; only betony, black horehound, hedge woundwort and black knapweed were planted. It is significant that five of the ten belong to the family Labiatae (yes, I still use the old name!), as this is one of my favourite plant families. Of the remaining eight species, six are of good use to hover-flies and jewel wasps and all except one are self-sown, the exception being the cinquefoil. It goes without saying that they are occasionally visited by bumble-bees – there are few hard and fast rules in nature – but they certainly don’t constitute a regular food source.

The only two species that appear to be of little use to insects are mountain sorrel and herb bennet and I might have removed these two, to give the others more space, had I been able to do so without spoiling the set-up. In the event I cut back both as far as I could, to discourage them a little. The result of my cursory survey is a sense of great satisfaction that I have succeeded in establishing a garden in which so many plants are self-sowing and growing happily together, without any one species taking over; and I am more than ever convinced that weeding is not for me!

First published in the Correspondents Group Newsletter, June 2010
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 29.
© Copyright for this article: Febrin LePadden

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2012. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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