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Cornucopia - A Plant Community

A Plant Community
Febrin LePadden

I loathe weeding and always have; not because I find the task boring or tiring but because I have a deep aversion to pulling up living plants. Never mind that they are rank intruders like creeping buttercup, chickweed or bittercress, I find the process of pulling them from the soil and casting them aside quite deplorable. If I’m removing young weeds, I’m destroying burgeoning new life; if I’m removing mature weeds, I’m putting an end to stalwart survivors. Either way, I detest the business. But sometimes I accept that it really must be done and a few days ago I decided that I must sort out one section of the main border: it was just a congested mass of plants. So I fetched my kneeling pad and took stock of the situation, wondering where to begin and I suddenly realised that what I saw before me was a perfect example of a thriving plant community and a supremely insect-friendly one. True, there were plant species present that I’d have preferred absent, but by and large any interference by me could only disrupt something rather wonderful.

As I knelt there, it struck me that it would be interesting to make a list of the plants and I went indoors to fetch a pencil and paper, then went back for a tape measure. The section of border I was concerned with was 3’ x 4’. Now that the exact measurements were known I could tell myself that I was engaged in a scientific survey, investigating the botanical diversity of a specific urban environment and not just satisfying idle curiosity. I spent a pleasant five minutes noting down what I saw in front of me and was impressed: eighteen different species in this one small area. After a moment’s thought, I marked bee-friendly plants with a capital ‘B’, plants attractive to hoverflies and jewel wasps with ‘HW’ and self-sown plants with ‘SS’. The list now appeared as follows:

  • Black horehound (Ballota nigra) B
  • Black knapweed (Centaurea nigra) B
  • Tufted vetch (Vicia cracca) B, SS
  • Hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) B
  • Betony (Stachys officinalis) B
  • Red clover (Trifolium pratense) B, SS
  • Purple toadflax (Linaria purpurea) B, SS
  • Eastern skullcap (Scutellaria brevibracteata) B, SS
  • Baikali skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) B, SS
  • Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) B, SS
  • Dandelion (Taraxacum hamatum) HW, SS
  • Cat’s Ear (Hypochaeris radicata) HW, SS
  • Nipplewort (Lapsana communis) HW, SS
  • Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) HW, SS
  • Spotted Hawkweed (Hypochaeris maculata) HW, SS
  • Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna) SS
  • Herb Bennet (Geum urbanum) SS
  • Upright Cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) HW

The bee friendly plants (and we are talking of bumble-bees, not honey-bees) number ten, of which six are self sown; only betony, black horehound, hedge woundwort and black knapweed were planted. It is significant that five of the ten belong to the family Labiatae (yes, I still use the old name!), as this is one of my favourite plant families. Of the remaining eight species, six are of good use to hover-flies and jewel wasps and all except one are self-sown, the exception being the cinquefoil. It goes without saying that they are occasionally visited by bumble-bees - there are few hard and fast rules in nature - but they certainly don’t constitute a regular food source.

The only two species that appear to be of little use to insects are mountain sorrel and herb bennet and I might have removed these two, to give the others more space, had I been able to do so without spoiling the set-up. In the event I cut back both as far as I could, to discourage them a little. The result of my cursory survey is a sense of great satisfaction that I have succeeded in establishing a garden in which so many plants are self-sowing and growing happily together, without any one species taking over; and I am more than ever convinced that weeding is not for me!

First published in the Correspondents Group Newsletter, June 2010
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 29.
© Copyright for this article: Febrin LePadden

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2012. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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