White Fumitory (Fumaria capreolata), another of a genus of scrabbly annuals from Western Europe which infest the Melbourne springtime.
Long treated as another variation of the desultory English garden weed and old-fashioned herbal tonic Fumitory (F. officinalis), introduction of White Fumitory to the colonies through contaminated seed grain was likely early and repeated. The absence of early interest in its arrival betrays Fumitory’s 19th c. irrelevance as a half-forgotten medicinal and ‘harmless’ nuisance weed; Estelle Thomson, 1930s Brisbane’s grand dame of urban weed serialists, recalled that Fumitories were much commoner in England, ‘always appearing on “dirty land” as a sign of desolation and unproductiveness.’
Because they didn’t poison stock or depreciate wool values and could be easily pulled out when required, no one needed to think particularly hard about the Fumitories. Yet these plants were all early season annuals adapted to make the most of winter disturbance patterns, conditions that the 20th century’s intensifying agricultural pursuits delivered in spades: harrowing fields, stripping and planting new orchards, or more recently the cyclical work of revegetation doing a similar thing at smaller scales and for different ends.
In Victoria, we do have evidence of White Fumitory’s earlier arrival: an 1892 column in Melbourne’s Leader newspaper identifies plants sent by a writer at the Charlotte Plains homestead, north of Marysborough, as F. capreolata. The earliest digitised collections of White Fumitory post-date Federation: Gladstone SA in 1908, and Dunkeld here in Victoria in 1912. There are no Melbourne records before 1978, which again seems far too late but may represent the plant’s emergence as a ‘new’ problem for urban revegetation.
Identification of White Fumitory is easy: the mature flowers are white with red-black tips, and the sepals (those little wings to either side) are noticeably larger than those on the pink species. Other distinctions are available if one needs to key them out.