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Aliens at Ventnor

They’ve arrived! The aliens are at Ventnor Botanic Garden! A headline grabber that could announce the extraterrestrial arrival of beings to rewrite our knowledge of the Universe. Or, a headline referring to the plants we refer to as aliens, those introductions and non-natives that have become part of our garden. In simpler, local terms, plants at VBG we no longer plant ourselves, they come up of their own accord.

You may call them weeds, but oh, how pejorative! A weed is by definition any plant growing where it isn’t wanted, and so we do indeed weed these out if they grow in the wrong geographical area. But it’s a hard-hearted gardener indeed who would pull up any of the following aliens if they volunteered their services elsewhere.

At the other end of the esoteric scale is Hydrangea macrophylla subsp. stylosa  (below). Undeservedly very rarely encountered, this was found at 2400m in W. Yunnan. A deciduous shrub to 1.5m in height with relatively slim foliage, superbly tinted charcoal-purple in summer and covered in a mass of splendid, strikingly bi-coloured lacecaps in July; the central fertile flowers are surrounded by frilly-edged, pure white ray florets. Pink and white in the alkaline soil found farther along the Dr Henry Behrend Walk.

What is it?

Above is Crinodendron patagua  the white flowered Chilean Lantern Tree. It comes from Chile, in ravines in association with the giant Chilean Wine Palm Jubaea chilense.

How did it get here?

It came to us in 1988, via Kew. It arrived at Kew as seed from a tree in its native Parque National La Campaña, Valle de Ocoa, collected by Henchie and Kirkham.

What is it doing here?

It was planted in the American plant collection as a specimen, now deceased. Its self-sown offspring are tree sized themselves now, and their offspring are making a community nearby, and in other parts of the garden too. Chilean folklore says that these trees grow on sites of entienda, or buried treasure

What is it! It doesn’t look like its from round here….

This is Luma apiculata from regions of Argentina south of the Rio Chutbut.

These are the offspring of original plants from Sir Harold Hillier’s nursery during the 1970s. Full sized now, they display the incredible cinnamon bark that peels away to reveal patches of pinky white beneath on larger main trunks. Within its distribution in the Los Arrayanes National Park of the Quetrihué Peninsula, the species covers 20 hectares, leaving almost no space for other trees. We’ve found it does the same here, making a supremely dense thicket.

…and making a menace of itself?

It has naturalised in Spain, the west coast of the UK and New Zealand. In such circumstances it could be considered a weed and present a competitor for the natural flora.

What is this ‘weed’?

This is Ecballium elaterium . To quote Wikipedia: “E. elaterium is native to Europe, northern Africa, and temperate areas of Asia, and is considered an invasive species.”

The Squirting Cucumber has been at VBG as long as anyone can remember. Usually it arises each year from self-sown seeds, but in recent years its been overwintering as a plant. The little cucumber-like fruits are highly entertaining. When ripe they hold a huge internal explosive pressure, which when released by touch launches the fruit like a missile, jetting seeds out as it shoots.

Another exciting invader….

This plant is often found on wastelands and gutters, sometimes in littoral areas. As a spreading plant it could have a lariat like quality, but hardly a thug at VBG.

Is this one dangerous?

Nicotiana langsdorfii looks safe enough but is a close relative of the most dangerous plant in the world, tobacco; directly linked to 1.75 million deaths annually through cancer.

Should we keep our pets indoors?

This is a weird little annual that has popped up all over VBG since its first planting in the 1980s. It is reported to cause irritation and discomfort if ingested, and surely its crazy to even think of smoking it….

Why don’t you pull it all up?

Factually, the majority of the plant kingdom is either poisonous or indifferent to humans. Only a tiny percentage of plants are edible at all. The average garden has enough poisonous plants to eliminate the neighbourhood, so it seems a bit unfair on a botanical curio growing up from the crack in a pavement to get rid of it.


That’s in my neighbour’s garden!

This is Solanum laciniatum from Australia, and maybe New Zealand. Elsewhere this is a conservatory plant, even in the heat well of inner-city London, but it stakes a claim in several areas of VBG as a large shrub. The pretty potato flowers are followed by poisonous fruit which are eaten with impunity by birds, who spread the seeds in their droppings.

So it’ll grow all over my garden and kill everything?

No, it is sensitive to frost, whose annual regularity beyond the Undercliff prevents the plant exceeding a season’s growth.

You can tell that’s bad, it grows like crazy.

Synonymy plagues the genus Phytolacca, and its origins are disputed between the Himalayas and the Americas. Its toxicity is another reason to be fearful, fearful if you know anyone who thinks it’s a great idea to eat random unknown fruits just to see what’d happen. A common name is the Indian Ink Plant, the ripe fruit release a dark staining juice.

That’s pretty though, for a ‘weed’.

Dodonaea viscosa “Purpurea” was a plant popular in Victorian bedding schemes, but seemed to fall out of UK cultivation alongside the demise of such schemes in parks and gardens. VBG reintroduced it as a hedge early in 2002.

There, you brought this weed into Britain.

Once it was growing at VBG it drew the attention of a garden designer who took the plant to Chelsea Flower Show. Very quickly it became a staple for large, quick growing, purple vegetation averse to cold. From the seed it sheds, the number of good purple plants versus green and not so good purple plants follow Mendelian theory. We add our own level of un-natural selection by tending to hoe out the greenest ones, favoring the purple.

Chris Kidd, AUGUST 2023