I regularly used to drive up and down the M4 between London and Wales in the 1970s and 1980s, initially on a motorbike and subsequently in a car. When I got to my destination the helmet visor or car windscreen would invariably be absolutely caked with a splattering of countless insects killed in the 70mph impact. When I do the same 120 mile journey today the windscreen ends up entirely clear of so much as one dead fly. Why? Simply because there are hardly any insects left. In a mere 40 years the world has lost 75% of all insect life; the most abundant and diverse life-form on Earth is being annihilated by insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, industrialised agribusiness, habitat destruction, climate change and the ceaseless turbo-growth that is capitalism’s paramount imperative.
Insects are the very foundation of the food chain upon which all animal life, including us, depends. Without insects to pollinate plants the human race will be wiped out within a couple of failed harvests, so this murderous onslaught on the natural world is not just wrong it is insanely, clinically stupid. Given that people of the calibre of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have been elevated by voters to the ranks of the most powerful men in the world, isn’t it about time that the notion that our species possesses any practical intelligence at all is recognised for what it is: vain, fanciful, deluded, self-aggrandising without the slightest evidence to support it?
Aware of the destruction of the natural world since I was a teenager, and then gradually, painfully made aware that I am powerless against the mighty forces pulling in the opposite direction, I made a conscious decision long ago to be part of the solution not the problem and not collude in the destruction. There is only one miniscule part of the planet where I have any semblance of control: my back garden in Cardiff. So it is on this pocket-handkerchief of inner city ground, 5m wide by 10m long (16ft x 32ft), where I have been creating a wild-life haven these last 14 years. I’ve improved the already fertile soil by natural composting, I’ve never used chemicals, pesticides or artificial fertilisers, I’ve grown thick hedgerows and mini-habitats for birds, and I’ve let ‘weeds’ flourish wherever they will, in paving cracks, pebble screes, bare verges and dark corners. These much-abused plants, so dismissively labelled and usually eradicated by poisons without a second thought, are ancient native species or naturalised introductions completely attuned to their location and thus the very best providers of the pollen and nectar needed to sustain a healthy, diverse insect population. I let them arrive of their own accord, on currents of air or via birds and other animals, and leave most of them alone to germinate, grow, flower, set seed and form clumps, only removing them by hand (‘weeding’ is the verb) when they start to hamper one of the fruit bushes or ornamental plants or threaten to topple walls. These weeds are the pioneer flora of this specific place, with its specific climate, specific geology, specific geography and specific human impact: the damp alluvial muds of the coastal moors between the rivers Taff and Rhymni. They are thus the true Flora Cardiffia, and the relentless concreting over of Cardiff has made them rarer and rarer. Cardiffians should know them, respect them, recognise their unique qualities, nurture them and protect them – before it’s too late.
In alphabetical order of their Welsh names, the following have made my little plot in Splott their home:
Bidoglys (trailing lobelia) Lobelia erinus
Lobelia was introduced to Europe from sub-tropical southern Africa as far back as the 16th century, originally for its many medicinal properties, and has long since gone native. It’s a big genus with hundreds of species, from thick-trunked shrubs to compact scramblers, and there are numerous ornamental hybrids of all shapes and sizes, popular with gardeners for their deep blue, long-lasting and profuse flowers. I know exactly how this particular diminutive lobelia came to establish itself in paving cracks in my garden: my neighbour five houses away grows the trailing variety in rather vulgar hanging baskets and the myriad tiny seeds would easily get here from that source via butterflies, moths, birds, the breeze – or just the bottom of my shoes. The violet-blue flowers with their conspicuous white eye are food for hosts of insects while its many medicinal qualities make lobelia one of the primary plants in the herbalist’s arsenal, being antispasmodic, emetic, relaxant, stimulant, expectorant, sedative, anti-venomous, counter-irritant, diaphoretic, diuretic, cathartic, astringent and purgative. Oh, nearly forgot, and highly poisonous to humans: leave it for the insects.
Brithlys (scarlet pimpernel) Anagallis arvensis
Requiring virtually no soil, scarlet pimpernel can grow wherever there’s a patch of waste ground and plenty of sunlight. Its prostrate stems gallop across any surface, sending down the occasional frail root when encountering a little earth and forming a luxuriant carpet of silky green leaves and tiny flowers, so soft you could use it as a pillow. The English common name is misleading, because although the flowers are often scarlet they also come in a range of colours across the blue/red spectrum – in my garden, for instance, they are pale pink with hints of mauve. The Welsh name, meaning ‘motley herb’, is more encompassing and, paradoxically, precise. Pimpernel varieties are multiple and extremely localised, the plant having had thousands of years as a European native to adapt to specific circumstances. These Cardiff ones earn their keep mainly due to sheer attractiveness. The myriad flowers feed a wide range of pollinators from the estimated 10,000 various miniscule bugs that inhabit every square foot of earth, but the plant is harmfully toxic to humans and other mammals and most birds and insects leave it well alone. Once used as a remedy for everything from ulcers and rheumatism to haemorrhoids and snake-bites, Anagallis is now considered not just clinically useless but positively dangerous. Use something else on them piles.
Camri (pineapple mayweed) Matricaria discoidea
This relative of camomile in the daisy family originated in north-east Asia and was only introduced to northern Europe in the late 19th century. From that foothold the robust little herb has spread far and wide to become completely naturalised, a familiar presence on roadsides, well-trodden pathways and any disturbed, compacted urban ground. Its comparatively recent arrival in Wales means that no specific Welsh word has been coined for it (yet), so I’ve opted for the Welsh for camomile in general. It isn’t one of the two camomile varieties (Matricaria recutita and Chamaemelum nobile) that can be made into camomile tea, the ultimate herbal remedy for insomnia – but that doesn’t bother me; my problem is waking up! The pineapple mayweed name was coined in English because the feathery, bright green leaves emit a distinct smell of pineapple when crushed and the greenish-yellow conical flower-heads bear a passing resemblance to petite pineapples. A good source of nectar for a range of insects, its sticky seeds then being dispersed by adhering to their wings and bodies, the plant also has culinary uses (the young leaves make a refreshingly tangy addition to mixed green salads) and medicinal properties (sipping its bitter tea soothes gastrointestinal upsets).
Cloch yr eos (harebell) Campanula rotundifolia
With exquisite pale blue flowers on wiry stems, hanging bells nodding in the breeze, the harebell is unmistakeable. In Welsh it is the ‘nightingale bell’, a romantic association of chiming bells with the bravura balladeer songbird – made all the more poignant and distressing these days by the 70% decline in nightingale numbers in the UK over the last 25 years (all the coppices and scrublands that were its ancestral homes have been erased). Harebell is perfectly designed as the ultimate insect cafeteria; the drooping fused petals providing a fly-in cosy canopy under which bumble bees can gorge in privacy and safety. A Europe-wide denizen of heaths, grasslands and rocky crevasses, the plant can put down roots in the most unpromising ground. It pushes out of cracks in walls and paving stones all over southern Cardiff, obviously partial to the alkaline sub-soil, and I’m delighted to recently welcome it in my gravel beds, where I treat it like a prize ornamental at the Chelsea Flower Show. It has no culinary or medicinal properties of use to humans, but the future of the bumble bee is much more important than that. As poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) put it: “Hope is like a harebell, trembling from its birth.”
Dant y llew (dandelion) Taraxacum officinale
Even people who otherwise couldn’t name a single plant know the dandelion. That’s how deep it’s tap-root goes into human history. The abundant northern European native pops up everywhere in an unmanicured, semi-wild garden like mine, and I’m increasingly letting them rip to develop the big, bright yellow flowers that are such a rich source of nectar for bees. This also allows me to utilise this incredible plant for some of its many medicinal and culinary uses. Saturated in beneficial minerals and with more vitamins A and C than virtually every other plant, the dandelion’s therapeutic cures were being recorded by Arabian physicians as far back as the ninth century. Tea made from the roots or leaves can combat anaemia, stimulate and cleanse the liver and bladder, ease edema, relieve biliousness, aid digestion and treat eczema and other skin complaints. Every single part of the plant has a long-established reputation for providing a variety of appetising foods. The tender young leaves have a delicious unique piquancy and are excellent raw in salads, as are the bitterish grated roots and the sweet toothsome flowers. Cooked gently with a lump of butter and a light seasoning of salt and pepper the leaves are superb as a hot vegetable too – like a superior form of spinach – while the roasted roots make a soothing coffee-tasting beverage minus the caffeine, the petals can be made into wine and the entire plant makes heady dandelion beer, a popular free countryside tipple for centuries. To destroy such a bounty is tantamount to criminal. I keep the beauties in check easily by removing some of the spherical seedheads before each seed is dispersed far and wide by the wind on individual parachutes. For children of my generation these were the ‘dandelion clocks’ that told us the hour by the number of puffs it took to blow away all the white fluffy strands. It’s five o’clock! Time to go! And home we’d run through the fields and woods to teatime and to mam…
Fioled y ci (dog violet) Viola riviniana
Violet is one of those especially vivid plants, like lemon, lime, orange and rose, which has a synonymous colour – and a colour of the rainbow at that. The dog violet, native across Eurasia, is not one of the more spectacular members of the Viola species and completely lacks the famous sweet scent of Viola odorata, also native but not common in urban areas. However it more than compensates by being a magnet for a number of rare butterflies in the fritillary species. Most at home in unkempt wild grassland, an accurate description of my ‘lawn’, dog violet’s small clumps of heart-shaped leaves are in full flower right now. After flowering is over I will thin them out where they’re getting invasive and use the antioxidant-packed leaves raw in green salads.
Glas y gors (forget-me-not) Myosotis arvensis
The dainty powder-blue flowers of forget-me-not have been a welcome recent arrival in my garden. The plant has happily formed a characteristic many-branched cluster in a shady nook where little else would grow, the yellow centres of the flowers forming a honey guide for passing bees, the hairy little leaves providing food for the larvae of butterflies and moths. The English name dates from the 14th century, a loan translation from German as English became established as a separate language (the plant has long held huge symbolic significance in Germany and to this day it is used to commemorate war dead in the same way the poppy is used in the UK). In Welsh it is the ‘marsh blue’ because of its preference for damp habitats. That would explain how it found its way to my patch of sodden earth.
Hesg (sedge) Carex pendula
Another recent arrival, finding a warm niche hard up against a wall, is a pendulous sedge, alarmingly getting ever bigger by the day. As sedge doesn’t flower it is of no interest to insects, but the floppy, catkin-like seed-heads provide a tasty treat for birds and its fibrous, long, thin, graceful leaves supply excellent nesting material so I’m reluctant to pull it out. In their natural, pre-industrial state Cardiff’s squelchy East Moors were an ideal habitat for many of the sedge species; I reckon they’ve as much right to be here as me.
Iorwg (ivy) Hedera helix
A vital plant for wild life, this instantly recognisable evergreen, woody climber provides dense year-round shelter for insects, birds, bats and other small mammals and its nectar, pollen and berries are an essential food source for insects and birds during autumn and winter when little else is available. Ivy is particularly important to insects: bees, wasps and hoverflies forage on the nectar and pollen; it is the main source of food for many butterfly and moth larvae; and over 50 threatened insect species depend on ivy flowers for sustenance. People frequently tear down magnificent mature ivy plants on the spurious pretext that they damage buildings. They do not. Ivy is self-supporting, having its own climbing stems with specialised hairs that can stick to vertical surfaces and its own root system to supply nutrients and water. In fact, ivy actually protects and preserves the stonework of old buildings as they clamber skywards across decades in the search for a place in the sun. In this garden the ivy is part and parcel of the stone dividing walls that were constructed between the gardens of these terraced houses back in the early 1890s. To remove the ivy wouldn’t just be wanton vandalism – it would bring those walls tumbling down. Ivy’s traditional evergreen companion, connected in song by the Christmas carol, is holly, Ilex aquifolium, celynnen in Welsh. No wild holly seedlings have established themselves here (too claustrophobic probably), but I did plant a garden centre holly about 10 years ago and it is now part of a thick, ivy-tangled hedge where house sparrows nest and breed and live out their busy lives.
Llaeth yr ysgyfarnog (sun spurge) Euphorbia helioscopia
There are many species of spurge in the huge Euphorbia genus, ranging from tiny annuals to giant trees, but the one that thrives in sunny nooks and crannies in my Cardiff garden is the wild sun spurge, readily spread by its explosive seeding technique and naturalised in southern Wales since Roman times. In Welsh it is called hare’s milk after its milky-white sap, one of the defining features of the genus, while the English common name derives from the Old French word for ‘to purge’ – the sap was used from the time of ancient Greece as a drastic, and often fatal, laxative. The sap, called ‘latex’, is actually poisonous to humans and other vertebrates. It has caustic effects that produce extremely painful inflammation when in contact with skin and mucus membranes and can cause blindness if eyes are exposed to it. Heaven only knows whether or not regular doses helped Alexander the Great (356BC-323BC) sort out his constipation – but at least it explains his hyperactivity disorder! That sap may be dangerous to us but a wide range of insect pollinators are immune to it and the larvae of rare hawkmoths and leopard moths feast on it. Spurges, with their unique miniscule flowers hidden amid a cluster of small green bracts, are still used in traditional Chinese medicine as a cathartic. It goes without saying that only qualified practitioners should attempt such measures. Today, modern research shows that the plant has major potential for the treatment of ascites and nephritis. So we shouldn’t spurn the spurge; the ancient herbalists were right about its power all along. It was never quack medicine – leave that to the President of the USA. More bleach, Mister President?
Llygad y dydd (daisy) Bellis perennis
Who could resent a few daisies on a lawn? Answer: uptight petit-bourgeoisie vulgarian inadequates with a pathological need to ‘conquer’ nature, who drench their lawn with weedkiller and mow it to within a millimetre of its life to get the bowling-green look peddled by the chemical industry (as seen on TV). The once common sight of swards of daisies twinkling white and yellow across their favoured habitat of open, sunlit pastures, meadows and grasslands is becoming uncommon, mainly because of the wholesale eradication of such environments. Pollinated by flies, beetles and moths, the daisy (a corruption of ‘day’s eye’) is a prolific flowerer that opens its vivid yellow central disc in daylight and closes it behind a veil of white florets at night or in overcast weather. Seeds are distributed by the wind, shaken out by the flexible leafless stems so they fall nearby and quickly form spreading clumps. Incredibly resilient, it can even tolerate heavy trampling by crouching low to the ground in its flat rosette of spoon-shaped leaves. Native all over Europe from the Alps to the Arctic, the plant has had a close relationship with humans for millennia. Herbalists used it in the treatment of varicose veins and scurvy and daisy ointment was a ubiquitous folk remedy for bruises and wounds amongst ordinary people right through to the 20th century. Within living memory small children would often pass summer afternoons sitting in meadows of wild flowers, humming with insect life, and threading together ‘daisy chains’ as garlands and gifts. Daisies were universally loved and appreciated. Geoffrey Chaucer (c1340-1400), the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages, once praised them as “that blissful sight softeneth all my sorrow.” Let them soften our sorrow too – or soon we will all be pushing up daisies.
Llysiau’r gingroen (ragwort) Senecio jacobaea
Poisonous to grazing herbivores, ragwort is treated as an enemy to be vanquished by the brutes of Big Agribusiness who want the whole natural world turned into a giant cattle ranch, a dead desert stripped of all biodiversity the better to manufacture burgers. In the UK alone ragwort is the home and primary food supply of at least 77 insect species, including 30 that feed on ragwort alone, as well as a major food source for another 22 species and a significant nectar provider to a further 117 travelling species, putting it in the top 10 most ecologically important plants of all. To kill a ragwort is thus a wicked assault on the whole biosphere, and by extension on human beings. As such it should be illegal, but instead the influential factory-farm lobby maintain constant pressure to ensure it’s virtually compulsory. In urban inner Cardiff ragwort can find a refuge from the herbicide drenchings of rural areas and I’m honoured to make room for the ‘stink-horn’ (as it’s known in Welsh), with its dazzling array of yellow flowers in flat-topped clusters, teeming with numberless small creatures on summer afternoons. For endangered species like the cinnabar moth, the picture-winged fly, the knot horn moth, the emerald moth and various leaf beetles and micro-moths, this is a matter of life and death: all are close to extinction and all are entirely dependent on ragwort as their sole food source.
Llysiau’r llwynog (herb robert) Geranium robertianum
Unlike so many wild flowers herb robert is still abundant thanks to being one of the most adaptable of all flowering plants. It can grow anywhere from deep shaded woods to sun-baked coastal shingle, only being averse to high altitudes and acid soil – which explains its presence on the low-lying alkaline coastal moors of Cardiff. In Welsh it is the ‘fox herb’, perhaps because of the unusual, pungently foxy smell it emits when bruised. As with all languages, Welsh has a few names for the pan-European native, including coesgoch (red-legged – the stems turn increasingly red as summer progresses) and dail robin (robin’s leaves – the same robertianum referenced in the botanical name). In English it can be red robin, storksbill, crow’s foot and stinking bob as well as herb robert. Who precisely ‘Robert’ was is still a matter of debate amongst taxonomists, etymologists, botanists and people with too much time on their hands. I would like to go with the theory that he is Robin Goodfellow, the impish fairy of the forests immortalised by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – however, the more prosaic probability is that it just comes from the Latin ruber, meaning red. The plant’s striking pink petals around an enticing blob of orange pollen lure hosts of different insects and the deeply divided, bright green, red-veined leaves are important food for many different aphids, moth larvae and beetles. When herb robert starts to take over the garden they are simplicity itself to pull up, roots and all, with no effort. And within a few weeks new ones will emerge because, as with other species in the geranium family, it cleverly disperses its own seeds via an explosive mechanism in the impressive seed-pods. The plant has long been widely used to treat a variety of ailments, and multiple studies now corroborate its significant beneficial medicinal properties, especially as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and anti-hyperglycaemic agent.
Llysiau St. Mair (rosebay willowherb) Chamerion angustifolium
Native throughout the temperate northern hemisphere, rosebay willowherb is a plant super-hero, one of nature’s invincible soldiers, the first to enter the ruined battlefields left by human activity and start to rectify and repair the damage. On hopeless, poisoned demolition sites, abandoned industrial zones, burned land and cleared forests it is this humble ‘weed’ that implants itself first in the ravaged earth to pioneer the process of rehabilitation. In the UK in WW2 it was colloquially called ‘bombweed’ for its rapid colonisation of bomb craters. Quickly establishing itself across any landscape, it provides the vital inaugural blanket of vegetation for recovering fauna and for pollinators to re-establish a diverse set of flora. In Adamsdown the plant is currently giving an object lesson in natural regeneration at the old Splott Cinema site on the Agate Street/Pearl Street corner; a scandalously dangerous, unhealthy and contemptuous eyesore to greet people as they enter Splott. The large area of derelict waste ground has been used as an all-purpose, drop-and-go fly-tip for FIVE years, ever since the empty Bingo Hall burned down in one of Cardiff’s many miraculous spontaneous combustions of a roofless building saturated in damp. Despite the extraordinary mounds of disgraceful, sickening rubbish that nobody takes responsibility for clearing, a veritable forest of rosebay willowherb is systematically working the ground and clearing the way for brambles, sycamores, buddleias and later pioneer plants. The dark pink flowers, climbing in gracefully tapered steps from top to bottom of the tall erect stalk, attract one of the biggest variety of insects of any flowering plant and are the primary habitat, host and food supply of many butterflies and moths. Each plant produces about 80,000 microscopic seeds which, after their capsules split, ride the air currents, wafted away on silky filaments, until falling to Earth. That, no doubt, is how St Mary’s herb found its way to my back yard.
Syfien goeg (barren strawberry) Potentilla sterilis
Another doughty native completely adaptable to most conditions, this close relative of the wild strawberry looks just like it but unfortunately doesn’t produce an edible fruit, just a small, dry husk. Attractive white flowers with the trademark five petals of all ‘cinquefoils’ appear as early as February, providing vital nutrition for the many insect species becoming active in late winter. After the flowers fade in June, the low-growing perennial sends its creeping runners through the damp grassy places it prefers, the hairy-grey-green leaves almost invisible as the grass grows above them, thus helping create the deep green undercroft where so many species dwell. Potentilla means ‘small and powerful’, a reference to the medicinal value herbalists have attributed to the genus since the first Greek doctors 3,000 years ago, and the barren strawberry is no exception. Reputedly, a potion made from the leaves and roots is an astringent that can heal minor abrasions and clear skin of pimples by closing open pores.
Y wialen aur (golden rod) Solidago virgaurea
Surprisingly, a bold golden rod has lately implanted itself in a gap in my crumbling garden path and its unbranched single stalk is leaning into the westerly winds and shooting upwards, flower buds now beginning to form in readiness for a cavalcade of yellow ray and disc florets in the summer. I’m surprised because this Solidago species, a native of North America naturalised in Europe since the 19th century, tends to prefer drier, more acidic soil. It could be a garden escape or maybe it’s a refugee from the burning hillsides and arson-plagued mountain tops further up the river valleys. In any event, local bees, wasps and butterflies are in for a treat when it flowers next month. Chewing the leaves apparently relieves sore throats, which will come in handy next time I get one of my persistent, ticklish coughs…
Pictures: Keith Jones; Directory of Euphorbiaceae; RHS; Cicely Mary Barker