Give weeds a chance

Invaders in the allotment. Interlopers in the flower beds. The enemies of gardeners everywhere. Why is it that some plants have gained such a dire reputation? Naturalist Richard Mabey tells Gillian Orr how today's bad seeds could be the cure-all cuttings of tomorrow
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The Independent Online

They're the enemy of gardeners up and down the country. They take over like an alien species, causing havoc on our lawns, flower beds and vegetable patches.

But while green-fingered folk like to decry their very existence, weeds are every bit as important as prize petunias and heritage roses – not least because "weed" isn't a biological definition, it's a cultural one. In fact, a more accurate way to describe a weed would be to say that it is merely "a plant in the wrong place". Weeds certainly get a lot of ire directed at them, but one man wants to redress the balance.

Naturalist Richard Mabey believes that weeds are misunderstood and wants society to understand that they are largely a nuisance created by man. He argues that weeds are embedded in our history, and is fascinated by our strange and transient relationships with them.

"It's as if they're just some sort of contaminate that happen to float about in the air and visit itself upon us," Mabey says. "But weeds never appear unless we have given them a quite specific opportunity to do so: either by breaking open the soil in farming, on the battlefield, in the back garden; or by taking them away from their native eco-systems, where they're kept in control by diseases and insects, and plonking them down in places where no such natural control exists. But it's not their fault, it's ours."

In Mabey's book, Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature, he explores the paradox of the weed as alternately appreciated or maligned, depending on where it is found. "Weeds present us with an opportunity to look at boundaries in nature – the boundaries between the wild and the cultivated. It is an anthropological distinction which we all operate around."

Mabey's appreciation of weeds arose in his mid-20s. His office was situated just north of Heathrow airport, in a no-man's-land which he would explore in his lunch breaks.

"It was a mosaic of car-breaker yards, flooded gravel pits, deserted canals and rubbish tips," he recalls. "I used to go rambling there, and I was transfixed by the vegetation without ever thinking that these plants were weeds. I developed a huge empathy with them as examples of the resilience and opportunism of nature."

Something that intrigues Mabey is how, as the years pass, a fashionable plant can become a despicable weed. He cites the plant known as "gallant soldiers" as an example. It arrived in Britain accidentally, stowed away in a pot plant from South America at the end of the 18th century. Finding itself in Kew Gardens, it escaped and made its way in to the respectable Kew Village and nearby Richmond.

When it migrated to south London, into less salubrious areas, it became less desirable; the Latin name it had been known by, galinsoga, was corrupted to "gallant soldier". Mabey laughs: "So it became indicative of certain class tensions. It's such a wonderfully pompous name for a plant that looks like a pathetic pacifist rather than a gallant soldier!"

The book includes dozens of bizarre stories about the history of weeds, and Mabey chats animatedly about some of his favourites. "I love the ambivalence of discovering the medieval midsummer fire ceremonies which were practised right across England up until the 19th century in some places," he goes on. "The weeds that the field labourers had been hoeing out of the wheat in May – plants like marigold and poppy – were the very same plants they put as fertility symbols onto the midsummer bonfires in June, on the longest day. It's fascinating that people are able to hold this duality of meaning with weeds – that they were something that they wanted out of their domestic fields, but at the same time they sufficiently believed in them as an indication of fertility that they would hurl them on the bonfires."

A moving story about weeds takes place in the trenches of the First World War. "The ordinary soldiers in the trenches, most of whom were farm boys back home, were making little gardens on the edge of the trenches. They made borders of celandine and daisies, which they were transplanting from the bits which hadn't been smashed to smithereens by the bombs and growing them round the trenches. I thought that very, very poignant."

Mabey is also a fan of the conspiracy theories associated with where weeds come from. The fast-growing kudzu vine was introduced to the United States from Asia in the 1870s after featuring in a Japanese garden at an exhibition in Philadelphia. Its rise was unstoppable and it now covers 2 million acres of forest land and has been outlawed by the US Department of Agriculture.

Mabey shares a theory he came across about this alien invader: "This one guy believes that the kudzu was introduced by the Japanese on purpose to undermine the American economy, and that as it spread the Japanese delighted in American money being absorbed to try and defeat it. By the 1940s the Americans were close to controlling it with the National Guard and military forces. Realising they needed to do something drastic for kudzu, Japan's real secret weapon, to continue the havoc it was causing, they bombed Pearl Harbour to take the Americans' resources away from extinguishing the weed".

It may be completely paranoid, but it perfectly highlights people's suspicion of alien plants. "Conspiracy has been a thing that has always gone through weeds' history," Mabey says.

Giant hogweed is another such weed that has been treated with suspicion. Introduced to Britain in around 1820, it was advertised by sea merchants as a way that ordinary Joes could grow an exotic plant in their gardens to rival the expensive orchids the aristocracy grew. "They were hugely popular in Victorian gardens," Mabey explains. "Nobody was particularly bothered about them for 150 years or so. By the 1960s they were all over Britain, but particularly in damp areas that were like the Caucasus in Russia, where they come from." You can see where Mabey is heading.

"We began getting science-fiction stories about alien plants, the most notable being John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, about an invasive plant from the Soviet Union. It was a classic piece of Cold War paranoia; it was almost at the time that the first film of the book came out, deep in the heart of the Cold War in the early 1960s, that giant hogweed hit the headlines and was labelled the 'triffid'. Quite a few children were being taken to casualty departments with rather curious weals and rashes on their lips, and this was traced to the fact that they'd been making pea-shooters from the stems of giant hogweed. So quite a lot of events join together: the vivid presence in the fictional imagination of Wyndham's novel, Cold War paranoia about Russian invaders and an actual Russian invader, the giant hogweed, that was causing misery." A few years later the plant was defined in law as an obnoxious weed, and the fight-back began.

Mabey is adamant that weeds are not without their uses – not all of which might be obvious at first.

"An enormous number of weeds have led to valuable medicines. The nightshade family and the thorn apple crop up in plenty of people's gardens, but they would be regarded as extremely objectionable invaders despite their value in modern medicine.

"But the real usefulness of weeds is the attempt to vegetate disrupted earth – that is, in a sense, their ecological role," he says. "If there weren't such plants on the planet there would be nothing to start the succession of spoilt ground back to more complex vegetation. There has to be very quick-growing, opportunist gatecrashers to begin vegetating over-barren soil; it's a classic example of nature abhorring a vacuum." Mabey insists that despite their ugly name, weeds can be things of great beauty. "For someone living in a city, weeds are the closest they can have to touching genuine wild organisms. You walk along the canal near Hackney and you will see plants like Bladder Senna, a wonderful pea family bush that grows in the Mediterranean; a plant called danewort which is from southern Europe but is sprawling all over railway embankments and canal sides in east London, a fabulous plant with pink-tinged flowers. Spice plants also grow along where there used to be rubbish tips in the East End: fennel, cumin and coriander can be found growing there."

Mabey concludes, "We spend an enormous quantity of our agricultural and gardening budgets on weed control, and the chemicals used do unquantified damage to all kinds of other creatures, possibly even ourselves, and the plants we're doing this to are obviously blameless. I'm not suggesting that we should give weeds laissez-faire. Like any other species, we need to control our environment to make it tolerable for us to live in. But it would be easier, cheaper and more environmentally sound if we accepted our responsibility in the generation of weeds – and we might find it much more easy to live with them if we did."

'Weeds' is published by Profile Books (£15.99). To order a copy for the special price of £13.99 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit