In a word (or two), not much. Or, a number of small things.
In the Garden…
The highest temperature so far this year—17C (63F). Not much rain; March has been dry. Anticipating summer drought, I’ve already laid out three of my six soaker hoses and acquired a new sprinkler. It can be set to about 1 foot from the ground or raised to 3 feet. A three-armed whirly-twirly thing on top flings water around generously. It’s definitely not a water-conserving model, but the idea is it will supplement the soaker hoses in seriously dry times.
Tomato seeds have sprouted, and the 1-inch tall seedlings are on a south-facing windowsill. Pepper seeds are still awaiting emergence on top of the hot water tank.
Ornamental cherry trees are in full bloom on the boulevards, adding a froth of pink to the scene. Daffodils are almost done, but tulips are about to bloom. So is the magnolia.
Last spring I congratulated myself on pulling up every single plant of shotweed (Cardamine oligosperma or maybe C. hirsuta) in the entire garden before they could bloom, thus ensuring no shotweed here this year. (Gardeners who know this weed will be laughing now.) I must have missed one or two, so have been pulling up tiny shotweeds for the past several weeks. They are pretty when young, but absolutely cannot be allowed to shoot their seeds all over the place.
The little plant of Rosa mutabilis that was deer-nipped to 2 inches from the ground in December appears to be alive. But two old pelargoniums, that survived many freezes in past winters, are dead. I should have brought them inside when temperatures of -8C (18F) were predicted last December, but told myself that they would be OK covered up. I was wrong. Pelargoniums (tender geraniums) are easy to replace, so it’s not a huge loss, except in principle.
Along with the sprinkler, on a whim I ordered this cute little pocket knife made in Czechia. It’s only 8 cm (about 3 in.) long, folded up, but feels surprisingly weighty.
I thoroughly enjoyed Jim Webster’s delightful adventure tale Tallis Steelyard. A Fear of Heights. I’m halfway through Once Upon a Tome, by Oliver Darkshire, a book of anecdotes about working in an antiquarian bookshop in London. And I’m more than halfway through A Rooster for Asklepios by Christopher D. Stanley, an absorbing historical novel set in Graeco-Roman times.
Not much. Yet.
Lots. Thoughts yet to be organized and turned into writing.
Back in June we went for a drive around our region, and returned via a ferry that crosses a local water body. The crossing takes less than half an hour, but we had to wait quite a bit longer than that for the next scheduled sailing. During that wait I took a couple of photos of roadside weeds, because I thought they were beautiful.
Don’t these scenes look gardenesque? I’ve thought for a long time that an aesthetically pleasing garden may be made of any plants, even weeds. The blackberry is an alien invasive of the worst kind here (never mind that it produces delicious berries). Dock is also a weed, and I suspect those lovely grasses are as well. Buttercups are pretty, but many gardeners labour mightily to weed them from their lawns.
Some of the most dependable plants in my garden are quasi-weeds. I’ve blogged about them many times. Gardeners who welcome weedy plants must learn how to manage them. Diligent deadheading is the key for the ones that seed abundantly. Weedy plants that spread underground by roots or runners are really best avoided.
I actually have a small area that comes close to being a garden of weeds. It’s part of the municipal boulevard. The lawn grass there was pretty pathetic, and deteriorated to the point it was an eyesore. So I introduced a few plants I had admired while biking to work on a trail parallel to a highway–chicory, Queen Anne’s lace, and California poppies. I let the existing grass grow and trimmed it manually when it started to look tired. A couple of plants found elsewhere in the garden ended up there too–a white campion, a bronze fennel, a couple of mulleins, and a small plant of Erysimum “Bowles Mauve.” Sometimes I think the whole project was a mistake, but in the right light, it can look fairly good.
I think weed gardens work only if all the plants in them are weeds, equally tough and equally rustic looking. Introducing a few tough plants into regular borders can be effective, but the gardener has to keep a close eye on them. And some weeds have no place in civilized gardens–those blackberries, for example, and any form of bindweed. Horsetails too are wonderfully architectural and different, but I understand they spread relentlessly and are nearly impossible to dig up.
All this leads to a conclusion: plants are plants. Some are beautiful. Some are weedy. The gardener observes and selects, makes mistakes and learns (usually in a bent-over position, clutching a spade).
Most gardeners complain about weeds. It’s been said that there are no weeds, only plants in the wrong places. There may be something to that. Take the dandelion in the image at the top of the post. It’s been in that spot for several years. I cut out the flowers that have bloomed to keep them from producing seeds and otherwise leave it be. It’s sort of like keeping a wild animal as a pet.
More seriously weedy are several plants I would never have introduced to this garden now that I’ve come to know them. Once established, they spread and colonize, often invading other plants to the point both have to be dug up in order to remove the invader.
Two I’m doing battle with right now are Italian arum and periwinkle (Vinca minor, two different varieties). I planted them because they were praised and recommended by reputable garden writers.
The late Henry Mitchell was keen on the Italian arum (Arum italicum), and since he was a good writer, I was infected with his enthusiasm for the plant. Okay, my original specimen was grown from seeds I collected near a bike path, so maybe it’s an unruly type. Mitchell, I recall, mentioned a variety called “Marmoratum,” which apparently was granted an Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society.
I would like to bestow an Invasive Plant Curse on the arum, because it has made itself a pest here. It spreads both by seeds — which are one of its most attractive features — and underground bulblets. The older the plant, the deeper it roots, making it almost impossible to remove without major digging and disruption. And its flowers are unremarkable, apart from smelling like rotting meat (a quality common to the arum family).
So, Mr. Mitchell, were you aware of these problems with the arum and chose not to reveal them, or was yours better-behaved?
A plant with similar faults is the bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta or H. hispanica or maybe a hybrid of the two, H. × massartiana). It’s the much-praised denizen of the springtime woodland. I didn’t plant them; they were already established when I started gardening here. In bloom, it’s quite pretty, but it spreads even faster than the arum, and like it has lush, dense foliage that weighs down or shades any smaller plants nearby. Both bluebells and arum go dormant for the summer, but in spring, where these plants grow thickly, others get shaded or crowded out.
The bulbs of arums and bluebells are a foot or more below the soil surface, so digging them out is a challenge. In spots where they’ve wedged themselves in among other plants, it means major disturbance. The optimal times for transplanting or dividing perennials and bulbs vary, so one is bound to be doing this operation at non-optimal times for some things. Besides, in my garden it’s tough, unpleasant work, because there will inevitably be tree roots to deal with.
I’m going to experiment with cutting off the top growth of arums and bluebells in specific areas. In theory, this will eventually do them in.
Periwinkle is often recommended as a groundcover for “problem areas” such as dry shade. That’s why I planted it here. Unfortunately, I chose the unimproved basic type of Vinca minor. It has covered the ground altogether too well. It’s evergreen, so few other herbaceous plants can compete with a thick mat of it. Even the yellow and green variegated type has revved up in recent years and wound its way around irises and other perennials.
Fortunately, periwinkle can be uprooted quite easily, working from the edge of a patch inward to the more established parts. It pays to keep an eye out for a resurgence, though. Missed bits or roots that haven’t been extracted will make a comeback.
Forget-me-not (Myosotis) is another of my self-inflicted weeds. It’s a case of too much of a good thing. In full spring bloom, it creates a blue mist of tiny flowers. What’s not to love? Its habit of abundant self-seeding, that’s what. The dense crop of seedlings that results can out-compete less aggressive plants. Individual plants are short-lived and easy to pull up, but it’s important to remove most of them as soon as bloom starts to fade, leaving only a few to develop seeds.
Random self-seeding is also responsible for a surprisingly large number of unintended hellebores in some of my beds and borders. Now, I like hellebores, and they do well here, but I don’t want them in the wrong places (they are fair-sized plants with “presence”) or glommed up against other plants that need their fair share of space, nutrients, and water. Moreover, not all of the volunteers have attractive blooms; some of them are murky mixtures of purple and green. Which means I’m going to dig some of them up and send them to the big compost heap in the sky.
The difference between a garden and plants growing in a state of nature is that the latter is a winner-take-all brawl and the garden has a referee — the weary gardener, who decides what is a weed and what isn’t.
On the north side of my street, for some reason, there are wide sections of municipal land between the sidewalk and private lot boundaries. (The south side has no boulevard, which doesn’t seem fair, but there it is). On most of the boulevards there is some form of lawn, because it is supposedly illegal to grow anything else there, apart from official municipal street trees such as flowering cherries. Ironic, because cherries aside, these are prime plots for vegetable gardens, being sunny and relatively tree-root-free. Hardly anyone waters the grass on their boulevard; in our dry summers they end up looking pretty bad.
The 8 by 12 foot patch of boulevard to one side of my driveway is a small wasteland. There is some sad-looking grass which we mow occasionally, so it qualifies as a “lawn,” but its other denizens are weeds, specifically dandelions (Taraxacum), hairy cat’s ear (Hypochaeris radicata), which I think of as “summer dandelion” or “leathery dandelion,” and some kind of small mallow with rather attractive tiny pink flowers in spring. (A note about the hairy cat’s ears — I have managed mostly to hoick them out of the area with my handy dandelion tool, but my neighbour’s part of the boulevard is solid with the things, so it’s inevitable that a few manage to seed themselves in my patch).
At present, the site looks rather unappealing.
A blank canvas?
There is no point in spending much time and treasure to turn this spot into a decent lawn, so my plan is to supplement the existing weeds with more attractive ones. I got the idea from bicycling to work along a trail called the Galloping Goose (after a railway that used to be there; the trail was built where the tracks used to be). Along parts of this trail are attractive plant communities consisting largely of weeds. Some of the shrubs, such as the native Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), were planted deliberately (because the trail is actually part of the regional park system), but the rest just showed up, as weeds do.
So my intended plants include: chicory (its sky-blue flowers will look great with the yellow hairy cat’s ear flowers), red and white clover, Queen Anne’s lace, St. John’s wort, beach pea, and a tough form of aster with light purple flowers. The chicory and white clover bloom even when mowed quite short, so will occupy most of the space. The taller plants will be at the back, forming a transition zone to the bed on my side of the property line. From July into October, I envision this area as a tapestry of blue, yellow, white, pink and purple in varying degrees. Much better than balding lawn and hairy cat’s ears.
Imagine all those colours here.
There are already a couple of chicory plants I grew from seed spreading their seeds over part of the boulevard. I plan to introduce the others over the next 6 months.
Just to avoid ending with a depressing sight, here is the main perennial bed in the front garden as it was before a recent heavy wind-and-rain storm.
Purple aster, pink nerines and ornamental grass “Little Bunny”
The garden is definitely in an end-of-summer state. Yesterday I picked almost all the tomatoes and “decomissioned” all but two of the ten plants. This was a stellar summer for tomatoes — nice and warm — and I somehow got the soil mix for their pots just right. I used mushroom manure instead of steer manure. I seem to recall that mushroom manure (“I didn’t know mushrooms did that”) has a higher pH. Maybe that was it, or maybe mixing in the stuff quite generously did the trick.
Despite 22 mm. (nearly an inch) of rain a couple of weeks ago, the soil is really dry. The wretched Norway maples are dropping leaves by the bushel — ugly, khaki-coloured leaves that give the garden a slovenly air. Raking them up perked things up instantly.
The dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ continues to put forth blooms and buds. I top-dressed it with the mushroom manure soil mix and slow-release fertilizer back in June. And the potted delphiniums are starting their second flush of bloom — much better than the first one. Together they add some freshness to the tired scene.
Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’
Delphinium and Dahlia
Gardening is never done. I always have a list of Things to Do and little projects to work on. This fall I’ll be starting on something I think of as the Boulevard Project. There is a 12-foot wide stretch of scruffy lawn between the front part of my place and the sidewalk. Technically, this belongs to the municipality, and nothing must be planted on it except grass and municipal trees (flowering cherries on our street). But of course weeds creep in. A stretch of boulevard next to mine boasts a huge crop of what I think of as “leathery dandelions” although they are really something called hairy cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris radicata). “Weed” is definitely the word for them. They send puffballs of seeds all over the place, and it’s becoming a struggle to hoick out plants that have come up in my scruffy grass.
I’ve decided there is nothing particularly attractive about stretch of scruffy grass and ugly weeds, so I’m going to introduce some tough (and yes, weedy) plants to provide something besides yellow and puffballs to the scene. I have grown from seed a couple of plants of chicory (Cichorium intybus), which has gorgeous sky-blue dandelion-shaped flowers. Once established, the plants can be cut short to encourage them to bloom close to the ground. Blue dandelions! I’ll pair them up with beach peas (Lathyrus japonicus), which look like sweet peas in shades of pink (and some whites), but are a lot tougher. Sadly, they are scentless, but look good with the blue chicory flowers.
All of this may come to naught, like many garden plans. Weeds, when grown on purpose, sometimes become temperamental and die, as if to prove that they will not be manipulated.
In one of my favourite garden books — My Weeds : a gardener’s botany — Sara B. Stein reveals that by the end of July she has “had it with weeds and gardens.” She no longer bothers to pull up weeds and spends the month of August in a place without a garden, and therefore without weeds. Whatever plants happen to grow there are fine; there is no need to identify any as weeds and struggle to remove them from the scene. Gardening makes some plants into weeds. Without the gardener, the garden is taken over by weeds and ceases to be a garden.
Stein outlines some of the measures she used in her own garden to make it less dependent on her attentions — using native species when possible, along with non-natives that are at home in the same conditions as they. This means revising paper garden designs and compromising on colours, but the results, she hopes, will make her gardens less sad when she can no longer look after them. In a garden populated by plants that are quasi-weeds, the gradient between “garden” and “untended nature” is less steep.
I have often thought that a similar approach would make gardening less of a struggle in the latter part of the summer in a climate with little or no summer rainfall. Especially in a garden whose soil is sandy and full of tree roots. Artfully arrange the tough plants that tolerate such conditions and voila — a garden that looks after itself. Of course there will still be mowing and edging, cutting back and cutting down, and yes, some weeding too, but no longer that feeling of battling an implacable adversary who is slowly winning, cosseting feeble darlings and helplessly watching them succumb despite my efforts.
August is a good month for me to think about this, because my garden looks pretty sad, at least in the harsh light of noon. There is a weary, crispy look to things. It would be seedier if I hadn’t done a lot of deadheading and cutting down of old stalks in the past week. The pond area is especially beaten-down, thanks to the busy paws of a raccoon family — a mother and two or maybe three little guys. I should be used to this by now; there’s always a raccoon family. Several generations may have spent the summer here since we dug the pond in 1993. I don’t mind, really. In a way it’s good to know my patch provides shelter and a livelihood to creatures, but I wish they didn’t make such a mess. The plantings around the pond are supposed to be lush and jungly, a green oasis even in summer, but it’s hard to sustain that illusion when plants are broken down and mashed flat.
Never mind. I originally meant to say that August is a sort of time-out month in the garden. The plans and aspirations of spring have either succeeded or failed by now. It’s not too early to make some new plans; indeed, September is a great month for reworking and replanting. Rip out a Senecio that has never looked good, along with excess Geranium sanguineum (a rather sneaky spreader) and replace with the young plants of white Echinacea grown from seed this spring. Someday they will be joined by a Dierama and Gaura that are now just seeds in pots. Liatris looks great with white Echinacea, and there is a soft orange poppy, none of whose names I know, that would be just the accent for the planting.
Who knows how these notions will turn out in reality?
That’s the thing about gardening — so much of it is done in the gardener’s mind and in some perfect future. Much better than futzing with weeds.
Weeding season is almost over, or should be. Actually, it’s never over, but I mean the main spring weeding effort, which, if done promptly, can save the gardener a lot of work and worry later on.
Spring is the ideal time to extract most annual weeds before they bloom, set seeds and multiply. It’s also a good time to deal with perennial weeds, while they are in the early stages of growth and easily seen.
In an earlier post, I noted that it’s helpful for gardeners to recognize plants at the seedling stage, so they can remove them if they are weeds or nurture them if they are desired plants. Keeping that in mind, here are some tools and techniques for removing the unwanted.
Tools range from small and surgical (a one-prong cultivator that used to have three prongs, the usual three-pronged version as well as a three-pronged hand-fork, a nice little hand-hoe with a very sharp blade, the ever-popular dandelion tool) to large and crude (hoes, mattocks and the like, which I hardly ever use in my crowded beds). The main thing is to decide whether you want to extract or merely cut. Cutting works for masses of small seedlings. The sharp-bladed hand-hoe is just the thing for slicing their roots just below the soil surface, but care is needed to avoid desirable plants, which can be decapitated along with the weeds. A different set of tools is needed to penetrate the soil as far as a weed’s roots go, in order to loosen it to the point that the weed can be extracted intact. The dandelion tool is an example of this, but the sad truth is that I never get the whole root. Removing at least some of it does in the dandelion for that season, however, and prevents blooming and seeding. Repeated hoicking, moreover, weakens the plant to the point where it eventually gives up. I have reduced the dandelion population in my lawn to almost nothing this way, even though dandelions bloom merrily in the yard next door.
Weeding Tool Arsenal
Weeding teaches one how to weed. After a few sessions, you recognize which weeds can be pulled up by yanking on their tops and which need to be dug out or pried up. The main thing is to do this work before the soil dries and hardens and taproots become immovable. That’s by the end of May in my garden, but a lot depends on soil type (clay is always difficult) and amount of rainfall.
Tardy gardeners need desperate measures for when things are getting out of control: if weeds haven’t been pulled out before blooming, at least cut off the developing seed heads. Even if the seeds have ripened, you can carefully cut off the seed heads, depositing them into a bucket. Resign yourself to the fact that some seeds will be scattered during this procedure, resulting in seedlings next spring. And it goes without saying that you don’t put the seed heads into the compost heap, unless yours is a hot heap. (Mine isn’t).
Finally, know when to admit defeat and negotiate. Some weeds are invincible and you just have to learn to live with them (or move). Nearly every summer, I find myself pulling masses of small bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) out of the lawn — not to remove it permanently; there’s no hope of that — but as an act of cosmetic desperation, simply to get rid of as many of those screaming white flowers that stand out wonderfully against the by then brown lawn. There’s something slovenly about that scene, like dust-bunnies chasing each other around the kitchen floor. (But maybe that’s just one of my crotchets and other people don’t even notice bindweed. I can always hope).
Right now I’m thinking I had better come to grips with “deadheading” Euphorbia characias subsp. characias “Humpty Dumpty” (yes, that really is its name, both the repetitious Latin moniker and the cutesy variety name). It blooms hugely all spring. In June, the flower heads begin to take on a tawny look, and if you are near the plant on a sunny day, you hear crisp little pops. “What’s that?” you think. It’s the euphoria’s seed pods bursting and shooting seeds all over the place, resulting in a crop of little seedlings (blue-green 1/2-inch long leaves) that need to be pulled out before they grow into 4′ x 4′ Humpties. Really.
As soon as I see the cheerful yellow faces of dandelions in my lawns, I go for the dandelion tool and mercilessly hoik them out. (And I don’t put them in the compost heap either. My heaps don’t heat up enough to kill seeds, and dandelions are quite capable of setting seeds even after they are uprooted and technically dead. Talk about zombie plants!) Even though I know that the dandelions will probably regrow from the root, I find this to be a worthwhile exercise because removing them immediately improves the look of the lawn.
Certain weeds just don’t look good in lawns. I speak from a lengthy experience with weeds, some self-inflicted, others not, in vegetable gardens, perennial beds and lawns. For some weeds (or “weedy plants” at least) I have a good deal of tolerance, to the detriment of the garden. Wall lettuce (Lactuca muralis), for example, is a handsome and elegant plant, with its jagged, red-tinted leaves and tiny yellow flowers. I was quite happy to see it here some years ago. But it seeds abundantly and the seeds drift on the breezes, so now I see altogether too much of it and am not so happy.
But back to lawns. I am not a lawn purist, and do not mind if certain other plants infiltrate my grass, as long as they aren’t gross and coarse, like dandelions, both the spring-blooming variety (Taraxacum) and another type that blooms in late summer and has somewhat leathery leaves. It may be hairy cat’s ear or possibly hawkbit. In both cases, the flat rosettes of leaves do not blend into lawn grass, and the flowers are too large and vulgar.
To live successfully in lawns, weeds must be short-growing and small-foliaged. The English daisy, Bellis perennis, is a good example. Its little white and yellow flowers, sometimes pink-tinted around the edges, are charming. Even buttercups are almost OK. Needless to say, I have neither of these excellent subjects in my lawn. I have dandelions, bindweed and mallows. The latter are a new addition and I haven’t made up my mind as yet whether I need to do battle with them. Their foliage isn’t particularly coarse, but if there are too many of them they become visually dominant. For a lawn to look like a lawn, rather than a weed patch, grass must dominate. And since the area where the mallows have popped up is already on the borderline of respectability, adjustments may be in order.
A plant I would be delighted to see in my lawns is one whose name is unknown to me. I don’t even know what its foliage looks like, but the flowers are pale blue and tiny, like a mist over the grass. I suspect it to be Glechoma hederacea, otherwise known as ground-ivy or creeping Charlie. Definitely a weed, but an elegant, lawn-enhancing one.
Then there’s moss. Moss in the lawn is supposed to be bad news, but I don’t mind it. Since much of my garden is overhung by maples, there is a fair bit of moss around, on the stone paths and in the lawns. I tell myself that it gives an air of venerable age to the garden, and don’t bother trying to “correct” the situation by racing about with sacks of lime (to paraphrase Henry Mitchell, who was not a fan of lawns).
My worst lawn weed is field bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis, which occupies a slowly spreading area on the boulevard right in front of my place. It’s a sneaky thing, lurking inconspicuously in the lawn until the really dry weather comes in July. Then the grass turns brown (because I don’t water the boulevard) and the bindweed blooms — blinding white, dollar-size flowers that scream “Weedy lawn, weedy lawn!” to everyone that passes by. I have tried painting it with herbicides to no avail. My current solution (now that the municipality has banned pesticides for “cosmetic” purposes) is to go out in the gloaming and pull up the blooming plants, an operation every bit as futile as that of Sisyphus with his rock.
I suspect most gardens have at least one area that might be described as a bad neighborhood. Mine looks something like this:
Under a rather lopsided ceanothus bush is a convention of thug plants, most notably a relentlessly pushy periwinkle (Vinca minor) and a sneaky grass that I have no hope of identifying. The former is a self-inflicted pest; I suspect the latter invaded from my neighbor’s lawn. A few other tough characters have swaggered into the mix — suckers (or possibly seedlings) from a handsome and vigorous Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) I planted years ago, and a gang of less vicious but still formidable specimens of seedy plants such as toadflax (Linaria purpurea) and peach-leaf bellflower (Campanula persicifolia). Rooting around in this danger zone,frantically ripping out periwinkle, I came upon several corpses — the stump of a fancy French lavender that perished in a hard winter some years ago, and remains of long-dead valerians (Centranthus ruber) whose descendants still bloom at the same time as the ceanothus, presenting a nice (if naive) contrast of powder blue and deep pink. There were also a few clumps of irises (purple-blue ones, I recall from the last time I saw them bloom), looking somewhat anemic and possibly grateful to be rescued from the mob.
"Urban Renewal" site
I’ve been eying this area nervously for years (easy to do since it’s close to the front door of my house) and thinking that Something Must Be Done — just not now. Well, this spring it’s time for urban renewal. In the process of digging out a superfluous clump of Oregon grape last weekend, I realized that despite its problems, this spot is not infested with a mat of tree roots. In my garden, that’s prime real estate.
My first idea was simply to reduce the periwinkle and remove as much as I could of the invading grass, although experience tells me that fight will end in a standoff rather than a victory. Then I would improve the soil and plant some bulbs for spring and fall — crocus, Chionodoxa, colchicums — stuff like that. I would keep a watch on the periwinkle and its thuggy pals, and life would be beautiful.
Then I got a bit more ambitious. The ceanothus has blue flowers. I love blue flowers. Why not make this a little enclave of blues? Rip out all the periwinkle and replace it with plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) and add a few clumps of the blue poppy (Meconopsis) of which I have about half a dozen growing in pots. And Chionodoxa, which blooms a heavenly blue in early spring.
OK, we’re talking about a spot that measures maybe three feet by four, angled between a big ceanothus and and even bigger Oregon grape. Probably not the best site for the fussy Meconopsis, a prima donna type plant if ever there was one, especially with that evil grass still lurking under the surface. Yes, but if I dig it over carefully, sifting out the grass roots, and add some prime compost…
Some say that the best gardening is done in the mind.
A couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues came back from a walk and said he had seen a plant new to him. Could I identify it? He described it as small and ground-hugging, with tiny, star-shaped orange flowers. Sort of a pinky-orange, he said. Salmon-coloured, in fact.
I was not only stumped but curious. I tend to notice plants, and this one didn’t match anything I had seen in the area. On my next break, I went out to see it for myself. The plant’s growth habit reminded me of chickweed, but was neater and more restrained. And the flowers were indeed pinky-orange. On close inspection I could see that they had purple and yellow centres. It didn’t take me long to conclude that this was a plant entirely new to me.
But it wasn’t growing in a remote jungle or an inaccessible mountain meadow, and I wasn’t plant explorer. Any plant growing in a weedy island between a sidewalk and a paved road had to be common and probably a weed.
Surprisingly, the Internet was of limited help, at least in response to my googling of phrases such as “plant with tiny orange flowers,” or “plant that looks like chickweed but with orange flowers.” If I’d had a camera, I could have taken a picture and posted it to one of any number of sites frequented by botanical whizzes who enjoy identifying plants.
At home that evening, I dug out a useful book — Plants of Coastal British Columbia Including Washington, Oregon & Alaska by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon. It covers both native plants of the region and imports from elsewhere, and is profusely illustrated. The book is organized by types of plants (trees, shrubs, herbaceous, aquatic) and botanical families. I started near the back, with a section called “Other Families,” because I didn’t think this plant belonged to any of the others listed (although I was prepared to work my way through them if necessary) Paging through, looking at the pictures, I saw a flower that looked a lot like the ones on the mystery plant, except that it was yellow, not orange. It belonged to Bog St. John’s Wort (Hypericum anagalloides). Most unlikely, but in the “notes” section below the description of this plant was the following: “Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) resembles H. anagalloides, but it is an introduced annual from an unrelated family… Its flowers are salmon-coloured, borne on long, thin, curved stalks, and they are 10-17 mm wide.” Bingo! I googled the Latin name and found a wealth of information and pictures that confirmed the identification.
Here is a picture from Wikimedia Commons.
Anagallis arvensis is indeed a weedy species, despite its romantic common name, referring to the fictitious hero of a play set in the French Revolution. And to me, who had never seen it before, it seemed novel and exotic. Interestingly, another of its common names is “red chickweed.” So I was on the right track from the start, except that I thought it orange, not red. There is also a blue-flowered form, which I would love to see, being a sucker for anything with blue flowers.
This little episode tells me that a “plant identification for dummies” tool, whether printed or online, needs to have lots of pictures and be organized by flower colour. The identification keys used by botanists are way too intimidating, bristling with unfamiliar terminology and requiring detailed knowledge of plant anatomy. Most people zero in on flowers before any other feature. If this plant had not been in bloom, my colleague would likely have never noticed it.
In this case, however, a bit of persistence and some serendipity did the trick.