Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants

By Marschall, Laurence A. | Natural History, July/August 2011 | Go to article overview

Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants


Marschall, Laurence A., Natural History


Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey Ecco, 2011; 336 pages; $25.99

Most Simply, British nature writer Richard Mabey explains, a weed is just "a plant in the wrong place," a definition that clearly reflects its inseparable human element. A dandelion on a manicured lawn is a weed; in a salad garden or field of wildflowers, it is not. Moreover, humans play an active role in transporting weed seeds or cuttings and opening up new environmental niches for them. Weeds are the ultimate opportunists of the vegetable kingdom. Following the Great Fire in 1666, London was inundated by a sea of yellow flowers. The plant, a type of Mediterranean wild mustard, might have been around in nooks and corners of the city all along, but the spread-out rubble and damp basement holes exposed by fire provided ideal conditions for a vegetative flash mob. The little plants were appropriately dubbed "London rocket." A similar takeover of the city occurred in the aftermath of the Blitz of World War II, this time by a purple weed called rosebay willowherb, which twentieth-century Londoners dubbed "bombweed."

Weedy plants are also highly tenacious, able to survive and reproduce even when under attack by determined farmers or competing flora. Field bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis, literally hangs on with long, winding roots, underground runners, and aboveground stems that twine around adjacent plants, earning it the common name of "devil's guts." It's developed a variety of ways of foiling attempts to eradicate it, including seeds that can be viable in the soil for as long as forty years and that can germinate in either the summer or the autumn. The species can also regenerate from its underground roots and stems, so that if any traces of it are left after mechanical weeding, the plant will soon spring back into action. …

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