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By Chris Mossop on

A weed or not a weed? That is the question.

Design Manager Chris Mossop explores an artistic answer to a thorny problem for the railways.

Keeping the tracks clear of vegetation is a constant problem for the railways. The most effective way of doing this has been the use of chemical weed-killer sprayed across the track from slow moving trains. This photograph from 1955 shows a steam-hauled train with six tankers of weed-killer:

Weed killing train, 1955 (NRM archive - 1995-7233_LIVST_EH_51)
Weed killing train, 1955 (NRM archive – 1995-7233_LIVST_EH_51)

The UK rail network has been a route for plants to spread throughout the country. A prime example of this is the Oxford Ragwort. This reputedly started with a single specimen brought back from Mount Etna and planted in the gardens of Oxford University. Its seed soon escaped, and by 1830 had reached the railway station.   Wafted along by passing trains, the seed spread far and wide, colonising the railway lines and beyond.

Of course the term ‘weed’ is not a botanical concept. Every plant in certain circumstances can be considered a weed. Therefore plant identification is important.

In the 1960s Ciba Geigy, one of the companies supplying weed-killing chemicals, decided to bear its share of responsibility for the correct application of its products. They commissioned the Ciba Geigy Weed Tables by Ernst Hafliger and Josef Brun-Hool, which lists over 300 species of plants, with approximately half of them reproduced in watercolour.

Selections from 'Ciba Geigy Weed Tables' by Ernst Hafliger and Josef Brun-Hool (1968)
Selections from ‘Ciba Geigy Weed Tables’ by Ernst Hafliger and Josef Brun-Hool (1968)

These beautiful illustrations were painted at twice their natural size and then reduced for colour printing. They were drawn and painted from living plants, in most cases in their natural habitat.

The weed tables available in 1968 were produced in seven languages. The geographical focus is Europe but it does include some important overseas weeds that have been found in European harbours and railway stations.

We hold a wonderful copy of the Ciba Geigy Weed Tables originally used by British Railways in our collection. It goes to show that you can always expect the unexpected when you delve into our archive!


2 comments on “A weed or not a weed? That is the question.

  1. I think you will find that the tankers are for water, the concentrated weedkiller is then added in a dilution unit in the spray coach.

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