Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer

The Gallus Herbs

witch hazel against a brick wall. A slanting line of sunlight. rather weedy foreground.

I have been out weeding this patch of the front garden before the rain gets here this afternoon. Although it looks better, I couldn’t say I’d made a meticulous job of it, but then my allegiance is divided. Because it is the front garden, overlooked from the sitting room, and faces directly onto the street, I really wanted it to look cared for and intentional, with scent and colour all the year round. But on the other hand, I can’t help wondering if a lot of what I’m taking out isn’t at least as interesting as what I’m leaving.

a clump of snowdrops

I will admit I can’t get too enthusiastic about hairy bittercress, which gets everywhere there’s an inch of bare soil, but some people eat it as a salad or a spring tonic. I could probably do without willowherb too, but buttercups? I do like them, in their proper place. And dandelions? They are very useful, for salads and to make into a salve for aching muscles, a dye herb, a coffee substitute, and pollinators love them. I like their brassy cheerfulness, their delicate seedheads and their folklore, but I have to admit there’s nothing makes a garden look neglected more quickly than a bunch of seeding dandelions. I’ll have to move them behind the shed or up against the back fence, or behind the greenhouse.

The plants I’ve left aren’t much of a guide – the meadowsweet and ragged robin, the wood violet, foxgloves that hitch-hiked on the pot plants from my previous garden, the betony and woundwort, the field poppy that has seeded itself even in the gravel of the parking spaces, the dog rose I found behind the buddleia. If I keep them, shouldn’t I keep the stitchwort, the eyebright, the red clover? And as for the chickweed, if I pull it out I’ll need to forage for some to make soothing cream for my skin, but I really don’t think I can let it smother my pansies.

The problem with the gallus herbs is that they are relentless and stubborn. They give no quarter to their neighbours, and they won’t stay where they are put. Invincible champions, in fact:

Praise-Poem for Weeds
I call on the gallus herbs,
the wild herbs of verge and scrub,
the loud and flashy herbs,
the herbs with the souls of weeds,
the unrelenting invaders who blow
their seeds over the hills,
send their roots rampaging
through the ditches, between
my lettuce and cabbage and kale.
I’ll butter their feral paws,
tame them in my pestle, they’ll guard me
from elf-shot, the stitch, the sudden
pain that sneaks between the light
woven shield of my ribs.
Feverfew, plantain, red dead nettle!
Come, smother it all, you little witches,
you ghosts of old gardeners,
you tough, bristly, bitter
invincible champions.

(from The Well of the Moon)

They can stay. Probably not in the front garden, but wherever I am, I am sure the gallus herbs will follow in my footprints.

a pot of helleborus niger. Two terracotta pigeons stand in front of it





One response to “The Gallus Herbs”

  1. […] Elizabeth Rimmer, The Gallus Herbs […]

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