Crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples

Weeds in literature 

It might come as a surprise that weeds have played a large part in the cultural landscape throughout history.

In fact weeds were at the very start of English-language writing. The Wife’s Lament, an Anglo-Saxon poem dating from the tenth century and one of the oldest surviving pieces of literature, features a “woody grove” that is “overgrown with thorns”.

The symbolic use of weeds has been popular in literature ever since. If we were to list all the times weeds have cropped up in writing over the centuries, we’d be here for hours! So here are our favourite examples of how weeds have contributed to literature, shifting from and returning to common themes over the years.

Thistles with bee

Let’s start with the Bible. In the New Testament the Gospel of Matthew tells The Parable of the Weeds, where good and bad people are likened to wheat and weeds growing together in a field:

No,” he answered, "because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.”

Here, weeds are used as a metaphor for those who, on Judgement Day, will be separated from good believers and ‘burned’ – perhaps literally - in Hell!

Weeds are also used as a signifier of bad behaviour in the Old Testament: The Book of Zephaniah describes places with sinful occupants as “possessed by nettles and salt pits”, and the Book of Proverbs describes a lazy man’s vineyard as “overgrown with thistles”. Charming!

Multiple large white daisies with yellow centres.

Chaucer, who was the most significant poet of the Middle Ages and considered the ‘Father of English Literature’, uses weeds and wildflowers with more positive connotations. He conjures images of a ‘courtly idyll’, which is an idealised version of the codes of honour that were aspired to in the Middle Ages. In The Legend of Good Women, he places the humble daisy above all other flowers in the meadow:

"Of all the floures in the mede,
Than love I most these floures white and rede,
Soch that men callen daisies in our town."

The beginning of The Canterbury Tales, also written by Chaucer, describes the regrowth of wild plants in spring as part of a mood that makes people want to go on pilgrimages: April rains which "bathed every veyne in swich licour,/ Of which vertu engendred is the flour".

Fennel wildflower

Several centuries later, during the Elizabethan period, cultural interpretations of weeds became more diverse and more complicated.

Shakespeare loved to use weeds and wildflowers to drive the plot and add colour to his plays. In Hamlet, Ophelia hands out plants including fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), daisies (Bellis perennis), rue (Ruta graveolens) and violets (Viola), which held multiple meanings. Rue is described by Ophelia as “herb of grace o' Sundays”, and symbolises repentance, but it was also understood as a powerful way to induce abortion. This double meaning contributes to how we interpret sexual behaviour and female virtue within the play. [1]

Ragged robin

Ophelia’s tragic suicide (spoiler alert!), depicted in Sir John Everett Millais iconic painting [2] is adorned with weeds, which become her funeral flowers. She crafts "fantastic garlands… of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples" and then hangs "on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds". She then falls into water and, without resistance, sinks alongside "her weedy trophies".

The ‘long purples’ are referring to early-purple orchids (Orchis mascula), although opinion is split over which plant the crowflowers refer to in Ophelia's garland. Some believe that Shakespeare is referring to the white water-crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis), while others argue that it is the ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi).

Hemock flowers© Robin Stott 

Weeds also play central roles as folk remedies or sinister magical ingredients in many of Shakespeare’s other works - from the deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) sleeping draught in Romeo and Juliet to the "root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark" that the witches in Macbeth use in their potion.

Shakespeare’s use of weeds isn’t always so morbid. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the powerful fairy king Oberon depicts a bank covered in weeds and wildflowers in evocative and glowing terms:

"I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine"

This paints weeds in words of wild, authentic and untamed beauty. Even the emphasis here on ‘sweet’ smelling plants, which modern audiences might not immediately notice, would have seemed special to an Elizabethan audience.

Here, ‘Eglantine’ is sweet briar (Rosa rubiginosa), a native prickly rose found in hedgerows, wasteland, and on railway embankments across the UK. The luscious ‘woodbine’ that Oberon refers to is most likely honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum), although woodbine has been used to describe many climbing plants.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, known as the Romantic movement, poets like Wordsworth and Shelley often wrote about nature. They would include lyrical praises of the beauty of humble flowers and weeds, such as Wordsworth’s tribute To The Small Celandine:

"Pansies, Lilies, Kingcups, Daisies,
Let them live upon their praises;
Long as there's a sun that sets
Primroses will have their glory;
Long as there are Violets,
They will have a place in story:
There's a flower that shall be mine,
'Tis the little Celandine."

Weeds were also used by the Romantic poets as shorthand for nature reclaiming itself from man’s control. Wordsworth, in The Massy Ways, Carried Across These Heights describes a Roman path that “forbade the weeds to creep o'er its grey line” but is now in danger of being “destroyed/ Or hidden under ground, like sleeping worms”.

Shelley writes of a similar reclamation in Ode To The West Wind, where “old palaces and towers”, left abandoned and free from human maintenance, become “overgrown with azure moss and flowers”.

moss in between bricks

After a fallow period, the twentieth-century saw a resurgence in nature poetry. Nobel prize winner Seamus Heaney and Poet Laureate Ted Hughes are two of the genre’s most prominent figures.

Heaney, born and raised in the Northern Irish countryside, consistently wrote about the relationship between humans and nature: in A Call, he describes his father weeding in the garden, “pleased to feel each little weed-root break/ But rueful also” and in Personal Helicon he writes that as a child enthralled by nature “I loved… the smells/ Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

Ted Hughes writes about weeds having an intimate relationship to mankind in Wodwo, a poem based on ancient mythology from the British Isles and Europe. A ‘wodwo’, or ‘wild man’, is a forest dwelling creature that serves as a link between creatures like elves and nymphs, and modern man. In Hughes’ poem, the wodwo asks how they fit into the world:

"Do these weeds
know me and name me to each other have they
seen me before do I fit in their world?"

In “civilised” society, weeds are something to be eradicated but, in this poem, they have both authority and a voice.

Common poppy

Perhaps the most celebrated use of weeds in twentieth century literature is the transformation of the humble corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) into an icon of remembrance. During the First World War, Canadian army surgeon Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields, which has a central image of red poppies growing on soldier’s graves:

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below."

The poem linked this blood-red weed, which grew vigorously on the disturbed ground of battlefields, to the tragic loss of life.

This was not the first time that poppies had been used as a symbol of war. An 1855 article by historian Lord Macaulay described the site of a battle in 1693 with “millions of poppies… the earth was disclosing her blood”.

Before McCrae’s poem the poppy had been popularly viewed as an agricultural weed rather than an iconic flower. Because of this association, the poppy is now a recognised symbol used every November to mark the Armistice of the First World War.

toadflax

In 2001 Britpop band Pulp, in their song Weeds II (Origin of the Species), used weeds as a metaphor for working-class resilience: 

a source of wonder due to their ability to thrive on poor quality soil offering very little nourishment" and possessed of "a charming naivety”.

Celebrated British poet Alice Oswald published a collection of poetry in 2009 called Weeds and Wild Flowers, in which Oswald creates a variety of botanical characters inspired by weeds. Each individual plant creation is given a personality, backstory and theme.

For example, hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) is described as morose and slightly damaged, "the way she weeps is so creepy-strong / in her tumbler of gin", and toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) is described as a "ponderous, obstinate,/ cold-skinned person".

Weeds have had such a long hold on our collective imagination throughout history, they deserve a second look, if not many more!

 

Read more from our What is a Weed Anyway? campaign here

 

[1] https://medicalhealthhumanities.com/2017/11/26/ophelias-rue/

[2] https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-ophelia-n01506/story-ophelia