Monday, 24 October 2011

Second-class plants?

On most weekdays I take Jake, my friends' young, excitable collie, for a lunchtime comfort break while they're both at work. We usually take a turn round the field to the north of the village, a small triangle of old arable land bounded by the railway line on one side and the river on the other. Jake runs ahead while I mosy along behind - checking what's about, when I'm being good and concentrating on the now - but often drifting off into my own parallel world of things-to-do lists and other mental doodlings. I'm embarassed to admit that I sometimes get back to the village and realise that I remember hardly anything of the 15-minute walk.

But there are times when this tendency to mind-wander can reap some rewards for my work - Friday was one of them. As I walked through the field I was vaguely aware that it looked different. A candyfloss-pink haze hovered about a foot above the sodden, green tangle of weeds that carpets the field. I looked more closely. The haze was made up of thousands of licorice allsorts - the ones with the clear jelly inside, coated with tiny, pink sugar balls - except that they were oval instead of round. They were redshanks (or maybe redshank - do plants keep the singular like groups of birds?) - persicaria maculosa. It's a tallish plant with reddish stems and small pink flowers that you can find in many damp overgrown fields at this time of year. An arable weed - a plant paria to most farmers and a second-class citizen to many wildflower lovers. But it was beautiful in a drift like this.

So I looked more closely at the 'weeds', and spotted something different. A patch of plants with delicate, frondy, lime-green leaves. Some kind of dead-nettle, I guessed. The flowers were amazing. They were large, cream and yellow orchid-like blooms with dark maroon spots on the top lip and purply-red lower skirts - quite stunning. I had no idea what they were called, so I walked on, making a mental note to look them up when I got home. Then the drifting started.
Why don't I know the name of such a striking plant?
Because arable weeds don't get a mention.
Why don't arable weeds get a mention?
Because we think they're common, and because farmers think they're a pest.
I must find out more about them....

So I got home and looked up the mystery plant in my field guide. Large-flowered hemp nettle. Very prosaic - probably an indication of its place in the hierarchy of plant-sexiness. I went further. Looked it up on-line. The links led me on from large flowered hemp nettle to arable weeds in general. And I found out something far less prosaic. Something I didn't realise. Something I think ought to be better known.

There are 150 plants described as 'arable weeds'. Of these seven are counted as extinct in the wild, but there are another 54 - over a third - that are counted as 'threatened' by Plantlife, including the lovely large-flowered hemp nettle. Are arable weeds going to be the next passenger pigeons? So common as to be overlooked; so unloved as to be undervalued, until they've ben wiped from the earth? So I've put them in my blog - one microscopic step towards raising their profile with people who might care enough to notice them on a walk - if they're not mind-wandering too much.

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