Friday, 17 July 2009

Arable Weeds in South Manchester

In the mid 19th century most of South Manchester consisted of villages set in farm land. Above the floodplain of the Mersey much of this land was arable. For example Andrew Simpson (1) has estimated that around this time Chorlton had 680 acres of meadow (mostly in the floodplain), 490 acres of arable land and 10 acres of woodland. Another of Chorlton’s historians, the late John Lloyd reconstructed the 1841 tithe map (2) and this shows that the land to the north of Beech Road, for example, was arable as was the land between Sandy Lane and Chorlton Brook and that between Barlow Moor Road and Barlow Hall. Those communities further from the river (such as Withington) probably had a greater proportion of their land devoted to arable.

Before the days of ‘clean’ seed and selective herbicides farmers struggled with weeds. Arable crops had to compete with a huge variety of wild plant species. Weeding these fields by hand was an onerous and labour intensive task. Dorothy Hartley (3) described how arable fields were weeded (in May) in the old days. The weeder walked between the rows of corn and:

“He uses two sticks: with the first, hooked stick he plucks the weed out from among the corn stalks, and with the second, forked stick, pins the weed’s head down under the fork. The weeder then steps one pace forward, placing his foot on the head of the weed, and, with this forward movement, swings the hooked stick behind him, lifting the root high out of the ground, before dropping it in line. In this way each pulled up weed is shaken clear of soil, and laid with its root over the buried head of the previous weed. Thus, as the weeder goes along the line of the furrows he lays a mulch of decaying weeds alongside the roots of the corn, and forms a line between the rows at least as wide as his foot.”

I would guess that this was a highly skilled task that took much practice to master but that a skilled weeder moved in a sort of rhythmic, swinging dance among the corn. Note, too, that what is being described here is a sort of ‘organic’ system in which not even the invasive weeds are wasted but are used to mulch the corn.

So, what is a weed? ‘The Concise Oxford Dictionary’ defines it as: “A wild herb springing where it is not wanted”. I’ve always found this definition (and similar ones) rather unsatisfactory because it only defines a weed in relation to humans and their agricultural activities. But weeds have been around longer than human agriculture and must play a wider role in the scheme of things. Many weeds are ‘annuals’ – that is, they spring up, flower and produce lots of seed and progeny in single season, then die. They don’t compete well with established plant communities (woods, scrub, grassland etc.) but are adapted by evolution to colonise disturbed ground. Because we humans are creatures who habitually disturb the ground, we’ve only got ourselves to blame!
Any piece of land in lowland Britain, if cleared of all vegetation (even down to the bedrock), and then left to its own devices, will slowly revert to woodland. This process is known to ecologists as “natural succession”. The classic description of natural succession can be found in A.G. Tansley’s book, ‘Britain’s Green Mantle’ (4). To quote the author:

“A number of phases of vegetation are thus successively established, usually in the order – lower plants, herbs, shrubs, and trees … In all favourable climates woodland is ultimately established, and this will eventually be dominated by the tallest trees, casting the deepest shade, which can succeed on the particular soil and in the particular climate.”

Broadly speaking the “herbs” in the above passage are annual weeds, followed by perennial weeds (docks, thistles etc.). To use more than a large chunk of poetic licence, weeds are a bit like the planet’s ‘clotting factor’. Damage the Earth’s surface and weeds appear to ‘mend’ the damage and to initiate a process leading to the re-establishment of woodland.

The extraordinary thing about South Manchester (although I’m not implying that it’s unique) is that, in spite of the fact that the farmers and the ‘weed dancers’ are long gone, and many of their arable fields are buried under bricks, mortar and tarmac, many of the weeds are still here! The ‘seed bank’ is still in the soil.
Some of the ‘old’ arable weeds that I’ve found are: Long-headed Poppy (Papaver dubium), Corn Poppy (P. rhoeas), Small Nettle (Urtica urens), Corn Spurrey (Spergula arvensis), Redshank (Persicaria maculosa), Black-bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus), Field Pansy (Viola arvensis), Wild Pansy (V. tricolor), Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), Wild Radish (Raphanus raphanistrum), Wild Mignonette (Reseda lutea), Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), Hairy Tare (Vicia hirsuta), Sun Spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia), Field Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), Red Dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum), Cut-leaved Dead-nettle (Lamium hybridum), Perennial Sow-thistle (Sonchus arvensis), Marsh Cudweed (Gnaphalium uliginosum), Scentless Mayweed (Tripleurospermum inodorum), Scented Mayweed (Matricaria recutita) and several more.

One group which fascinates me are the Fumitories (Fumaria sp.) – they are scrambling species with small, deeply divided leaves. They also have small, narrow, pink or white, rather snap-dragon-like flowers; they are notoriously difficult to identify to species level. This year (2009) I found one of the commonest species, Common Ramping-fumitory (F. muralis) all over the place, often as a street weed. It was particularly common along Barlow Moor Road, between Mauldeth Road West and Princess Parkway, and also in the Hough End area. I found another species, White Ramping-fumitory (F. capreolata) in Southern Cemetery of all places! There may also be at least one more species present (I need to do more work).

Manchester’s mid 19th century botanists (5, 6) found even more interesting weed species, such as Bugloss (Anchusa arvensis), Bristly Hawk’s-beard (Crepis setosa), Corn Buttercup (Ranunculus arvensis), Shepherd’s Needle (Scandix pecten-veneris) and Field Madder (Sherardia arvensis). I have not found any of these locally and some of them are rare and/or declining nationally.

I would have loved to have seen one of Chorlton or Withington’s weedy corn fields – but I was astonished to see something very like them last week. I went to a poetry festival in Eastern England. My route took me via a road between the Lincolnshire towns of Grantham and Sleaford. I spotted a barley field full of poppies and, after parking the car, went to investigate. This field (see photograph above) contained many other field weeds besides the poppies, including some of those listed above. It was a sight I never expected to see and I still can’t account for it.
One of the weeds in this field puzzled me for a while: it was coarse and bristly with tiny yellow flowers. It turned out to be Fiddleneck (Amsinckia micrantha), a plant originally from Western North America – now increasingly common in Eastern England. This illustrates another aspect of arable field weeds – they tend to be cosmopolitan. Since man invented agriculture they have been moved around the world and Fiddleneck is just one of the latest examples of this phenomenon.

Dave Bishop, July 2009


1. ‘Chorlton’s History – From Agricultural Village to Suburb’ by Andrew Simpson, FoCM Blog, 29th September 2008.

2. Personal Communication from Andrew Simpson.

3. ‘The Land of England’ by Dorothy Hartley, Macdonald & Jane’s, 1979.

4. ‘Britain’s Green Mantle’ by A.G. Tansley, George Allen & Unwin, 1949.

5. ‘A Botanical Guide to the Flowering Plants, Ferns, Mosses and Algae Found Indigenous Within Sixteen Miles of Manchester’ by Richard Buxton, Longman, 1849.

6. ‘The Manchester Flora’ by Leo Grindon, William White, 1859.

No comments: