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Wonderful weeds and where to find them

By Weald to Waves - 11 May 2023

This year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show will rebrand garden weeds as 'hero plants' with a third of the show gardens featuring plants traditionally regarded as weeds to symbolise ‘regeneration’.

Driving this forward is a shift away from the Victorian era of manicured lawns, tidy hedges and exotic non-native plants, which all have a significant impact on biodiversity. The focus on weeds in shows like Chelsea and the release of Isabella Tree’s new handbook The Book of Wilding, which focuses on rewilding big and small, is likely to lead to a heightened debate about the benefits of wildflowers.

With the national ‘No Mow May’ initiative encouraging people to leave their lawn and beds alone for this important spring month, we can hope for a revival of our gardens and greenspaces.

Here we spotlight some of the more common plants that may spring up in Sussex:

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) A very common plant with bright yellow flowers and distinctive "clock" seed heads that are blown by the wind. Species association: The flowers are an important source of early nectar and pollen for bees and other insects, particularly honeybees, bumblebees, hoverflies, small tortoiseshell butterflies, ladybugs, and leaf beetles. Habitat preference: Dandelions can grow in a wide range of habitats, including lawns, meadows, and disturbed areas. Edibility: The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, and the roots can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. The leaves are high in vitamin A, vitamin C, and iron, while the roots are a good source of inulin, a prebiotic fibre. Folklore: Blowing the seeds of a dandelion is said to grant wishes. The dandelion is also associated with the Greek myth of Orpheus, who used the plant to enter the underworld.

Knapweed (Centaurea spp.) Knapweed attracts a range of pollinators, particularly bees, butterflies, and moths. It also provides a food source for goldfinches. The seeds are actively sought out by flocks or 'charms' of goldfinches, who also feed on insects that make their home in the hard kernel below the flower. Habitat preference: Knapweed is a hardy plant that can grow in a variety of habitats, including grasslands, meadows, and roadside verges. It prefers well-drained soils and full to partial sun. Edibility: Some species of knapweed are edible and have been used in traditional medicine to treat various ailments, but it is not a common foraged food. Folklore: Knapweed was used in years gone by to foretell a maiden's future. A girl would pick a knapweed flower that hadn’t yet bloomed and put the flower head inside her clothing. If it bloomed, the man she would marry would soon be coming her way.

Nettle (Urtica dioica) A stinging plant with serrated leaves and small clusters of green flowers that grow in the axils of the leaves. Species association: Key plant for Sussex butterflies including small copper and small tortoiseshell, red admiral, peacock and comma butterflies, and various moth species, such as the nettle-tap moth. Habitat preference: Nettles grow in a variety of habitats, including hedgerows, woodland edges, and disturbed areas. Edibility: The leaves can be eaten cooked and are rich in vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium. Folklore: In some cultures, nettles are believed to have protective properties and are used in rituals to ward off evil spirits. In the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, the hero uses nettles to protect himself from the dragon's flames.

Cleavers (Galium aparine) A sticky plant with small, star-shaped flowers and leaves that cling to clothing and other surfaces. Species association: The plant provides habitat for spiders and other insects, and the seeds are eaten by birds. Habitat preference: Cleavers grow in damp areas such as hedgerows, woodland edges, and ditches. Edibility: The young shoots and leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, and the seeds can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. Cleavers are high in vitamin C and have diuretic properties. Folklore: In some traditions, cleavers are believed to have medicinal properties and are used to treat a variety of ailments. In folklore, cleavers are associated with binding and were used to create "love knots" in some cultures.

Ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris) A tall plant with bright yellow flowers that resemble daisies and deeply lobed leaves Species association: The flowers are an important nectar source for butterflies and other insects. The plant is the preferred habitat for cinnabar moth caterpillars and a key food source for the cuckoo. Habitat preference: Ragwort grows in a variety of habitats, including meadows, hedgerows, and wasteland. Edibility: Ragwort is not edible. Much like buttercup, foxglove, daffodils and bluebells, ragwort is mildly poisonous to livestock, but the taste of these plants is off-putting so well-fed livestock will naturally avoid it. If ragwort is cut, dried and mixed up in hay feed, livestock cannot taste the plant and it can be toxic if consumed in large quantities. Therefore, farmers and owners ensure dry feed given to horses and cattle has been taken from fields without ragwort. Folklore: In some traditions, ragwort was believed to have magical properties and was used in spells and potions. Ironically, in folklore, ragwort was associated with horses and was said to protect them from evil spirits.

Dock (Rumex spp.) A common weed with large, broad leaves and greenish flowers that grow in spikes. Species association: The plant provides habitat for various species of butterflies and moths. It is eaten by some mammals, such as rabbits and deer. It has its own species of dock bugs and dock beetles. Habitat preference: Docks grow in a variety of habitats, including meadows, waste ground, and disturbed areas. Edibility: The leaves can be eaten cooked and are a good source of vitamins A and C, as well as iron and calcium. Folklore: In some cultures, dock leaves are used as a traditional remedy for nettle stings. Dock was associated with protection and was used to ward off witches and evil spirits.

Buttercup (Ranunculus spp.) A bright yellow plant with glossy, heart-shaped leaves and distinctive shiny petals that reflect light. Species association: The flowers are a nectar source for bumblebees and honeybees. The plant provides cover for beetles and small mammals. Habitat preference: Buttercups grow in a variety of habitats, including meadows, hedgerows, and damp areas. Edibility: As with ragwort, buttercups are toxic if eaten in large quantities, but they are not usually consumed by humans or livestock due to their acrid taste. Folklore: In some cultures, it is believed that holding a buttercup under someone's chin will reveal whether they like butter. Buttercups are also associated with fairies in some folklore.

Bramble (Rubus fruticosus) A thorny shrub with arching stems and clusters of white or pink flowers that give way to delicious blackberries. Species association: The bramble flower is a nectar source for honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies, and various species of flies and beetles. Habitat preference: Bramble is sun-loving plant that prefers well-drained soils along hedgerows, woodland edges, field margins, and open grassland. Edibility: The fruit (blackberries) is edible and is used for jams, pies, and other culinary purposes. Blackberries are high in vitamin C and antioxidants. Folklore: In some cultures, bramble bushes are associated with protection and are believed to ward off evil spirits. In folklore, brambles were also associated with fairies and were said to be portals to the fairy realm.

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