Weeds: the boundary breakers

Albrecht Dürer, The Large Turf, 1503

Lately I’ve been preoccupied with weeds. There have been many to clear on the allotment we took over last September with the arrival of spring and the sudden onset of hot weather this year.  In addition, I’ve been reading Richard Mabey’s fascinating new book, Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilization and Changed the Way We Think About Nature.

Back in 1972, in his mid-twenties and working for Penguin Books in an area of urban wasteland near Heathrow airport, Mabey would spend his lunch hour walking from his office into what he later called the ‘unofficial countryside‘: abandoned and forgotten patches of the city where he discovered plants that thrived in the wasteland: ‘vegetable guerrillas that had overcome the dereliction of the industrial age’.

Now Mabey returns to dedicate a whole book to these ‘vegetable guerrillas’ (a concept captured brilliantly in Peter Dyer’s cover design).

Mabey kicks off, of course, by exploring the various definitions of what actually is a weed.  The simplest is ‘a plant growing in the wrong place’, which captures the idea of weeds as troublesome, obnoxious and of no practical value. The fiends sabotage our horticultural plans, deny our crops nourishment and form impenetrable thickets of thistles and thorns (the allotment last September!). From this perspective, which, he points out, goes right back to the opening chapters of Genesis when God kicked Adam and Eve out of Eden and into the wilderness of briars and thorns, weeds are a bad lot, and there is nothing to be said in their defence.

But Mabey counsels a more objective approach to ‘these outlaw plants’; he encourages us to think about what they are, how they grow and what is their exact relationship to human activity. Because, he argues, the story of weeds is a thoroughly human story: ‘plants become weeds because people label them as such’.  He quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, who observed this cultural aspect to what is considered appropriate or useful in the plant kingdom: a weed is just ‘a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered’.  Or forgotten: large numbers of plants now condemned as weeds were once regarded as useful.  In a striking example, Mabey notes that ground-elder, the bane of the gardener, was introduced to Britain by the Romans, who valued it as a pot-herb and cure for gout.

Plants may have certain traits that lead them to be condemned – toxicity or ugliness, for example.  Poison ivy was immortalised by Lieber and Stoller as so pernicious that ‘You’re gonna need an ocean/Of calamine lotion’.  As for ugliness, Mabey notes that the city ordinances in Houston, Texas make illegal ‘the existence of weeds, brush, rubbish and all other objectionable, unsightly and unsanitary matter of whatsoever nature covering or partly covering the surface of any lots or parcels of real estate’.

The United States appears particularly prone to this botanical fundamentalism.  Mabey notes that there the ‘front garden’ is regarded as part of the public domain: across suburban America the space between house and road is almost always a lawn, with each property’s grass joining the next seamlessly.  He reveals that lawns occupy 50,000 square miles of the US, and that the pressures to conform to orthodox standards of lawn maintenance are huge, with vast amounts spent on chemical weedkillers.  Reading this brought back a childhood memory of when suburbia arrived in our small Cheshire village, in the form of a new Wimpey housing estate.  All the frontages were laid out, American style, as one continuous lawn.  But the English idea of the garden as a private domain soon prevailed – hedges went up and flower beds were laid.  It took urban planners another twenty years to come up with the concept of ‘defensible space’.

Mabey’s main point is that the persistence of weeds in our backyards is not accidental. They thrive in the company of humans.  They relish the things we do to the soil and flourish alongside our disturbances. As gardeners come to know, weeding encourages weeds as much as it deters them:  Mabey quotes many examples of weeds that can regrow from just a tiny sliver left in the ground.  Weeds are ‘mobile, prolific, genetically diverse… using multiple strategies for getting their own way’. In fact, concludes Mabey, ‘the species they most resemble is us’.

Weeds also have their benefits: they are willing to grow in the most hostile environments and bring wild nature into places that might be expected to be bereft of any life: bombed cities, industrial wastelands, rubbish dumps and the rest.  The classic example is Rosebay Willowherb, once a rare flower of rocks and ancient walls, now a prolific denizen of man-made habitats. It burst into national consciousness on the bombsites of wartime London and other blitzed cities, where its blossoms sprang suddenly from the broken stones where human beings had lived.

A pressed specimen of Rosebay Willowherb or Fireweed collected in Holborn. From Flora of London Bombed Sites 1950, a collection at the Department of Botany, Natural History Museum London.

Mabey traces the emergence of a new humanistic attitude to nature in art and plant illustration.  There’s a superb passage where he writes about how Albrecht Durer’s remarkable 1503 painting, Large Piece of Turf (top) broke through the artistic conventions and cultural assumptions of  its time, discovering ecology three centuries early:

The structure of the painting couldn’t be simpler. It is the structure of vegetation itself, as if Durer had stuck a spade at random in the ground and used the slab of turf it lifted as his frame. In the foreground are three rosettes of greater plantain, a weed that has so closely dogged human trackways across the globe that it was also known as Waybread and Traveller’s-foot. They’re surrounded by wisps of meadow-grass. Two dandelion heads, some way past flowering but still topped with yellow, lean leftwards. At the very rear of the painting – and its only concession to the less than commonplace – a few leaflets of burnet saxifrage are just visible through the mesh of grass leaves.

You observe this community of plants not from above, or any other conventionally privileged viewpoint, but from below. The bottom quarter of the picture is almost entirely devoted to the mottled patch of earth in which the weeds are visibly rooted. … It is a visually exquisite and scientifically correct composition. What you are looking at is a miniature ecosystem in which every component, from the damp mud at the base to the seeds on the point of flight, is connected.

No one was to take such an intensely grounded view of mundane vegetation again until the early nineteenth century, when the poet John Clare ‘dropped down’ to marvel at the weeds he loved, and Goethe gave his painter hero Young Werther a transcendental experience while sprawled in the grass: ‘I lie in the tall grass and, closer thus to the earth, become conscious of the thousand varieties of little plants . . .’.

Another chapter explores the appearance of weeds in the work of three writers: William Shakespeare, John Clare and (previously unknown to me) Pehr Kalm.  For Shakespeare, it was natural to draw on the wild flowers and folklore of his native Warwickshire for imagery and associations. Mabey reckons that A Midsummer Night’s Dream – ‘crackling with plant imagery’ – must be ‘the only play in the English language whose plot hinges on the potency of a weed’ (the love-in-idleness, aka heartsease or wild pansy, whose juice Puck squeezes into the eyes of the young couples while sleeping).

From a close deconstruction of the flowers on Titania’s bank –

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight

– Mabey concludes that Shakespeare’s ‘confident use of weeds as symbols suggests that their popular meanings aren’t (or at least weren’t) superficial, concerned purely with agricultural nuisance, but have cultural and ecological undertones that are built into the genetic structure of their names’.

Then (and this is one example of the fascinating detail that Mabey provides in the book), there’s the elegiac lines from Cybeline:

Golden lads and lasses must
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust

Who knows these days that ‘chimney-sweepers’ was Warwickshire patois for ‘the wind-scattered, time-telling clocks that follow dandelion’s golden flowers’?

Dandelion clocks near Downe House, Kent

Mabey turns from Shakespeare to John Clare, celebrating his poems, ‘full of vivid and intimate writing about wild flowers and weeds’.  Like Albrecht Durer, Clare gets down to ground level to observe plants he regards as his equals, such as the ‘April Daisy’:

Welcome, old matey!
Hail, beauty’s gem! Disdaining time nor place
Carelessly creeping on the dunghill’s side.

And, as Mabey observes, Clare was responsible for what is probably the most extended passage on weeds in English poetry.  This section from ‘May’ in The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827) not only records the flowers and their cultural associations, but also the human interaction with them, as the weeding gangs move in to clear them:

Each morning, now, the weeders meet
To cut the thistle from the wheat,
And ruin, in the sunny hours,
Full many a wild weed with its flowers;—
Corn-poppies, that in crimson dwell,
Call’d “Head-achs,” from their sickly smell;
And charlocks, yellow as the sun,
That o’er the May-fields quickly run;
And “Iron-weed,” content to share
The meanest spot that Spring can spare—
E’en roads, where danger hourly comes,
Are not without its purple blooms,
Whose leaves, with threat’ning thistles round
Thick set, that have no strength to wound,
Shrink into childhood’s eager hold
Like hair; and, with its eye of gold
And scarlet-starry points of flowers,
Pimpernel, dreading nights and showers,
Oft call’d “the Shepherd’s Weather-glass,”
That sleeps till suns have dried the grass,
Then wakes, and spreads its creeping bloom
Till clouds with threatening shadows come—
Then close it shuts to sleep again:
Which weeders see, and talk of rain;
And boys, that mark them shut so soon,
Call “John that goes to bed at noon:”
And fumitory too—a name
That Superstition holds to fame—
Whose red and purple mottled flowers
Are cropp’d by maids in weeding hours,
To boil in water, milk, and whey,
For washes on a holiday,
To make their beauty fair and sleek,
And scare the tan from Summer’s cheek;
And simple small “Forget-me-not,”
Eyed with a pin’s-head yellow spot
I’ the middle of its tender blue,
That gains from poets notice due:—
These flowers, that toil by crowds destroys,
Robbing them of their lowly joys,
Had met the May with hopes as sweet
As those her suns in gardens meet;
And oft the dame will feel inclined,
As Childhood’s memory comes to mind,
To turn her hook away, and spare
The blooms it loved to gather there! 

Clare was, of course, a keen observer of the changes then transforming the English countryside: the loss of commons and streams, old open fields and heathland as enclosures destroyed habitats.  In his second collection, The Village Minstrel, he lamented the eradication of the weeds:

There once were springs, when daisies’ silver studs
Like sheets of snow on every pasture spread;
There once were summers, when the crow-flower buds
Like golden sunbeams brightest lustre shed;
And trees grew once that shelter’d Lubin’s head;
There once were brooks sweet whimpering down the vale:
The brooks no more – kingcup and daisy fled;
Their last fallen tree the naked moors bewail,
And scarce a bush is left to tell the mournful tale.

Mabey’s third writer, Pehr Kalm, was a Finnish disciple of Linnaeus who travelled to England in 1748 to study the agricultural revolution.  He was especially interested in the work of William Ellis, an improving farmer in the Chilterns, who was experimenting with different methods of weed control and pasture management.  One of the things Ellis knew about was the nitrogen-fixing abilities of leguminous crops, including the despised ‘weed’, clover.  ‘Nothing better clears the ground of trumpery and weeds than a good Crop of Clover’, he wrote.

Mabey tells fascinating tales of the globalisation of weeds in modern times, consequent upon expanding international trade, Europan imperial expansion and the impact of seeds brought back by explorers and collectors.  Kew gardens in the 1840s was responsible for depatching Joseph Hooker to the Himalayas to collect plants.  He came back with the seeds of 28 varieties of rhodedendron.  ‘They were’, writes Mabey, ‘a sensationwith the gardening public…. No-one could have anticipated that some of them would escape to become one of the most invasive weeds of Britain’s western woodlands’.  Then there’s the Oxford Ragwort, possibly brought back from the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna on the shoe leather of  someone on the 18th century Grand Tour.

Then there’s the modern traveller’s tale of Danish scurvy-grass, up to the 1980s only rarely found on salty clifftops and sea walls around Britain.Since then it’s become a common sighting on the edges of motorways and major roads, often closely-packed along the central reservations.  The explanation?  Salt spread on the roads during winter freezes.

Mabey devotes a chapter to burdock, which, he writes, is one of the least likely weeds to be credited with some kind of artistic beauty.  From the mid-17th century burdock began appearing in landscape paintings, never obvious but nevertheless having caught the artist’s eye.  The most notable example occurs in the work of Liverpool’s own George Stubbs.  Burdock appears in several of his paintings, most notably in A Lion Devouring a Horse (1769), where under the agonised horse’s right hoof, the bland, grey-green foliage of its leaves are picked out in detail (click on the image below for the detail).

In this century, the American photographer Janet Malcolm took Stubbs a stage further when she produced a portfolio of 28 close-ups of single burdock leaves in various states of  decrepitude.  ‘I prefer’, she wrote, ‘older, flawed leaves to young unblemished specimens – leaves to which something has happened.’

Apart from art, the burdock – or, more specifically, its clinging seeds, the burrs that stick to clothing and dogs’ fur – provided the inspiration for velcro fastening.  It was a Swiss inventor, George de Mestral, who, walking his dog in the 1940s, began to study the design of the burrs that clung to his dog’s coat with their mass of flexible hooks. After a great deal of experimentation, and using the new synthetic material nylon, Velcro finally reached the market in 1955.

Actually, my childhood memory of burdock gets no mention in Mabey’s book.  In the early 1950s, in the summer months, a weather-beaten guy leading a horse and cart would appear in the village selling beverages, including dandelion and burdock which he sold in large stone flagons.  Ice-cold to drink from.  Back then, it probably was made from actual dandelions and burdock roots.  These days it’s mostly artificial flavourings and sweeteners.

Mabey rounds off his survey with two contrasting chapters. The first is a brilliant survey of literary responses to the plants that entered deeply into the national conciousness as a result of two world wars – the poppy, the emblematic flower of the first world war; and the plant that was christened London rocket during the second, rosebay willow herb.  The latter seemed to have sprung from nowhere, in the sense that it had previously been regarded as a rare plant.  Mabey has an interesting discussion of a novel written in 1949 by novelist Rose Macauley, The World My Wilderness.

The novel tells the story of two teenagers who escape suburban tedium to live instead among the squatters, deserters and small-time criminals of the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s just after the War.

 They made their way about the ruined, jungled waste, walking along broken lines of wall, diving into the cellars and caves of the underground city, where opulent merchants had once stored their wine, where gaily tiled rooms opened into one another and burrowed under great eaves of  overhanging earth, where fosses and ditches ran, bright with marigolds and choked with thistles, through one-time halls of commerce, and yellow ragwort waved its gaudy banners over the ruin of defeated business men.

Macauley herself, with her younger companion Penelope Fitzgerald, had explored the bombsites, too, cataloguing the flowers and shrubs as they went.

In his closing chapter, Mabey blends a survey of postwar dystopian writing – with the focus on triffids – with an examination of real weeds that are almost as terrifying: kudzu (introduced into the US from south-east Asia in the 1870s), which can put on a foot in 12 hours, and Japanese knotweed, first noticed in Britain a century ago and now confirmed by the Environment Agency as the most invasive species of plant in Britain.  It spreads extremely quickly, preventing native vegetation from growing, and is capable of undermining building foundations, concrete and tarmac.

Despite ending on this terrifying note, in Weeds, Mabey has written a hymn to the marginal.  We get the weeds we deserve, he argues. We like to rigidly separate the natural world into the wild and the domestic.  But weeds are ‘the boundary breakers, the stateless minority, who remind us that life is not that tidy’.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
– Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Inversnaid’

Many weeds are here, states Mabey, because of the people we are, with our own histories ways of living: the ways we dig and mow, the walks we take, the holidays we go on. ‘But I still hoick them up when they get in my way’, he adds without sentiment.



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