Herb Robert deserves a second look

·2-min read
 (Isabel Hardman)
(Isabel Hardman)

Herb Robert, geranium robertianum, is a very fine wild flower. If it didn’t grow so abundantly where it pleases, gardeners would prize it, not least because it enjoys dry shade in a way that few other plants do.

There are plenty of wild geranium species in this country. The meadow cranesbill, geranium pratense, has large purple-blue flowers and enjoys grassy places like Barnes Common. The hedgerow cranesbill, geranium pyrenaicum, has much smaller flowers held in twins on long stalks.

 (Isabel Hardman)
(Isabel Hardman)

You can often find alongside herb Robert a very similar-looking species called shining cranesbill, geranium lucidum, with rounder, glossier leaves. It spreads by its exploding seed pods, which send the seeds up to 10 metres away from the plant. You can often see it growing in gutters, thanks to the power of the flying seeds.

Herb Robert grows very happily in woodlands, on walls and in pavement cracks and there is a particularly fine spread of it on the tracks at Clapham Junction at the moment. A member of the geranium or cranesbill family, it has the same sort of five-petalled, pleasingly marked pink flowers as many of its cultivated cousins.

It also has finely cut leaves like those showier garden plants, but with one advantage. This foliage often turns a striking red colour. The train track plants have already gone crimson in the bright summer sun. It is a beautiful spectacle and one we would treasure in a plant we’d put in the ground ourselves.

Why don’t we like herb Robert? Well, partly it’s that this wild flower gardens itself. And then there’s the fact that its foliage, while very pretty, does have a musty, mousey smell when bruised.

I’m delighted whenever it turns up on my plot and happily welcome it as a plant that’ll get on with the business of growing in places where few others bother. It is a beautiful corrective to our controlling tendencies towards nature, and worthy of far more admiration than it gets.

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator and author of The Natural Health Service

Have you noticed any wild geraniums in the city? Let us know in the comments below.

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