Could these be the most hated plants in Britain?

Guest Blogger, James Robbins, would like to say that he loves all plants. Of course, we often have our favourites, but most gardeners will also encounter their nemesis in the garden. Even those with the greenest of fingers can be tormented by those horticultural thugs..

Here, James looks at a few plants that can plague your borders, and how to best deal with them (or how you can learn to love them!)

1. Ivy

Ivy can grow anywhere and once established, it can be very tricky to get rid of. It will smother everything in it’s way and can scramble up and over trees and shrubs. It can be removed by digging out all the roots that form where it touches the ground. However it’s tendency to spread is this thug’s saving grace as in areas where little else will grow, Ivy will thrive.

There are a number of attractive varieties, such as the large-leaved and variegated variety ‘Paddy’s Pride’ which is a bit less rampant. It provides cover for nesting birds and its globe-like flowers appear late in the year. They are a valuable source of nectar for bees and other insects, helping them to build their reserves for the winter. It is one of the best plants for wildlife in any garden and more than earns its place, even if it always a bit keen to expand it territory.

2. Ground Elder

This plant was originally introduced to the UK by the Romans and they have they got a lot to answer for! Once it has invaded a patch of ground it can be near impossible to eradicate. It spreads by underground runners. It will creep under hedges and quietly set up camp at the back of a border waiting for an opportunity to launch an attack.

Despite my best efforts to remove it, its tiny white roots weave their way into every nook and cranny and reappear as soon as my back is turned. It can be removed either by digging out every tiny bit of root from the border or by carefully applying a systemic herbicide to the leaves. Alternatively you could try to learn to love it. When it is in bloom it has frothy white umbels of flowers (tres chic in the garden design world) and what’s more, its edible. Apparently the young shoots taste nutty and are great in salads. Just nipping out the new shoots as they appear and adding them to your salad bowl could help restrain it enough to make it a better behaved guest.

3. Spanish Bluebell

For the past few years, the media has been inundated by stories of this foreign interloper. It invaded from the continent and is rampantly colonising our green and pleasant land. It spreads easily, freely hybridising with the locals creating generations of bastard offspring. Everyone from conservationists to gardeners have been up in arms about the invasion of our native bluebell woods. It has quickly become public enemy number one.

To recognise a Spanish or hybrid bluebell from its English counterpart you need to observe the flowers. The native bluebell holds its scented flowers, which have blue anthers, on one side of the stem and droops slightly. Its Spanish counterpart has no scent, yellow anthers, and the flowers are arranged all around its upright spikes. There is quite a lot of crossover in hybrids and it can be quite hard to distinguish exactly, but if you can see the anthers you may already be too late. Bees do not distinguish between native or non-native and will have already spread the pollen far and wide. In some ways this interloper could potentially prove to be the saviour of our woods. The hybrids contain genetic material from both parents, which has expanded the gene pool of the plants. In a world more influenced by climate change having a broad gene pool allows plants to be more adaptable. This can be one way to improve a species resilience to a changing environment.

4. Japanese Knot weed

Japanese knot weed was originally introduced to the UK as an ornamental plant. It has beautiful arching red stems, lush growth and pretty pendulous white flowers, but has a dark side too. It grows rapidly and can quickly spread by seed or underground roots. It escaped over the garden fence and was soon starting to appear where it was an unwelcome invader. The ominous, red stems started to break their way through concrete and struck fear into the hearts of homeowners.

Some insurance companies refused to insure homes where this triffid had taken root. It does have the uncanny knack of popping its head through the tiniest crack in concrete, but is not as yet known to cause subsidence. It can be controlled by injecting the stem with a systemic insecticide. This is specialised and expensive work, and every part of the plant requires specialist disposal. The cost of eradication is probably the real reason insurers are not fond of its presence. There is however a glimmer of hope. At the moment, most of the population seems to be confined to our cities. It seems to have failed to escape the confines of mankind and into the wider countryside. It prefers colonising the disturbed landscapes of our urban areas. Here it does not have to compete with many other (better adapted) native plants. If you find it in your garden, you could always try to eat some of the tender shoots. They are a delicacy in some countries.

5. Bindweed

This climber is instantly recognisable. It will poke its head above the soil just as the fresh shoots of growth are providing cover it can establish behind. It will quickly twist and twine round your favourite shrubs in its search for the light. In days it will smother your border with glossy, heart-shaped leaves and white trumpet-shaped flowers. Digging it out helps, but is near impossible. You can trace the winding stems back to the ground and extract the fleshy, white roots.

Unfortunately, Bindweed has an uncanny knack of knowing when it is under attack and snapping. This inevitably leaves a tiny section in the ground from which it will rise again. The most effective way to eradicate it completely is to use a systemic herbicide. Something like roundup gel applied to the leaves will kill the plant back to its roots. The alternative is to learn to live with it. Whilst I always try to evict it from the beds, I will sometimes leave it in the ‘wilder’ areas of the garden. Here it can fight it out with the brambles, so I can appreciate the stunning purity of those beautiful flowers. If it was harder to grow perhaps we would all covet it?

If we look at plants in terms of their ecological niche, every plant has its ideal place and role to fill. It is our beliefs and the very activity of weeding that turns them from a plant into a weed. If we can just change our perception of them then we might be able to learn to live alongside them, rather than in fear of them.

Visits James’s website here- his latest blog is about weeds you can EAT!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Helen says:

    I do think bindweed is very beautiful – would never have guessed it was a ‘weed). There’s a rampant weed in my front garden whose leaves have the most wonderful smell. No idea what it is called, though.

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