"This is the true story of the weeds, the origin of the species,
A story of exploitation, cultivation, civilisation
Found flowering on wasteland unnoticed, unofficial, accidental"
(Song lyrics from the song Weeds II by Pulp)
Long-time readers of my blog may remember that I own a weed wand, but I haven't used it for over a year, for killing weeds or indeed making creme brulee. Truth is, I've become a bit of a weed obsessive. (Oh yes, and I've also had another baby, which does somewhat limit time for weeding.)
Like many things in life, my weed fascination began in childhood. It all started with pineapple weed, Matricaria discoidea (pictured above, photograph by Arran_Edmonstone on Flickr). I was on holiday in Dorset when someone first demonstrated the pungent pineapple smell that comes from the crushed flower heads. I couldn't fathom why a weed would smell this good (still don't know the answer, can anyone help with that?).
As a gardener, identifying weeds is crucial - you need to know what to keep and what to remove - but I've increadingly found myself taking this detective hunt outside the garden: when I am out and about I spend most of my time with my head down, checking out what's growing in cracks in the pavement.
Why? I'm not sure. It's not always about foraging - although I did write a piece for Grow Your Own magazine last year on the possibilities of eating weeds. Sometimes it's just about the fascination of an odd name, like pellitory of the wall or shepherd's purse. And sometimes I just want to salute the tenacity of a plant that's managing to make its way in a hairline crack in a wall, like this ivy-leaved toadflax.
So it was with great joy that I read Weeds by Richard Mabey recently. I'd lie in bed with the book in one hand and a weed identification guide in the other, cross referencing one to the other to work out what thornapple looked like and so on. He describes just the kind of expeditions I like, criss-crossing London's wastelands in search of weeds, some exotic interlopers, like the tree of heaven, and other more familiar (though ultimately no less foreign) sights such as the wonderfully named shepherd's purse.
The planting of my green roof has only increased the fascination with wild plants, weeds, whatever you want to call them. I've already published a list of what's up there intentionally - what will be fascinating is to see what arrives under its own steam. Two things have bolstered my desire to reconsider weeds and their worth in and out of the garden: first, VP's recent post over at Veg Plotting about the delights of a verge full of dandelions, and second, the reading of Anne Wareham's new book The Bad Tempered Gardener, in which she insists we must look afresh at plants and throw away our prejudices and preconceptions about them - in her case, ground elder and variegated ground elder (the latter of which I already grow myself).
It's not always about the foraging possibilities of weeds, but often it is, and my other recent read, Stalking the Wild Asparagus by American foraging Euell Gibbons, has inspired me on this front (notwithstanding his obsession with making chiffon pies from absolutely EVERYTHING). One of my first missions after finishing the book was to make violet jelly - something I read about last spring but, heavily pregnant at the time, never got around to. This year I was ready, but had trouble tracking down the necessary quantities of sweet violets (there are a few dog violets thrown in here, you'll notice). A nifty bit of foraging by an army cadet hut produced a scant half-cup of blooms but it was enough to make half a jar of lovely lilac coloured jelly: given that Fortnum & Mason charge over a fiver a jar for the stuff, it wasn't bad going for the price of the sugar and pectin. The recipe's here if you want to try it for yourself.
Next up, I need to find some Japanese knotweed to try out Gibbons' knotweed jam recipe and this vodka recipe from Andy Hamilton. There is something (hopefully literally) delicious about subverting something so demonised in food and drink, don't you think?