In late winter I started some seeds in a box and the foxgloves all came up like radishes but several other things did not.
Viewing that box recently, where a couple of foxgloves still live, having sprouted late and therefore not properly moved to permanent locations, I was interested to see a new weed with attractive opposite lance-shaped shiny leaves.
I am fortunate in having grown every weed known to this continent and some others. They come and they go. Once I waged war against chickweed, which is bad in late winter, and now I have none and really miss it a little.
Same with plantain. It was everywhere. Now not a single specimen. And dock -- well, I have a couple of good specimens that I keep just for old time's sake.
The vicious weeds now are bindweed and pokeweed, both of them worse than all the others put together.
So naturally I examined this new weed with care. But I thought it looked familiar in a way and then it dawned on me (assisted by digging out the faded label) that it was the dandy old red valerian (Centranthus ruber).
How glad I am to see it. This has always been a magical plant, said to ward off lightning. I read somewhere that its seeds once had an important, probably magical, use in the embalming of the dead. Somebody is said to have sprouted some valerian from seeds several hundred years old.
It is not a conventionally pretty flower, not like an iris or gladiolus or lily. It has the beauty of such plants as rue or rosemary, plants that seem to hold themselves together (though rosemary sprawls, of course) in some unearthly way.
It is not native to England, but you see it everywhere in Britain now, often growing from cracks in old stone walls. It likes and demands sun and full exposure. It is not a plant for tucking in here and there among the azaleas.
I've grown it in the past. It never lasted more than a couple of years before dying out. As you can guess, a plant that flourishes on the face of stone walls is not likely to be happy at my place with its rich manured heavy clay loam. The valerian seeds lavishly and in theory you have hundreds of seedlings all over the garden in no time.
But that is true in light sandy loams that are somewhat alkaline, not on rich acid soils like mine.
So there I was, once again planting seed of the old red valerian. Weeks, even months later, it did not sprout. Then it did, and now I have a couple of flourishing young plants. The soil in the box is light, and as the box sits atop a brick pavement, of course it never gets waterlogged.
It is always agreeable when a weed turns out to be a flower you want.
A flower that grows in similar places is a Mexican fleabane, Erigeron karvinskianus, formerly E. mucronatus. It is like a small aster with white flowers the size of fingernails on stems maybe six or eight inches high. As they age, they turn pink and burnt madder. There are lots of them. It has nothing to say to heavy rich soil so I grew it in pure grit, which was fine except it was only two inches thick over a cement base.
It died over winter and I waited patiently for the expected seedlings to emerge, as it is a great self-sower. None appeared.
I could not find seeds of it anywhere except in England (which is par for many American plants) so I ordered it. Sold out. Things are always sold out when I want them. Finally I got some seed from a horticultural society abroad.
Imagine my surprise when visiting my friend Phinney in Fairfax to see this quite uncommon plant (I don't suppose you could call a Mexican weed rare) all over the place. My friend does not think all that much of it. He got the seed from the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and grows it in baskets as well as in terra cotta flues used as pots on the ground, and I see it has sprouted here and there (as it's supposed to do, only not for me) on flat ground.
I wanted it to grow with the dwarf creeping semi-shrubby morning glory from North Africa, Convolvulus mauritanica, with inch-wide sky-blue flowers. That is a plant I have looked for for years. Finally, a friend saw the plant in Japan and brought back some and gave me one.
And then a friend in Boston sent me a catalogue from California and there the little morning glory was listed. All these years of searching, then I can get it from two sources. (Canyon Creek Nursery, 3527 Dry Creek Rd., Oroville, Calif. 95965, which has some out of the way perennials.)
And the way these things work, sooner or later I'll find some gardener right here who says, "Oh, that thing? Got it all over the place. Sort of a weed, don't you think?"