To weed or not to weed, that is the question?
Stroll just beyond the Common Lands and into the nearby lanes and streets of Sudbury and you will find that nature has a foothold.
Leaving Little Freeman’s Common via the footbridge over the mill stream, you enter Noah’s Ark Lane – so called because at one time graziers would lead their cattle along here two-by-two to the meadows. Those days are long gone but what passers-by will notice today as summer hits are the two glorious rows of hollyhocks that run each side of this quirky alley, giant pink and cerise sentinels sprouting up from the narrow cracks between the cottage walls and the tarmac, welcoming you to the common lands.
More flowers can be found sprouting in these small fissures, from herb robert and borage to groundsel and scarlet pimpernel – all contributing splashes of colour to the proceedings.
Within a five-minute radius of the common lands our lanes and pavements are bursting with flowering plants who have naturally seeded and found a place to thrive in the nooks and crannies. Some are native wildflowers, many are escapees from people’s homes; successors of plants brought from abroad to ornament our gardens whose seeds have blown beyond their borders. All of them brighten our day and provide nectar for our pollinating insects.
As I stand watching a cricket match through the railings on Friars Street, I am taken by the arching bouquets of red valerian that have rooted themselves in the old priory wall next door. Originally introduced to the UK from the Mediterranean in the 1600s, this gorgeous plant with a wonderful pink-red flower can be seen sprouting everywhere in Sudbury.
These days we tend to think of non-native species as being bad, but valerian does not seem to do too much harm and is here to stay, providing a good source of nectar from May to October for bees, butterflies and moths like the Hummingbird Hawkmoth.
Along Gaol Lane I stop behind the Town Hall to admire a fine buddleia plant that has established on a strip of waste ground. Like the hollyhock, the buddleia heralds from Asia and was brought over to embellish our gardens but this is a tough plant which generates millions of seeds and seems at home in broken down and uncared for places. Opinion seems split on this plant, which can grow up to 5 metres in height. Some point to its deep lying roots, which can cause damage to foundations and walls while its tall statue is said to shadow out to native plants.
But the buddleia is also known as the ‘butterfly bush’ for the way it attracts peacocks, small tortoiseshells and the like. Up close, it is stunning – gifting voluptuous clusters of lilac petals and a heavy scent of honey. It strikes me in this place of potholes and municipal bins, this fine buddleia is an enhancement to the neighbourhood.
One can stroll down nearby Weavers Lane in five minutes but if you are keeping an eye out for all the plants growing wild along this stretch the same journey can take you four times as long. An impressive stand of opium poppies decorate a wall; a line of purple toadflax with their striking spikes have found a place for themselves in Vanners forecourt. In a small car park opposite the Gainsborough Print Workshop I see ivy, nettles, an imposing thistle, clumps of fat hen, mallow and ragwort, and many other plants I cannot identify.
For me, it is a great way to move through our town, making a mental note of these renegade plants which are growing where they should not.
During lockdown, botanists in London came together to form a group called More Than Weeds. They went around writing the names of plants in chalk next to the pavement cracks where they were growing as a way of encouraging people to take notice of the wide variety of plants around them.
They are part of a growing movement urging people to see these plants as more than weeds, and to encourage councils to reduce the use of weed killers and let more wildness into the towns. In some French towns where glysophates are banned, ‘guerrilla gardeners’ push seeds into the cracks in pavements.
This view may not be to everyone’s taste – some want to see neat and tidy urban spaces, cleared of weeds where the concrete and the brick is pristine.
But it all depends on what you regard as a weed. By being able to identify a plant and learning about its properties gives it an identity, and means it is harder to overlook. And as the trend towards rewilding grows, shouldn’t we be thinking about what this might mean for our towns and cities, not just our countryside?
Ross Bentley, Trustee of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity