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Saturday, 30 August 2014

A colourful weed to be cherished

WALKING down the Laird’s Entry after a three-week holiday in North America, I was assailed by the last remnants of the annual Rosevale snowstorm coming from the former Ford Mill gardens.

Before I went away this ground had been covered in rosebay willowherb which had already been sending out its clouds of white-winged seeds to plague the neighbourhood.

Complaints were heard about these dandelion-like seeds sticking to the outsides of houses, floating inside to lie on carpets and furniture besides the thousands which landed on garden soil to produce the next generation of weeds to be yanked out next year. We’re still pulling out this year’s harvest.

I believe the willowherb was eventually cut down but not before it had sent out almost all its seeds.

In Alaska I was surprised to learn that this plant, known there as fireweed because it regenerates on land that has suffered fire damage, is much loved by Alaskans.

It even merits a postcard all to itself. The reason is, in the autumn when the leaves of the trees change colour, it’s one of the few plants which give a red colour to add to the yellows, oranges and browns of the trees.

On the eastern side of North America maples grow in profusion, adding their red tints to the other autumn colours and resulting in striking autumn displays. But the Canadian Rockies and the Alaskan range have no maples, hence the people’s enthusiasm for what we consider a nuisance weed.

Of course, with a population of only 670,000 in a country twice the size of Texas, there aren’t that many gardens in which this plant can spread its weeds.

I met another scourge of Langholm summers when in America – the midge. It plagues people there as much as it does here in Scotland.

Before I went on holiday I was reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk on the Wild Side in which he relates his adventures when walking the Appalachian trail in eastern US. He tells how his walk was plagued in parts by midges which Americans call “no-see-ums”.

But I didn’t expect to find them – or rather for them to find me – in the cold of Alaska. But they were there.

There are 34 species of midge but only five bite and then only the females who need blood before laying eggs. It seems very considerate of the male to take its food from plants.

The Alaskans also suffer nasty bites from an insect called a caribou fly and I saw one or two of these festering bites. Judging from the itchy blister, this fly could well be a cousin of our horse fly or cleg.

One old woman gave us her remedy for alleviating the itch and swelling – it was toothpaste. It worked almost immediately.

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