Sunday 23 August 2015

Enchanter’s nightshade

As fond of weeds and wildflowers as I am, it wasn’t without a wry smile that I acknowledged the arrival of this plant in a bed from which I’d only recently been congratulating myself for liberating from ground elder. Circaea lutetiana, or enchanter’s nightshade, has a similar creeping habit to that carrot which fills some gardeners with horror, but which I’ve always found myself able to tolerate, as long as it doesn’t object to a triple whammy of vigorous forking and pulling out, and a good strimming of its aerial parts when the urge comes upon me.

The botanical name possessing twice the magical power of the common (Circe being the sorceress of Homer’s Odyssey, and Lutetia referencing an old Latin name for Paris, the ‘Witch City’), Circaea isn’t part of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) at all, but rather a relative of willowherbs and the evening primrose (Onagraceae). It’s generally described as being “not particularly toxic”, so you probably won’t want to be dashing out to gather it up by the armful for pesto. As a plant of woodland glades and edges, it revels in slightly damp, light shade, and can establish large colonies if allowed to grow unchecked, in which situations it might reach its full height of around 60 centimetres, though I’ve rarely encountered it in a garden at more than a third of that size. While its underground rhizomes will take it only so far, its hairy oval seed capsules facilitate any designs it might have on wider conquest; towards the end of summer, it’s not uncommon for the dog owner to find several in the coat of their furry friend.

Although it’s not tiresome to pull out, it’s probably not something the gardener would want to encourage, unless in a woodland setting. That said, when in flower, I find it rather pretty – above the spear-shaped, opposite green leaves a spire-like raceme, rather openly (some might say ungenerously) populated with tiny flowers (reminiscent of some of the less abundantly-floriferous heucheras). The flowers themselves are white, sometimes with a pink tinge, and have two, deeply divided petals.

A large patch of the stuff in your borders is probably not be what you want, then. But if you should catch the odd plant out of the corner of your eye, flowering daintily away in some forgotten leaf litter under a large shrub, you might want to leave it be. Noone likes to run the risk of upsetting an enchantress.