My yard is a mixture of whatever Mother Nature has decided to sow. There's white clover, dandelions, violets, hop clover and a whole other host of plants that I enjoy. I have a yard, not a lawn and am quite proud of that fact. Instead of a bland expanse of uniform green that has absolutely no redeeming qualities, my yard is a home for butterflies, honeybees and all sorts of creatures. When kept neat, it looks wonderful and nature is better off. I love to discover new plants and this week, it is Sherardia arvensis, commonly known as spurwort or field madder.
This tiny little plant is native to North Africa and the Mediterranean basin, but has naturalized pretty much world-wide. The little four petaled flowers bloom in late spring and early summer and can range from white to pink, blue and purple. They are a deep lavender in my yard.
Field madder is happiest growing in full sun and prefers disturbed ground such as lawns and agricultural fields and although it thrives in hot weather, it does appreciate ample water. Since it is an annual plant, the seeds sprout fresh each spring and the plant grows quickly and left untrimmed can reach about 15 inches (or 40 cm), however, they tend to creep along the ground instead of growing upright, so appear much shorter. The flowers are so tiny that it's easy to miss them if you're not paying attention. If you simply feel you have to eradicate them from your lawn, mowing close to the ground before they bloom and set seed should take care of the problem, but I prefer to let them stay.
Many gardeners have probably encountered a number of plants with 'wort' in their name. Some of the most common are lungwort (genus Mertensia) cancerwort (genus Linaria) and feverwort (genus Triosteum) and spurwort is included in this huge group of unrelated plants. Most have no relation by taxonomy, instead the suffix 'wort' is what binds them together. The Old English suffix wort, or wert was an ancient way of designating that the roots of the plant were useful. Most often they were used in medicine, but not always. Our little spurwort serves another purpose and its other common name, field madder gives us the clue. The roots of this plant produce a rosy or reddish dye. It isn't as deep or intense as its cousin dyer's madder, Rubia tinctorium, however it does make an acceptable substitute. There are no medicinal uses that I have been able to uncover.
This insignificant little plant does no great harm to man or beast and the cheerful little flowers make a great spring statement if anyone cares to look. Yes, it is a non-native in many areas of the world, but seems to have settled in without causing any environmental upheaval. Enjoy the small world of your gardens up close. It is amazing what changes when you look at it from 2 feet instead of 20 feet. Take the time to love both the big picture and the smaller one too.