Wonderful Weeds, by Madeleine Harley

I love books about weeds and wild plants – they generally contains little gems of fascinating information about useful and edible plants, tidbits you don’t find in gardening manuals. It’s been a while since I had the chance to sit down and peruse a good book, so it was great to be offered a review copy of Wonderful Weeds by Madeleine Harley, which has the subtitle “an extensive and fully illustrated guide from seedlings to fruit.”

It starts with some information about weeds – the various definitions of what is and isn’t considered to be a weed, and some of the history of weeds as we transform from a nation of peasant farmers into gardeners. There are notes on the impact of foreign travel and of some of the invasive weeds that have made it to the British Isles.

Written by a botanist who worked at RBG Kew, the book is divided into sections for Non-flowering and Flowering plants. In fact it only lists two species in the Non-flowering plants section – bracken and common/field horsetail. The Flowering plants section is much larger, divided into Dicotyledons and Monocotyledons. Whilst this is a fairly fundamental difference for botanists, it’s much less of a concern to gardeners – it refers to whether seedlings of the plants appear with one or two seed leaves.

Inside these sections plants are listed in alphabetical order of their plant family, so to find a species this way you have to know its family tree, i.e. that Common Amaranth and Common Orache are both in the Amaranthaceae family. Each species is listed by its common and scientific names, and both appear in the Index, which is the quickest way of finding what you’re looking for.

Wonderful Weeds, by Madeline Harvey

The entry for each species contains multiple colour images, and information on Pollination, Regeneration Strategy and Weed control together with any herbal and culinary uses, cultural and folklore details and advice on toxicity.

For example, on page 88 the entry for Thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) tells us that “Because of its rapid annual life cycle, this species is used by plant geneticists for reproductive studies.”

Regular blog readers will already know it features in space plant experiments 🙂

The weed control advice given (noting that weed control is not the primary focus of this book) is organic/environmentally friendly, rather than chemical. Bearing in mind recent warnings that internet weed advice can be confusing, its good to see that the entry for Japanese Knotweed section (p.176) does mention the legal requirements for safe disposal, and recommends seeking professional advice to deal with this invasive plant.

Whilst it’s not a botanical key, and can’t be used to definitively a weed species by its characteristics, it should help identify weed species in the garden, whether wanted or not – e.g. mallow, oxalis. You just have to go through and look at the images, if you don’t have a clue on what you have found.

Wonderful Weeds: Ivy-leaved toad flax

One of the ‘weeds’ in my garden is ivy-leaved toadflax, which appeared by itself in the old garden in Abingdon, survived a period of limbo on the allotment and has made its way to the new garden. “Its abundance on Oxford college walls earned it the name of “Oxford Weed”, although it was introduced into Essex in the early 17th century by an amateur gardener and spread via keen gardeners.”

It’s common throughout the British Isles now, with the exception of northern parts of Scotland. It’s easy enough to remove through hand weeding, before it flowers, although you may need to repeat that process the following year to ensure its eradication. It’s not a problem in my garden, but the book says it can be an issue on old stonework. The book also says that the leaves can be “mildly toxic and are best avoided”. The best information I can find elsewhere online suggests that this plant “might be slightly toxic”. I know that it is being used by chefs, so that problem may well be overstated. So far I haven’t tried more than a nibble 😉

With toxicity in mind I looked to see what the author’s thoughts were on comfrey, and was surprised to find that it isn’t mentioned in the book, although perhaps the author shares my opinion that it’s too useful to be considered a weed! There are also only 2 alliums – Crow garlic and Ramsons; in the Monocotyledons section, of course!

Dandelions certainly are in (p.61), surrounded by the species with which they can be easily confused (e.g. Goat’s beard). Since the problems attributed to immigration into Britain have been much in the news of late, it’s fun to note that the dandelion is “one of the weeds introduced into the USA by British immigrants.”

Although these wild plants don’t have the most ostentatious blooms, I’m sure I’m not the only person on the planet (please tell me I’m not!) who will appreciate this as a coffee table book – it’s fun to flick through and delve into, and doing so will make it easier to identify weeds in the future. It certainly offers up a different perspective on the ‘pesky’ plants that appear, uninvited, in the garden. You may even find yourself offering some of these immigrants the Right to Remain.

Harley, M. (2016). Wonderful weeds: an extensive & fully illustrated guide from seedlings to fruit. Wonderful weeds: an extensive & fully illustrated guide from seedlings to fruit.

RRP £25; Available from Amazon UK for £19.99