RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Painted Lady butterfly

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“I hate ‘Ground elder! I spend hours digging out those horrid little white roots which wriggle like worms all the way through my flower beds. I wish I could spray it safely. It takes up hours of my time!”

I have heard these complaints so many times.

I remember the late, eminent botanist, Oliver Buckle of Chichester, giving a talk to the Chichester Natural History Society back in 1965 I think it was, being asked that question by a lady in the audience. ‘What can you do with it? Eat it!’ was his reply. That caused a moment of shock horror.

But everyone listened attentively because the speaker was greatly respected; still is of course, having been an authority on European plants, in particular arum lilies and one of the few people to be allowed into Tito’s Yugoslavia on plant hunting trips.

He was carefully followed by two Eastern Bloc minders though, as they were certain he was spying for the West. Aegopodium podagraria was introduced into this country, probably by the Romans, as a pot-herb, eaten either fresh but normally lightly boiled.

It is quite tangy to taste and is the same family of Umbelliferae as carrot, parsnip, rock-samphire, fennel, caraway, hogweed, pignut, coriander, sweet cicely and alexanders, all of which can be eaten in some form or another. That family also included hemlock!

My garden and lawn have become completely over-run with ground-elder this year and I just don’t give a damn, because it looks very sweet and fresh with its masses of white umbels of flowers which have attracted swarms of interesting beetles, flies, moths and butterflies.

I managed to snap this picture of a painted lady butterfly as it filled up with nectar next to my garden seat this May. The migrant butterfly had arrived after its long distance flight from Africa so it can’t be bad in the wild garden.

However, as the Elizabethan herbalist Gerard complained: ‘where it hath taken roote, it will be hardly gotten out againe, spoiling and getting euery yeere more ground, to the annoying of other herbes’.

It is called Housemaid’s knee, on account of it having caused that complaint when one kneels continually to garden. But it was also called Goutweed, apparently as a cure for that very distressing complaint. I wonder: did Samuel Pepys take that cure? He suffered horribly, having imbibed far too much claret and sherry.

Another name was Devil’s guts, which was as savage a description the unhappy gardener could think to call this pretty and life-giving flower of the wild garden. Well, that’s my opinion anyway, but it probably isn’t yours.