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To Weed or not to Weed

What are your thoughts on weeds and their place in your garden and in botanical art? In this article, ABA member Annie Morris shares her thoughts on the topic and her knowledge of weeds in her UK garden, along with beautiful illustrations of species she has studied.


Words and illustrations by Annie Morris, botanical artist, gardener and ABA Committee and Education Team member.

 
Dandelions, 'Taraxacum spp.', pen & ink and watercolour by the reviewer
Dandelions, 'Taraxacum spp.', pen and ink and watercolour, Annie Morris

Throughout the world people who cultivate plants, whether in fields or in gardens classify as weeds certain plants which invade their crops and gardens. A plant may be called a weed if it has arrived uninvited.


White dead-nettle, 'Lamium album', and creeping buttercup, 'Ranunculus repens', pen and ink and watercolour, Annie Morris


I live in the UK and so the art which accompanies these words are illustrations of plants native to the UK, some of these plants have spread around the world and have sometimes become serious invaders. A plant in its native habitat has evolved alongside its predators (usually invertebrates) and these predators keep the population in check. If an alien species is introduced which has no native predators, then that species can spread unchecked and become a serious weed.


The weeds in our gardens are either annuals or perennials. An annual plant grows from seed then flowers, sets seed and dies all in one year. Annuals need roots which will anchor the plant in the ground and take up water and nutrients to nourish the plant for one year’s growth. These roots are generally easy to pull up.  

Hairy bittercress 'Cardamine hirsuta': pen & ink and watercolour by the reviewer
Hairy bittercress, 'Cardamine hirsuta', pen and ink and watercolour, Annie Morris

A perennial on the other hand is a plant which persists in the same spot for two or more years, often producing a crop of flowers and seeds each summer and dying back in the winter. To survive the winter and start growth again in the spring, perennial plants need to store energy. In the case of perennial weeds in our gardens the storage system is usually underground as swollen roots, tubers, or rhizomes. These perennial roots need more than a gentle tug to pull them out.


Green alkanet 'Pentaglottis sempervirens': pen & ink and watercolour by the reviewer
Green alkanet, 'Pentaglottis sempervirens', pen and ink and watercolour, Annie Morris

A weed in our gardens is therefore an alien species out of control or a species from the native flora (a wildflower) which is growing where we don’t want it. A cultivated garden plant can also become a weed of course, for example Erigeron karvinskianus Mexican fleabane, which I love for its softening effect on concrete edges, but which does not confine itself to one place and I ‘weed it out’.


Red clover, 'Trifolium pratense', and comfrey 'Symphytum spp.', pen and ink and watercolour, Annie Morris


Gardeners have their individual lists of weeds and a plant which you call a weed I might welcome as a native plant providing food for invertebrates.  This is a very important point.  Native plants in their right habitat are essential for the health of the planet. Plants provide food for invertebrate animals such as insects which are in many cases pollinators of our food plants including many fruits and vegetables. As botanical artists around the world we can capture the intricate beauty of our native plants and use our illustrations to inform others of the importance of weeds.


Blackberry 'Rubus spp.': pen and ink and watercolour, Annie Morris
Blackberry, 'Rubus spp.', pen and ink and watercolour, Annie Morris


You may be surprised to discover just how many species of invertebrate are associated with some of the UK wild plants. Brambles (Rubus spp.) support 136 invertebrate species many of which visit the plants for nectar and pollen, and which lay eggs on the leaves or in the stems. Insects which need brambles include bumblebees, honeybees, solitary bees, hoverflies, wasps, butterflies, flies, lacewings, and moths.



Stinging nettles (Urtica dioicia) support 122 invertebrate species including the larvae of 30 species of beetle, 5 common butterflies and many moths.





Stinging nettle, 'Urtica dioicia', pen and ink and watercolour, Annie Morris
Stinging nettle, 'Urtica dioicia', pen and ink and watercolour, Annie Morris

Because of the total area they cover, gardens play a significant part in the survival of insects and other wildlife. There are many actions we as gardeners can take to attract wildlife to feed and live in our gardens.


  • Don’t use chemicals to kill insects or weeds. Natural predators will come in and control pests.

  • Make compost from your garden waste, a compost heap is home to large numbers of invertebrates.

  • Disturb the soil as little as possible, add compost on the top and it will be taken down by the earthworms which also aerate the soil.

  • Make a pond and you will be surprised how quickly it is colonised by wildlife.

  • Plant and encourage wildflowers which will be rich sources of food for invertebrates, both adults and larvae.

  • Don’t be too tidy, leave some areas of long grass for insects and other animals to hide in.


Perhaps the greatest adjustment we as gardeners need to make is a mental change. It is hard to leave areas of the garden untidy which is precisely what wildlife needs but which at times will look rather scruffy.  If you stand back and let plants grow, then wonderful things can happen. Cowslips and primroses seed in unexpected places, roses bloom amongst tall ox-eye daises, red campion fills any space in the borders and buttercups and clover flower profusely in the unmown lawn. This approach takes courage because gardening is surely about control of your plants and there is a feeling that if you let up on the control then ‘weeds’ take over and the result is chaos. I see nothing wrong with a little chaos.



 

Annie Morris has a degree in Botany from Bristol University and has been involved in Botanical Art, both as a practitioner and as a teacher, for over twenty years. She is particularly interested in the native flora of the UK having first learnt to identify the plants when growing up on a farm in Kent. She has been awarded three Silver-gilt medals by the RHS.


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