An instruction in winter weeds – a curated selection

Just because it’s winter, early February, and many plants seem dormant, it doesn’t mean things aren’t growing, or are at least poised to do their thing; to be the first, get in early, go for domination, seed and run everywhere!

I would agree with the old saw, a weed is just a plant in the wrong place, and that wrong place is often in my flowerbeds.

Ground Ivy : Glechoma hederacea

Ground Ivy in January

A running ground-hugging perennial, rooting as it runs. Pungently scented leaves in a medicinal kind of way. Blue-purple flowers in late spring, early summer. Anne Pratt recounts that it is often bothersome in meadows for its running and carpeting habit, and is said by some to be injurious to livestock, although many won’t eat it anyway.

Common names include, Gill-over-the-Ground, Alehoof, and Tunhoof. The second two names allude to the fact it was used before hops by the ‘alewives’ who usually made the beer for both commercial and household consumption. Some sources suggest the plant helped the mash to ‘work’ in the tun. Others that it clarified the beer.*

Cuckoo Flower : Cardamine pratensis

Overwintering seedlings on iris rhizomes with rodent nibbled hazelnut

I have a soft spot for this weed, but not in my garden where it pops up particularly all over the rhizomes of various Iris germanica cultivars. Wherever the latent seed has come from, they much prefer the bare earth of the flowerbeds and lack of competition to the watery pasture habitat it belongs in. This perennial flowers in late April and early May when the pale lilac flowers are a welcome sight.

Hereabouts the land is damp, but although a few fitfully flower on the village green, it’s not in the profusion I’ve seen elsewhere. The best massed display a few years ago was in Savernake Forest by the roadside outside Marlborough and Maids Causeway near Chippenham in a wet meadow grazed by cows bordering the river Avon.

Also known as Cuckoo Flower, Milkmaidens and Lady’s Smock. Cuckoo Flower because it appears around the time cuckoos arrive with us, (although it seems that cuckoo is another bawdy reference).

The smock element also alludes to a more earthy side to this plant’s associations. Smock apparently was the equivalent of ‘a bit of skirt’. According to ‘Notes and Queries’ 1866, young ladies in some villages, such as Chilham Castle in Kent would ‘run for the smock,’ a distance of 100 yards on new turf for the sheer fun of it and the chance of a new smock, until such practices were deemed unladylike and ceased forthwith.

Cuckoo flower is a food plant for caterpillars of the the Orange-Tip butterfly and Green-Veined White, (of which we had quite a few last year).

Double Cardamine pratensis flowering on a roadside verge in April

Bitter Cress : Cardamine hirsuta

Bitter Cress rosettes tighter than the Milkmaiden’s

Incorrectly I call this annual, Shepherds Purse, which correctly belongs to the taller-growing Capsella bursa-pastoris which has a legion of stories and uses but is not my weed! The seed pods on Bitter Cress are long and thin not little ‘purses’.

Bitter cress has small white flowers, it never seems to stop growing and seeding. The seeds fling themselves far and wide at a touch when ripe. It’s another great coloniser of bare ground especially pots. The bane of many a nursery I’m sure. Easy to hand weed or hoe, its hold in the earth is light!

A pleasantly tangy plant, fleshier and sweeter than watercress. Richard Mabey, Food for Free

 Marsh Willowherb : Epilobium palustre

Overwintering rosettes of Marsh Willowherb

Self seeds prolifically, the long seedpods split open and let fly windblown parachutes in summer. A low-growing perennial and of itself not very thuggish. It hides slyly amongst other plants so is hard to see in summer. The fine-rooted shallow growing overwintering rosettes can be hand forked out now. This particular willowherb goes generally unremarked in the herbals unlike its loftier cousins.

Ground Elder : Aegopodium podagraria

Ground Elder in flower

A member of the umbellifer family, another running coloniser. Once you have this perennial, it’s very difficult to eradicate completely. Threading its way into plant roots, keeping it at-bay is the best many of us can achieve. The top growth dies away, in winter you can kid yourself it’s gone, only to find in spring it’s colonised another few feet of ground in the meantime. Manual removal is a hand fork job, patiently excavating the runners punctuated by rooted leaf nodes.

Gout Weed, Bishop’s Weed, has long been associated with good living. First introduced to Britain as a pot herb.

“Ground Elder makes spicy and tolerable eating if the leaves are boiled like spinach.” Geoffrey Grigson, The Englishman’s Flora

Health warning: many native (and other) umbels are v poisonous make sure you identify correctly.

Herb Robert : Geranium robertianum

Stinking Jenny aka Herb Robert

An aromatic annual/biennial plant, you know it by the smell when you grab it and hoick a rosette out. A pungent irony, old caves sort of scent. The rather lovely ferny rosettes often take on red tints. The flower is pale lilac although there are white variants including Celtic White should you have wilder gardening in mind.

It reminds me of a miniature version of the more garden-worthy tenderish Geranium palmatum which sporadically self-sows. A native of the Canary Islands where it may be a weed – I don’t know!

Herb Robert has the familiar geranium (crane-beaked) seedpods and is another weed with a seed flinging habit. Other names include Granny’s Needles, and alluding to the scent, Stinking Jenny. Grigson suggests that because it is so often to be found growing around our homes it has been linked to Robin Goodfellow, (Robin is a derivative of Robert) with colloquial names such as Robin Redshanks and Poor Robin.

“It is effective for curing old ulcers in the privities and other parts.” Culpepper, 1653.

The less said the better perhaps.

Pendulous sedge : Carex pendula

Pendulous sedge, an opportunist in damper environments (seen with celandine leaves)

Lovely plant but enough already! There is a bit of a damp theme running through the weed selection. This perennial native sedge eventually makes huge evergreen mounds which swamp anything else around them. Voles will happily live under the clumps as I have found when trying to banish it from one of the flowerbeds. Prefers damp woodland edges and streamsides.

Creeping buttercup : Ranunculus repens

Yet another perennial that roots as it goes. The long white roots drive into the ground quite deeply so it can be a bit of a nuisance to extract from the soil, often a trowel rather than hand fork operation. Sitfast, Cats Claws and Toad Tether are some of the names ascribed to this plant.

So there you have it. I haven’t gone into detail on White Dead Nettle; Woundwort (which apparently harbours over winter the aphids that cause blistering on currants); Tufted Vetch, Vicia cracca which I allowed to remain because bees love it, but is beginning to become a problem, and Figwort.

  • *Britten and Holland, A Dictionary of Plant Names, 1878
  • Anne Pratt, The Flowering Plants of Great Britain
  • Geoffrey Grigson, The Englishman’s Flora
  • Fitter, Fitter and Blamey, Wild Flowers,