Look closer at historic ‘weeds’

Wall barley growing in Lidl car park, Morpeth. Picture by Alan Davison.
Wall barley growing in Lidl car park, Morpeth. Picture by Alan Davison.

Visitors to Back Riggs can see little left from the days when it was a mess of run-down buildings, dirty yards and industry, but if you look closely you can find a few plants that thrived in the rubble for centuries.

The old yards provided a habitat for a handful of species like feverfew and weld. Feverfew is from the Balkans, but was introduced to Britain centuries ago and was probably grown in Morpeth for use as a herbal remedy.

Most people will pass it by, but don’t ignore it because it has a story to tell.

Weld, or dyers’ rocket, contains a yellow dye that may have been used by monks or woollen and cloth industries, but it was replaced early in the 20th century by synthetic dyes. There is still a plant or two growing as weeds in the old Morrison’s car park.

However, the oldest is a grass called wall barley. It isn’t showy, fragrant or attractive, it is just a small barley with spiky heads of seeds. Most people will pass it by, but don’t ignore it because it has a story to tell.

Older residents will know it because boys used the spiky heads as darts that they threw at their mates’ woollen jumpers. The sharp points stuck in and could be tricky to remove.

Wall barley is one of the natural world’s great hitchhikers because its natural home is around Turkey and the Fertile Crescent. It lives in wadis that are fertile, but wet for only a short time in late winter and bone dry in summer. In that harsh environment most plants are annuals that live only for a few months and pass the drought as dormant seed.

The spiky parts are called awns and they are easily caught by passing animals who deposit some in another wadi. During the rainy season the awns swell and shrink, moving the seed around on the surface, an action that drills the seed point into the soil. A perfect design for a hitch-hiking plant.

Several thousand years ago, the first farmers took wheat, barley and livestock from the Fertile Crescent all over Europe, transforming the landscape and making fields that had an environment just like wadis. Livestock fertilised the soil and cultivating the fields kept the habitat perfect for germination so it hitched its way through the drier parts of Britain and has stayed with us ever since.

But the story doesn’t end there because Spanish Conquistadors carried it to Central and North America where it thrived in places like Arizona and California. The Native Americans used straw to bind adobe bricks so the presence of wall barley can show if ancient bricks are pre or post-Spanish occupation.

California may seem like a great distance to hitchhike, but European farmers also took wall barley to New Zealand and Australia in the 19th century. It became a pest in New Zealand because the seeds reduced the value of wool and some of the spikes penetrated the pelt and damaged the leather. In contrast, it was grazed in Australia and was a significant part of livestock diet.

The question now is what will it do here as our climate changes and has more extreme events? Why not have a look at Morpeth’s very own wadi, but be quick because the seeds are being shed now?