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'I spend a lot of time trying to get rid of weeds, but they are among the most beautiful plants I grow'

Belfast-based artist Diana Oxlade and husband Eddie, a botanist and keen gardener, explain why they teamed up to produce a book about that bane of gardens, the weed

By Ivan Little

They're the roots of all sorts of evil for harassed horticulturalists, but Belfast-based artist Diana Oxlade has grasped the nettle to show that weeds really can be things of beauty. And as she leafs through her impressive new book called 50 Weeds, Diana says she hopes it will encourage more people to share her passion for what are regarded as the ugly ducklings of the plant world.

Diana launched her eye-catching new publication amid the splendour of the 19th century Palm House in Belfast's Botanic Gardens.

And the book is a family affair.

For while Diana illustrated it with fine watercolour paintings with an astonishing eye for detail, her husband Eddie, a botanist and lifelong gardener, wrote the words.

For both of them the book was a labour of love, tempered, it has to be said, with an admission that not everything in the garden is rosy as far as weeds are concerned.

The dictionary definition is that a weed is 'a valueless plant growing wild, especially one that grows on cultivated ground to the exclusion or injury of the desired crop'.

And a preamble to the book talks of Eddie Oxlade's 'affectionate admiration of weeds while advising their eradication'.

He says: "I spend a lot of time at my allotment trying to get rid of weeds. If I ever won the battle, I would not be happy. Weeds are some of the most beautiful plants I grow."

Diana says: "I have always admired and loved weeds. I'm not sure why."

Each chapter in the book focuses on a different weed, some with well-known names like daisy, dandelion and thistle.

But there are many more which mightn't be familiar to the green-fingered masses, like hairy bittercress, mouse-ear chickweed nipplewort and cat's ear.

The Oxlades, who are both English, met at university in Oxford but came to live in Northern Ireland nearly 40 years ago when Eddie took a job at Stranmillis Training College.

And they've never looked back or thought about going back to England, even when the Troubles were raging in Belfast.

Diana, who's from Paignton in Devon, had been a biology teacher across the water, but her first love was art and she re-trained here as a graphic designer and illustrator.

She went on to work for many years as a designer, first for Belfast Zoo and later for the whole City Council, for whom she painted flamboyant flowers and plants from the tropical ravine at Botanic Gardens for a millennium publication called A Tropical Glen.

The 50 Weeds project was a natural progression for Diana, who says: "I've always had a fascination with weeds as wild flowers and I wanted to paint them. Many of them are extremely beautiful, especially when you see them under a microscope.

"One which comes to mind for me is sheep's sorrel. It's very unprepossessing when you look at it from a distance, but up close under the microscope it's like a little barber's pole with red and cream stripes and little balls which are the female flowers and little hands which are the stigmas.

"Nettles are also very attractive, despite the fact that they're full of nasty substances like formic acid."

The sting in the tail of the nettle is just one reason why weeds get a bad press, and Diana says: "Eddie makes it very clear in the book that some weeds are to be feared.

"They can cause disasters and in the past when we didn't have weed-killers our ancestors were terrified of them because they made the difference between subsistence living and dying.

"One weed, the hairy tare, grows and reproduces very quickly and our forefathers were afraid of it because it could ramp through their crops like wheat and barley and literally wrestle them to the ground and overgrow the land.

"They land as seeds, they germinate quickly and they have a blitzkrieg effect before upping and away to the next piece of disturbed soil."

Diana says that man has given weeds their days in the sun, so to speak, by creating habitats to which they adapt in bare soil and waste ground.

She adds: "The more man colonises and spreads out over the globe and the more buildings, roads and railway tracks he makes, the easier it is for weeds to be carried by trains and buses over long distances. And of course they can float for a long way on their own too."

Japanese knotweed has recently been in the news as the authorities try to curb its rapid growth with the introduction of legislation to cover its control, making its deliberate cultivation an environmental crime punishable by large fines and even jail terms. Eddie calls it the super-villain of the weed world, even though he acknowledges it can appear "magnificent, handsome and healthy-looking".

But he says an infestation of Japanese knotweed can render sites unsuitable for new development, undermine foundations and break through concrete and asphalt.

Some people, of course, wouldn't recognise weeds from a hole in the hedge. But Diana and Eddie try to answer the perennial question, 'what is a weed?', in their book, the production of which was a match made in horticultural heaven.

Diana says: "I retired from the council in 2007 and Eddie, who had retired from Stranmillis, had already been writing a column about gardening for the magazine, Kitchen Garden, and I told him we'd make a great team. So we decided to work together on the book"

But it isn't Eddie's first publication. He wrote '55 years Running' about his observations on running here and about his own experiences as an Annadale Strider who has represented Northern Ireland and who has completed the marathon in highly creditable times.

Diana prefers walking. She and Eddie live in Newtownbreda on the doorstep of some of her favourite haunts at the River Lagan towpath and Belvoir Forest.

Finding the 50 weeds was tasked to Eddie, who pulled many of them up from his allotment at Belmont in east Belfast.

He brought them home and Diana painted her watercolours of them on the kitchen table that has been part of her life for as long as she can remember.

"It's terribly important to me," she says. "I can remember doing my homework on it and it's the only thing we brought with us from England."

On average, the paintings took Diana two or three days to complete, but the Oxlades had more work to do. For they had to research the proper Latin names for the weeds and they also sought out the more colloquial names for them.

Diana says: "Robin-run-the-hedge is one example. Another weed is called huggy-me-close. You also have wink-and-peep, Virgin Mary's nipple and hellweed.

"They're wonderful names, which go back a long way and connect us with the past."

At the moment, the Oxlades' horticultural 'empire' is blossoming. They not only have the allotment at Belmont and their Newtownbreda garden, but they also now have a home in Co Sligo where Eddie has dug two massive vegetable patches and planted 600 trees on six acres of adjoining land that the couple acquired.

In the book Eddie has uncovered a multitude of uses for weeds in olden days including as cures for a range of ailments, as food like nettle soup and even as fibres for textiles.

He discovered that horsetail had so much silica in them that the plants have been used as sandpaper.

He says: "Fletchers used to smooth their arrows with horsetail, hence the old name shavegrass. And a bunch of horsetail makes a good scouring pad, hence the names scouring rush and bottle brush."

Diana doesn't think her book will change the gardening world. And she admits seeing the final article has given her an enormous sense of satisfaction.

She says: "To be honest I didn't publish the book to educate or to entertain. I did it to please myself - to look at all the drawings collected in a book."

However, Diana says that she would be delighted if the book is enjoyed by other people, though she stops short of saying that she hopes that weeds might, er, grow on them ...

ENDPIECE: book details here

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