Life

The Casual Gardener: Teasel – the weed that's welcome

Teasel is a weed that many gardeners welcome because it's good for wildflife and looks great in winter

Bees feast on teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), arguably the most striking of all the garden plants that 'die beautifully'

DESPITE the best efforts of Storm Ali and the suddenly plummeting temperatures that followed, there's still plenty of greenery about. The foliage that has surrendered its chlorophyll is still in the minority, though over the coming weeks it will inevitably become much more prevalent.

While the lushness and abundance of blooms that characterise the summer garden can't be matched in the coming months, there are many plants that will provide interest between now and spring's first daffodils. There are those rare perennials like hellebores, winter aconites and cyclamen, that are in flower when most of their herbaceous counterparts have retreated into dormancy beneath ground.

There are those trees and shrubs like dogwood and silver birch whose bark is loudest when there's an R in the month.

Then there are those plants which inadvertently take on a second life in death, reincarnated as the cells become lifeless and all that remains is the architectural splendour of their decaying skeleton. As landscape designer Tom Stuart-Smith once said: "Every garden should include some plants that die beautifully."

Echinacea, echinops (globe thistle), eryngiums (sea holly) and ornamental grasses all continue to put on a great show long after they've shuffled off their mortal coil. Arguably, the most striking of them all is teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), a wildflower – or what some blasphemers may describe as a ‘weed'.

This tall – up to more than two metres – and distinctive-looking biennial is widespread throughout Ireland, inhabiting railway embankments, roadsides and basically anywhere that nature is allowed a relatively, weedkiller-free rein.

In its first year, it's an uninspiring side-plate-sized rosette of serrated leaves but in its second year it comes of age in spectacular fashion, rapidly sending up vertical prickly stems which by July bear egg-sized, cone-shaped flowers.

They're not like flowers in the traditional sense but with their spiny pinkish-purple heads have the appearance of something almost alien. Where the leaves intersect with the stem, they create a bowl which collects water. Depending on who you believe, these either provide drinks for insects or serve to drown the unsuspecting ones, fuelling the theory that teasel is a carnivore.

As the summer progresses and the bees and butterflies have fed freely on their mildly intoxicating nectar, the flowerheads dry to seedheads in an attractive shade of brown. The life may have drained from the plant by early autumn but its frame won't collapse in on itself and instead remains rigid, holding those seedheads high where they'll be easily spotted by birds, especially a charm of goldfinches.

Depending on how exposed to wind they are, the dead teasel should last well into winter. If you're not inclined to leave the plants for the birds, they make great dried plants for combining with hydrangea, honesty and alliums. Teasel doesn't lend itself well to transplanting so you want to sow it, in autumn or spring, where you would like it to grow.

Plugs are available to buy from wildflower nurseries. Be wary, that once established it self-seeds freely and can become a bit of nuisance, though it's never invasive. This can be an advantage, however, as it enables you to select clusters of plants in your pick of places and ruthlessly cull the rest.

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