Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants

Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants

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by Richard Mabey

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Weeds are botanical thugs, but they have always been essential to our lives. They were the first crops and medicines and they inspired Velcro. They adorn weddings and foliate the most derelict urban sites. With the verve and historical breadth of Michael Pollan, acclaimed nature writer Richard Mabey delivers a provocative defense of the plants we love to hate.

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Weeds are botanical thugs, but they have always been essential to our lives. They were the first crops and medicines and they inspired Velcro. They adorn weddings and foliate the most derelict urban sites. With the verve and historical breadth of Michael Pollan, acclaimed nature writer Richard Mabey delivers a provocative defense of the plants we love to hate.

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The nicknames given to weeds in medieval times reveal much about how people regarded these reviled plants. Mayweed was known as "Devil's daisy, " corn buttercup as "Devil's claws, " ground ivy as "Devil's candlestick, " and on and on. No less than twenty species, British naturalist Richard Mabey observes in his enchanting Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants, were identified during that period as tools of Satan. Though the names have changed, many continue to view them that way.

The book's subtitle might have you bracing for a polemic, but Mabey, author of 1973's landmark forager's guide Food for Free and many books since, is too genial a narrator for that. (The U.K. edition's more sober subtitle is How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilization and Changed the Way We Think About Nature.) Instead, he builds his case through a philosophical, romantic, and occasionally sentimental journey through the history of weeds, including their portrayal in the Bible, Shakespeare, and science fiction.

The book is peppered with fun facts—for instance, burdock, with its clinging burrs, inspired the invention of Velcro in the 1950s—but it ends up being surprisingly profound. The author emphasizes that weeds are a cultural, not a biological, category, a result of our "ceaseless attempts to draw boundaries between nature and culture, wildness and domestication." Weeds can be wild plants that invade our gardens or domesticated plants that escape the garden and run rampant in the wild. Mabey holds humanity accountable not just for maligning weeds—he cites with approval the familiar definition of a weed as merely "a plant in the wrong place"—but for creating the conditions in which they thrive and occasionally run amok. Case in point: the U.S. government's encouragement of the planting of Asian kudzu during the first half of the 20th century to help control soil erosion. The unstoppable vine, which grows with astonishing speed, is now choking two million acres of forest in the South.

By the end of the book, Mabey suggests that some rapprochement with weeds is possible. More and more gardeners are tolerating them rather than dousing them with chemical herbicides. In some urban areas, weeds are being allowed to "green over the dereliction we have created, " as in Detroit, where prairie weeds and vines are taking over abandoned lots and are being welcomed rather than driven out. And as more is learned about the science of weeds, which tend to be fast-growing and highly adaptable, their important role in the ecosystem can be appreciated. As Mabey explains, "They stabilize the soil, conserve water loss, provide shelter for other plants, and begin the process of succession to more complex and stable plant systems."

Because Mabey is a lyrical writer with obvious affection for his subject, Weeds charms as much as it informs. He redeems the aggressive and smothering heliotrope by musing that "in a bleak December, with not another wild flower about, it can touch your heart." In a delightful chapter on his own home garden in Norfolk, England, he describes his "whimsical and sometimes downright hypocritical" weed policy: "I still hoick them up when they get in my way, but it's a capricious assault, tinged with respect and often deflected by a romantic mood." After reading this book, you will likely view the invaders in your own garden with a newfound respect; it's quite possible you'll find a bit of romance in them, too. —Barbara Spindel

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies. Reviewer: Barbara Spindel

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)

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In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants
By Richard Mabey


Copyright © 2011 Richard Mabey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780062065452

Chapter One

The weed ubiquitous

Plants become weeds when they obstruct our
plans, or our tidy maps of the world. If you have no such
plans or maps, they can appear as innocents, without
stigma or blame. My own discovery of them was my first
close encounter with plants, and they seemed to me like a
kind of manna.
I was in my mid-twenties, and working as a publisher's
editor in outer London. The job entailed a daily commute
from my home in the Chilterns to the urban hinterlands,
and I relished the paradox involved in journeying from the
sedate order of Home Counties countryside to the wildness
of the city. Penguin Books' education division was no
belles lettres salon, shaded by reflective plane trees. It had
been established to pioneer a new kind of textbook, and
lay in a defiantly untraditional landscape a mile north of
Heathrow airport. This was the Middlesex borderlands, a
huge area of wasteland being slowly overtaken by hi-tech
industry. Below my office window, the Grand Union Canal
wound its flotsam-strewn way towards London, fringed by
immigrant plants from three continents. To the west lay a
labyrinth of gravel pits, now flooded, and derelict refuse
tips whose ancestry went back to Victorian times. They
were regularly raked over by bottle collectors, as if they
were on the edge of a Third World slum. Northwards our
parish frayed into a maze of breakers' yards and trailer
parks, where the top predator was the German shepherd
guard dog. The whole area was pocked with inexplicable
holes and drifts of exotic litter. And most thrillingly to
me, it was being overwhelmed by a forest of disreputable
The work I was involved with chiefly concerned developing
books on current affairs and social studies for school
leavers. 'Relevance' was the fashionable touchstone. The
books (more like magazines, really) had what we hoped
were accessible but politically challenging texts, and were
designed for a readership whose world was in a constant
state of edgy flux. When I looked out of the window at the
waves of riotous greenery, that world already seemed to be
coming our way, fast.
There was nothing pretty or charming about this vegetation,
no echo of the wild flowers of the English pastoral
– or of England itself, for that matter. But it pulsed
with life – raw, cosmopolitan, photosynthetic life. On the
tumuli of the old tips, forests of noxious hemlock shot up
through the detritus. Indian balsam, smelling of lavatory
cleaner but alive with insects, blanketed the thrown-out
bottles. Thirty-foot high bushes of buddleia from China
towered above the layered sprays of knotweed from Japan,
magenta-flowered everlasting-pea from the Mediterranean
and the exquisite swan-necked blooms of thornapple, a
weed now so spread about the world that its original home
is unknown. Beneath them a galaxy of more modest weeds
tricked out the compacted layers of plastic and glass that
passed for soil. Wormwood, the source of absinthe; three
species of nightshade; the horseshoe leaves of coltsfoot;
bristly oxtongue, a weed whose scabby leaves looked as
if they were afflicted by industrial acne. And strange tufting
that one might see growing wild together nowhere
else in Britain except these abandoned places: cumin,
feral gourds, fuller's teasel. There was an aura of fantasy
about these plants, as if the incantation 'wasteland' made
anything possible.
I wandered through this ragged Arcadia in my lunch
hours, amazed at its triumphant luxuriance, and feeling,
in a naively romantic way, that its regenerative powers
echoed the work we were trying to do inside. The plants felt
like comrades in arms, vegetable guerrillas that had overcome
the dereliction of the industrial age.
This was my entrée into the world of plants, and it has
permanently shaped my attitude towards those species
usually vilified as weeds. I'm inclined to offer them a second
opinion, to wonder what positive features we might
glimpse in their florid energy. But I accept that my sixties
passion for those Middlesex prodigies was eccentric and
probably irresponsible. They were, by most standards,
the worst possible kinds of weeds. Many were escapees
and trespassers. They had broken out of the disciplined
constraints of ornamental gardens and pharmaceutical
company farms and were running amok. Several were
profoundly toxic. At least two subsequently became so
invasive that they're now on a blacklist of species which
it's illegal to 'plant or otherwise cause to grow in the wild'.
But with weeds context is everything. Any plant growing
in such shabby surroundings becomes a weed. They're
the victims of guilt by association, and seen as sharing
the dubious character of the company they keep. If plants
sprout through garbage they become a kind of litter them-
selves. Vegetable trash.
Given the impact of weeds on the planet, it's not always
obvious that they are plants whose reputation – and therefore
fate – is, in the end, a matter of this kind of personal
judgment, that it's in our gift to demonize or accept them.
Ever since Genesis decreed 'thorns and thistles' as a long-
term punishment for our misbehavior in the Garden of
Eden, weeds have seemed to transcend value judgments,
to be ubiquitous and self-evident, as if, like bacteria, they
were a biological, not a cultural, category. For thousands
of years they've strangled crops and broken backs. In the
medieval period they caused outbreaks of mass poisoning,
and were given names that suggested they were the Devil's
spawn. Today, despite annual chemical drenching that
massively exceed those applied for insect pests, they still
reduce arable productivity by 10 to 20 per cent.
And they become more problematic by the year. Across
the world global trade has introduced a whole new class of
cosmopolitan freeloaders. Striga is a pretty but parasitic
snapdragon, whose blossoms in its native Kenya are used
to strew across the paths of visiting notables. In 1956 it
found its way to the eastern United States, where it has
since reduced hundreds of thousands of acres of corn to
stubble. Japanese knotweed was introduced to Britain in
Victorian times, as an elegant shrub for the woodland garden.

In not much more than a century we've become blind
to its delicate flower tassels and gracious leaf sprays, and
now regard it as the most dangerously invasive plant in
the country. The current estimate for clearing it from the
Olympic site in east London is £70 million. None of these
outlaw species have changed their identities in graduating
as weeds, just their addresses.
Yet even in these two examples the ambivalence and
instability of the weed blacklist is clear. The ornamental
in one place becomes the malign invader in another. What
had been a crop or a medicine, centuries ago, falls from
grace and metamorphoses into a forest outlaw. And just
as readily the weed is domesticated into a food plant or
a children's plaything or a cultural symbol. Mealy leaved
fat-hen has been through all these cultural mutations. It
migrated from its wild home on the seashore to haunt
the middens of Neolithic farmers, from which it was later
moved into rough-and-ready cultivation for its oily seeds.
Then, as tastes changed, it became a loathed infestation of
crops such as sugar beet (to which, ironically, it's related)
only to return to partial favor amongst modern foragers.
Of course, 'it all depends what you mean by a weed'.
The definition is the weed's cultural story. How and why
and where we classify plants as undesirable is part of
the story of our ceaseless attempts to draw boundaries
between nature and culture, wildness and domestication.
And how intelligently and generously we draw those lines
determines the character of most of the green surfaces of
the planet.
The best-known and simplest definition is that a weed is
'a plant in the wrong place', that is, a plant growing where
you would prefer other plants to grow, or sometimes no
plants at all. This works tolerably well, and explains, for
example, why English bluebells (whose proper place is
the forest) are often weeded out when they spread aggressively
inside gardens, while Spanish bluebells (proper
place the Mediterranean) are viewed as malignant aliens
when they stray outside the garden, into the native woodland
redoubts of the 'true' bluebell. But there are many
nuances of appropriateness and place here, beyond the
basic notion of a plant's proper biological home. The
sense of a garden as a personal domain is involved; so is a
kind of nationalism, even the aesthetic patriotism of seeing
in the native bluebell's soft, Celtic curves something
more in tune with the British Greenwood than the brasher
bells and angular stalks of the Spanish species.
But it's a coarse definition and begs the question of
what is the 'right place' for a plant. It would be hard to
imagine a more proper location for ash trees than natural,
temperate woodland, but foresters call them 'weed
trees' when they grow amongst more commercially desirable
timber – and, perhaps, because the ash's effortless
regenerative power puts in the shade the forester's harder
won achievements. Here, the apparently objective 'proper
place' resolves on closer inspection into 'territory', a more
personal, culturally determined space.
And the criteria for weediness can change dramatically
with time. An early settler in Victoria, Australia, remembered
how a fellow Scottish immigrant changed from
being a nostalgic reminder of the old country to an
outlawed invader: 'One day we came upon a Scottish thistle,
growing beside a log, not far from the stable sheds – a
chance seed from the horse fodder, of course . . . This was
carefully rolled in a piece of newspaper and put under
a stone. In a few days it was in a beautifully pressed
condition and was shown round with great pride. No one
thought that, some twenty years later, the thistle from
Scotland would have spread in the new land, and become
a nuisance, requiring a special Act in some shires and
districts to enforce eradication from private properties.'
Other definitions have stressed other kinds of cultural
inappropriateness or disability. Ralph Waldo Emerson
opted for usefulness, and said that a weed was simply 'a
plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered'. This is
a generous and botanically friendly idea, suggesting that
reprieves may still be possible for the condemned. But,
as with fat-hen, virtues are in the eye of the contemporary
beholder. Large numbers of plants were regarded as useful
once, only for their virtues to go out of fashion or prove to
be bought at great collateral cost. Ground-elder was introduced
to Britain by the Romans for the commendable
purpose of relieving gout, doubling as a pot-herb into the
bargain. But 2,000 years and several medical revolutions
later, it's become the most obstinate and detested weed in
the nation's flowerbeds.
Toxicity is seen as another ugly and undesirable trait.
The most notorious, though far from the most economically
damaging weed in the United States is poison ivy,
whose impact has been immortalized in a Lieber and Stoller
ditty, one of a small group of rock songs to be titled
after a weed (Elvis recorded Tony Joe White's 'Poke
Salad Annie', for example). In the lyrics, poison ivy is
likened to a scheming woman, who'll 'get under your skin',
whereupon – and it's one of the great rhyming couplets
of pop music – 'You're gonna need an ocean / of calamine
lotion'. In fact calamine can hardly cope with the
effects, which are florid and quite out of proportion to
what is usually the briefest of encounters. Just the softest
brush with a broken leaf can cause nightmarish effects on
the skin. It goes red, blisters and itches uncontrollably. If
you are susceptible (and fat people are supposedly more
so than thin), you can become feverish and edematous
for days. You don't even have to come into contact with
the plant itself to catch 'poison ivy' (the effects going
under the same name as the plant). You can pick it up
from a handshake, or a towel, or by touching the shoes of
someone who's been walking in the woods. You can even
contract it indoors, from the drifting smoke of a bonfire in
which there are a few leaves of poison ivy.
By contrast, the British stinging nettle is a minor
inconvenience, and deadly nightshade – or dwale, as it's funereally
known in some parts – a toxin of not much more than
academic interest: at least you have to ingest some part
of the plant. Nevertheless, adorned with alluringly jet
black and potentially lethal berries, it's regularly hocked
out of Country Parks and National Trust estates by land
owners nervous of litigious visitors. Francis Simpson, the
great Suffolk botanist, used to worry that this reflex might
threaten an unusual colony of the plant at Old Felixstowe
with flowers in an exquisite shade of pale lilac (they are
normally a sinister purple): 'There is a danger that one
day these plants and their berries may be found by some
over-zealous person and destroyed, as frequently occurs
with this species. When it is possible I visit the sites and
remove the berries, in order to protect the plants.'
Yet in the shadows of this understandable wariness
about species that can kill us off a less rational attitude is
lurking. Some plants become labeled as weeds because
we morally disapprove of their behavior. Parasites have
a bad name because they exploit the nutrients of other
plants, regardless of whether they do any real harm in the
process. Ivy is vilified as a parasite without even being
one. It attaches itself to trees purely for physical support,
and takes no nourishment from them. Big tufts can indeed
do damage by their sheer physical weight, but the myth of
the sap-sucker – the vegetable vampire – is a much more
satisfying basis for deionization.


Excerpted from Weeds by Richard Mabey Copyright © 2011 by Richard Mabey. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Richard Holmes
“Witty and beguiling... You will never look at a weed, or flourish a garden fork, in the same way again.”
Carl Zimmer
“Fascinating [and] richly detailed... Weeds, Mabey makes clear, are a reflection of our own culture—perhaps, our own weediness.”
Bill Streever
“Mabey’s personal, historical, and cultural viewpoint converts weeds into intellectually stunning wild flowers!”

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Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
kpet More than 1 year ago
Weeds is a very interesting read on the world's most prolific and unloved plants. A history of plantdom, and perfect for book clubs. The book includes detailed sketches, and one of the best conspiracy theories I've ever heard. A definite good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Post stuff about you
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I will be your mate. Fawnpelt.