Managing Spontaneous Urban Plants for Improved Aesthetics

As discussed last week, our wild, urban flora is a cosmopolitan mixture of plants that were either native to the area before it was developed, introduced from all corners of the world on purpose or by accident, or brought in by migrating wildlife. These are plants capable of establishing and sustaining themselves outside of human cultivation and management, and are found in abundance beyond the borders of our tidy gardens and manicured landscapes. They vegetate sectors of our city that have been abandoned, overlooked, or routinely neglected. Given enough time – and prolonged lack of intervention – such vegetation will proceed along the process of ecological succession in the same way that plant communities in natural areas do. And just like other plant communities within their respective ecosystems, these wild, urban plant communities provide a suite of ecological services vital to the health of our urban ecosystems.

Peter Del Tredici writes in Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, “landscapes that include spontaneous vegetation fit the technical definition of sustainable in the sense that they are adapted to the site, require minimal maintenance, and are ecologically functional.” In an interview with Scenario Journal, Del Tredici goes on to define sustainability as “the value of the services provided by the ecosystem divided by the cost required to maintain that ecosystem.” Spontaneous urban landscapes offer “substantial ecological services at relatively low cost, or in some cases no cost,” and thus, by Del Tredici’s definition, they are “highly sustainable.”

There is one unfortunate downside – “weedy” landscapes like this are, by popular opinion, thoroughly unattractive and a sign of urban decay. This belief is held in spite of the fact that many of the plants found therein would be cherished or admired in other settings. Among deteriorating infrastructure, litter, and less attractive plants, some of our favorite plants are rendered guilty by association.

Despite their ecological benefits, abandoned areas vegetated with wild, urban plants are not favored by the public. So, to appease our aesthetic standards, sites like this can be enhanced through minimal intervention to be more attractive while retaining their ecological functions. In a paper published in a 2006 issue of Journal of Landscape Architecture, Norbert Kühn asserts that “to use spontaneous vegetation for ornamental purposes, a kind of enhancement or design work is necessary.” Species can be added and removed, and simple, infrequent maintenance measures can be implemented. Examples include extending the flowering season with spring flowering bulbs and mowing the area once or twice annually to maintain and improve the composition of the stand.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) – one of the plants that Norbert Kühn included in his study as a candidate for improving the aesthetics of spontaneous, urban plant communities.

Favoring attractive weeds over less attractive ones and using minimal maintenance to improve aesthetics and function are the principles behind Del Tredici’s “cosmopolitan urban meadow.” In his book, he lists some criteria for plants that would be suitable for “this novel landscape form,” including: erosion control (long-lived; vegetatively spreading), stress tolerance (full sun; drought; compacted and polluted soil), aesthetic value (ornamental characteristics; not “weedy” looking), wildlife friendly (attractive to pollinators; edible seeds), and commercially available.

In an article in Harvard Design Magazine, Del Tredici and Michael Luegering describe the cosmopolitan urban meadow as “a stable assemblage of stress-tolerant, low-maintenance herbaceous perennial plants that are preadapted to harsh urban conditions and that will provide an attractive vegetation cover on vacant land.” Whether it is a “long-term landscape feature” or a placeholder until future development, it will have “the capacity to increase the aesthetic and ecological value of vacant land without the investment of large sums of money typically required for the installation and maintenance of traditional managed landscapes.”

Abandoned or undeveloped, urban lots like this one are ideal sites for “cosmopolitan urban meadows.”

In an urban context, some plant species are particularly noxious and may need to be removed from urban meadows, such as ragweed (Ambrosia spp.) for its allergens and poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) for its Urushiol-induced contact dermatitis. Species with a history of being invasive should also be avoided and contained, particularly in sites that are adjacent to or within a short distance from natural areas. Despite this and other minor concerns, spontaneous vegetation has great potential. In Kühn’s words it is “authentic” and a “reminder of the history of the site,” it is part of “the natural dynamic” with potential to bring us “closer to nature,” and finally, “it can be maintained for a long time [with] less care and low costs.”

Finding beauty in these urban, wild landscapes might even cause a shift in what we find appropriate for cultivated landscapes. In her book, Grow Curious, Gayla Trail reminds us that, despite all of our efforts, wildness persists even in our most earnest attempts to subdue it. Perhaps we should embrace it:

‘Wild’ and ‘cultivated’ are social constructs that we place in opposition to each other, when in reality there is a knotty labyrinth between them. We subjugate our cities and our gardens with chemicals and artifice because we are unable to see that wild and cultivated can be entwined, can be all at once tended, lyrical, surprising, domesticated, irrational, functional, and free.

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See Also: Arnold Arboretum’s Cosmopolitan Meadow at Weld Hill

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Is There a Place for Weeds in Urban Ecosystems?

Highly urbanized areas have a long history of disturbance. They are a far cry from the natural areas they once displaced, bearing little resemblance to what was there before. In this sense, they are a brand new thing. During the urbanization process, virtually everything is altered – temperatures, soils, wind patterns, hydrology, carbon dioxide levels, humidity, light availability, nutrients. Add to that a changing climate and increased levels of pollution, and the hope of ever seeing such a site return to its original state – whatever that might mean – is crushed.

What then should we consider the natural flora of an ecosystem like this? Certainly it is not the native flora that once stood on the site before it was developed; virtually none of the conditions are the same anymore. If we are defining “natural” as existing with minimal human intervention, then the natural urban flora would be whatever grows wild outside of our manicured landscapes and managed, remnant natural areas. It would be a cosmopolitan mixture of plants that have joined us in our migrations with and without our permission, along with a collection of species that are either extant to the site or have been brought in by wildlife. In many ways it would mirror the human populations of our modern cities – an assortment of residents from around the globe with diverse backgrounds and cultural histories.

In Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, Peter Del Tredici classifies urban land into three general categories based on their ecological functions: native, remnant landscapes; managed, constructed landscapes; and ruderal, adaptive landscapes. Native, remnant landscapes are generally small areas within city limits that have never been developed. They contain a portion of the native plants that once populated the area, and they require vigilant and regular maintenance to keep non-native plants from invading and to control those that already have. Managed, constructed landscapes include all of the parks and gardens that have been designed and intentionally planted. They require regular maintenance of varying intensity in order to keep them looking the way they are intended to look. Ruderal, adaptive landscapes are abandoned or neglected sites that are populated by plants that have arrived on their own and that maintain themselves with virtually no human intervention. This is where the true, wild urban flora resides.

Prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola) growing in an abandoned lot.

Many of the plants that make up our wild urban flora are what we commonly refer to as weeds. These weedy plants appear in landscapes throughout our cities, but are generally removed or controlled in all landscapes except the abandoned ones. It is in these neglected sites that weeds have the greatest potential to provide vital ecosystem services, performing ecological functions that are beneficial to urban life.

Not all plants are suited for this role. Spontaneous urban vegetation is particularly suited due to its ability to thrive in highly modified, urban environments without external management. Regardless of provenance, this suite of plants, as Del Tredici points out, seem to be “preadapted” to urban conditions and “are among the toughest on the planet.” A long list of traits has been identified for plants in this category, ranging from seed dispersal and viability to speed of growth and reproduction to tolerance of harsh conditions. Del Tredici summarizes by stating, “a successful urban plant needs to be flexible in all aspects of its life history from seed germination through flowering and fruiting, opportunistic in its ability to take advantage of locally abundant resources that may be available for only a short time, and tolerant of the stressful growing conditions caused by an abundance of pavement and a paucity of soil.”

Abandoned lots flush with weeds, overgrown roadsides and railways, and neglected alleyways colonized by enterprising plants are generally seen as ugly, unsightly eyesores – products of neglect and decline. Some of the plants found in such locations are valued in a garden setting or prized as part of the native landscape in a natural area, but growing wildly among trash and decaying urban infrastructure they, too, are refuse. As Richard Mabey has written: “If plants sprout through garbage they become a kind of litter themselves. Vegetable trash.”

Abandoned chicken coop overtaken by tree of heaven saplings (Ailanthus altissima).

Despite how we feel about these plants or the aesthetics of the locations they find themselves in, they are performing valuable services. Apart from adding to the biodiversity on the site as well as producing oxygen and sequestering carbon – services that virtually all plants offer – they may be preventing soil erosion, stabilizing waterways, absorbing excess nutrients, reducing the urban heat island effect, mitigating pollution, building soil, and/or providing food and habitat for urban wildlife. While cultivated and managed landscapes can achieve similar things, these neglected sites are doing so without resource or labor inputs. They are sustainable in the sense that their ability to provide these services is ongoing without reliance on outside maintenance.

Sites like these should be further investigated to determine the full extent of the services that they may or may not be offering, and in the event that they are doing more good than harm, they should be conserved and encouraged. One service that is receiving more attention, as Del Tredici writes, is phytoremediation – “the ability of some plants to clean up contaminated sites by selectively absorbing and storing high concentrations of heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, copper, zinc, chromium, and nickel in their tissues.” Weed species with this ability include prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola), lambsquarters (Chenopodium album), and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). In an article in Places Journal, Del Tredici gives the example of the often despised, introduced plant, common reed (Phragmites australis) cleaning up the New Jersey Meadowlands by “absorbing abundant excess nitrogen and phosphorous throughout this highly contaminated site.”

In the book, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants, Richard Mabey writes: “As we survey our long love-hate relationship with [weeds], it may be revealing to ponder where weeds belong in the ecological scheme of things. They seem, even from the most cursory of looks, to have evolved to grow in unsettled earth and damaged landscapes, and that may be a less malign role than we give them credit for.” Perhaps, seeing them in this worthy role, will temper our knee-jerk inclination to demonize them at every turn.

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See Also: Our Urban Planet and Wild Urban Plants of Boise.

What Is a Water Chestnut?

This question came up on a recent episode of Every Little Thing, and while I have eaten water chestnuts on numerous occasions, I realized that I have never really considered what they were or where they came from. Thanks to the folks at ELT, I am better informed. So, why not spread the wealth?

Chinese water chestnut (not to be confused with Trapa natans, which is also commonly known as water chestnut) is in the family Cyperaceae – the sedge family. Known botanically as Eleocharis dulcis, it is a member of a sizable genus collectively referred to as the spikerushes or spikesedges. Its distribution is quite expansive, spanning sections of Australia, tropical Africa, several countries in Asia, as well as islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans. It is commonly cultivated in regions outside of its native range, including in North America as a novelty crop.

Eleocharis dulcis is a perennial, aquatic plant that grows in marshes, bogs, and the margins of other wetland and riparian areas in tropical and subtropical climates. Individual plants are clumps of tall, stiff, upright, leafless stems that can grow to over one meter tall. An infloresence is borne at the tops of stems and is a short, cylindrical cluster of small, yellow-brown florets. Clumps of stems are connected via rhizomes, and in this manner dense colonies can be formed. Rhizomes also terminate in corms, which are the edible portion of E. dulcis and the part of the plant that we refer to as water chestnuts.

Chinese water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis) growing in a bog garden – photo credit: flickr/techieoldfox

Corms are underground storage organs. They are the bases of stems that have become thick and swollen with starch. They are often covered in papery scales – which are the remnants of leaves – that help protect the corm from being damaged or drying out. Buds on the top of the corm form shoots; adventitious roots form on the bottom of the corm. Tubers, which are also modified stems and underground storage organs, differ from corms in that they have growing points at various locations along their surface rather than a single growing point at the top.

Common misconceptions are that water chestnuts are nuts or roots. They are neither. They are corms, or in other words, they are modified stem bases. Apart from that, they are vegetables. Curiously, they are vegetables from a plant family that does not produce much in the way of food for humans. Consider that the next time you eat them. You are eating a sedge.

Corm of Chinese water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis), the edible portion of the plant – photo credit: flickr/sclereid0309

Chinese water chestnuts can be prepared in many ways, both raw and cooked. I have only had them in stir fries, but they can also be used in salads and soups or ground into flour to make water chestnut cakes. Interestingly, even when they are cooked they remain crisp. This has something to due with the special properties of their cell walls.

As an agricultural crop they are often grown in paddies in rotation with rice. With a few preparations they can also be grown at home alongside your other vegetables. Further information and instruction can be found at various locations online including Permaculture Research Institute, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Plants for a Future.

Having only eaten water chestnuts from a can, I am anxious to try fresh, raw water chestnuts. Apparently they are available at certain Asian markets. When I get my hands on some, I will let you know what I think. Follow me on Twitter or Facebook for further updates.

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What are your favorite ways to eat Chinese water chestnuts? Let us know in the comment section below.

White Rot and the Quarantine Zone, revisited

This is a revised version of a post I wrote in July 2013 during the inaugural year of Awkward Botany.

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It’s garlic planting season in the northern hemisphere. A few years ago, while helping out with the garlic harvest at a local farm, I had the chance to learn about some of the challenges involved in growing garlic in southern Idaho. Apart from the fact that it is a very labor intensive crop to grow, one of the major challenges stems from a disease called white rot – easily one of the worst diseases that garlic and onion growers face.

White rot is caused by a fungus (Sclerotium cepivorum), and it affects all plants in the Allium genus, including garlic, onions, chives, and ornamentals. The disease causes the leaves of alliums to die back, their bulbs to decay, and their roots to rot, ultimately turning the plants to mush. Sclerotia, the dormant stage of the fungus, are small (about the size of a poppy seed), black, spherical structures that can survive in soil for more than 20 years. They remain dormant until the exudates of allium plants awaken them, at which point they begin to grow, unleashing their destruction. Sclerotia can be moved around by farm equipment, floods, irrigation water, wind, and by attaching themselves to plant material. Once this fungus has established itself in a field, it is extremely difficult to eradicate, making the field virtually unfit for allium crops.

The threat of white rot and the monetary damage that it can cause led to the establishment of a quarantine zone in southern Idaho in order to protect its $55 million dollar a year onion industry. Due to the quarantine zone (which encompasses 21 counties), all garlic that is grown for seed within the zone must be inspected and certified. [“Seed” in this case refers to the garlic cloves themselves; onions, on the other hand, are grown from actual seeds and are not subject to the same protocol.] Any seed garlic that is brought into the zone must go through a rigorous testing process in order to ensure that it is free of the white rot pathogen before it can be planted. Garlic is a specific threat because the cloves can readily carry sclerotia, compared to onion seeds, which are not likely to harbor them.

This process significantly limits the amount and variety of garlic that can be grown in the quarantine zone. While the quarantine is essential for warding off the threat of this particular pathogen, it stifles the garlic growing industry and makes it difficult for new garlic growers to establish themselves.

Garlic farming is already incredibly demanding due to the amount of time and physical labor that goes into planting, harvesting, drying, grading, etc. The quarantine, while understandable, is an added challenge. Learn more about this issue by listening to this story on PRX.

See Also:

Garlic emerging in the spring.

Seagrass Meadows and Their Role in Healthy Marine Ecosystems

Seagrass meadows are found along soft-bottomed, shallow, marine coastlines of every continent except Antartica. Their abundance and the important roles they play earn them the title of third most valuable ecosystem on the planet after estuaries and wetlands. These extensive meadows are made up of a group of flowering plants that are unique in their ability to thrive submerged in salty seawater. Tossed about by the tides, they feed and harbor an incredibly diverse world of marine life and help protect neighboring ecosystems by stabilizing sediments and mitigating pollution.

Seagrasses are often confused with seaweed, but they are very different organisms. Seaweed is algae. Seagrasses are plants that at one point in their evolutionary history lived on land but then retreated back into the waters of their ancient ancestors. They are rooted in the sediment of the sea floor and, depending on the species, can reproduce both sexually (submerged flowers are pollinated with the help of moving water) and/or asexually (via rhizomes). Although many of them have a grass-like appearance, none of them are in the grass family (Poaceae); instead, the approximately 72 different species belong to one of four families (Posidoniaceae, Zosteraceae, Hydrocharitaceae, or Cymodoceaceae).

Seagrass meadow in Wakaya, Fiji (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Seagrass meadows can be composed of a single seagrass species or multiple species, with some meadows consisting of a dozen species or more. Seagrasses depend on light for photosynthesis, so they generally occur in shallow areas. How far seagrass meadows extend out into the ocean depends on light availability and the shade tolerance of the seagrass species. Their presence at the shoreline is limited naturally by how exposed they become at low tide, the frequency and strength of waves and associated turbidity, and low salinity from incoming fresh water.

Seagrass meadows benefit life on earth in many ways. As ecosystem engineers they create habitat and produce food for countless species, sequester a remarkable amount of carbon, and help maintain the health of neighboring estuaries, mangroves, coral reefs, and other ecosystems. They are home to commercial fisheries, which provide food for billions of people. Like many ecosystems on the planet, they are threatened by human activity. Pollution, development, recreation, and climate change jeopardize the health and existence of seagrass meadows. Thus, it is imperative that we learn as much as we can about them so that we are better equipped to protect them.

Turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) growing in an estuary on the coast of San Salvador Island, Bahamas (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

In a report published in a February 2017 issue of Science, researchers examined the ability of seagrass meadows in Indonesia to remove microbial pathogens deposited into the sea via wastewater. When levels of the bacterial pathogen Enterococcus were compared between seagrass meadows and control sites, a three-fold difference was detected, with the seagrass meadows harboring the lowest levels. When other potential disease-causing bacteria were considered, the researchers found that “the relative abundance of bacterial pathogens in seawater” was 50% lower in both the intertidal flat and the coral reefs found within and adjacent to the seagrass meadows compared to control sites.

This has implications for the health of both humans and coral reefs, the latter of which face many threats including bacterial diseases. Two important coral reef diseases, white syndrome and black band disease, as well as signs of mortality associated with bleaching and sediment deposition “were significantly less on reefs adjacent to seagrass meadows compared to paired reefs,” according to the report.

Cushion sea star in seagrass meadow (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The researchers note that “seagrasses are valued for nutrient cycling, sediment stabilization, reducing the effects of carbon dioxide elevation, and providing nursery habitat for fisheries.” The results of this study demonstrate the potential for seagrass meadows to “significantly reduce bacterial loads,” benefiting “both humans and other organisms in the environment.” Yet another reason to care about and conserve this vital ecosystem.

Additional Resources on Seagrass and Seagrass Conservation:

And if that’s not enough, check out this fun YouTube video:

When Sunflowers Follow the Sun

Tropisms are widely studied biological phenomena that involve the growth of an organism in response to environmental stimuli. Phototropism is the growth and development of plants in response to light. Heliotropism, a specific form of phototropism, describes growth in response to the sun. Discussions of heliotropism frequently include sunflowers and their ability to “track the sun.” This conjures up images of a field of sunflowers in full bloom following the sun across the sky. However cool this might sound, it simply doesn’t happen. Young sunflowers, before they bloom, track the sun. At maturity and in bloom, the plants hold still.

What is happening in these plants is still pretty cool though, and a report published in an August 2016 issue of Science sheds some light on the heliotropic movements of young sunflowers. They begin the morning facing east. As the sun progresses across the sky, the plants follow, ending the evening facing west. Over night, they reorient themselves to face east again. As they reach maturity, this movement slows, and most of the flowers bloom facing east. Over a series of experiments, researchers were able to determine the cellular and genetic mechanisms involved in this spectacular instance of solar tracking.

Helianthus annuus (common sunflower) is a native of North America, sharing this distinction with dozens of other members of this recognizable genus. It is commonly cultivated for its edible seeds (and the oil produced from them) as well as for its ornamental value. It is a highly variable species and hybridizes readily. Wild populations often cross with cultivated ones, and in many instances the common sunflower is considered a pesky weed. Whether crop, wildflower, or weed, its phototropic movements are easy to detect, making it an excellent subject of study.

Researchers began by tying plants to stakes so that they couldn’t move. Other plants were grown in pots and turned to face west in the morning. The growth of these plants was significantly stunted compared to plants that were not manipulated in these ways, suggesting that solar tracking promotes growth.

The researchers wondered if a circadian system was involved in the movements, and so they took sunflowers that had been growing in pots in a field and placed them indoors beneath a fixed overhead light source. For several days, the plants continued their east to west and back again movements. Over time, the movements became less detectable. This and other experiments led the researchers to conclude that a “circadian clock guides solar tracking in sunflowers.”

Another series of experiments helped the researchers determine what was happening at a cellular level that was causing the eastern side of the stem to grow during the day and the western side to grow during the night. Gene expression and growth hormone levels differed on either side of the stem depending on what time of day it was. In an online article published by University of California Berkeley, Andy Fell summarizes the findings: “[T]here appear to be two growth mechanisms at work in the sunflower stem. The first sets a basic rate of growth for the plant, based on available light. The second, controlled by the circadian clock and influenced by the direction of light, causes the stem to grow more on one side than another, and therefore sway east to west during the day.”

The researchers observed that as the plants reach maturity, they move towards the west less and less. This results in most of the flowers opening in an eastward facing direction. This led them to ask if this behavior offers any sort of ecological advantage. Because flowers are warmer when they are facing the sun, they wondered if they might see an increase in pollinator visits during morning hours on flowers facing east versus those facing west. Indeed, they did: “pollinators visited east-facing heads fivefold more often than west-facing heads.” When west-facing flowers where warmed with a heater in the morning, they received more pollinator visits than west-facing flowers that were not artificially warmed, “albeit [still] fewer than east-facing flowers.” However, increased pollinator visits may be only part of the story, so further investigations are necessary.

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I’m writing a book about weeds, and you can help. For more information, check out my Weeds Poll.

Concluding the Summer of Weeds

“Most weeds suffer from a bad rap. Quite a few of the weeds in your garden are probably edible or even medicinal. Some invasive plants, including horsetail and nettle, are rich in minerals and can be harvested and used as fertilizer teas. Weeds with deep taproots, such as dandelions, cultivate the soil and pull minerals up to the surface. … Weeds are nature’s way to cover bare soil. After all, weeds prevent erosion by holding soil and minerals in place. Get to know the weeds in your area so you can put them to use for rather than against you.” — Gayla Trail, You Grow Girl

Great Piece of Turf by Albrecht Dürer (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

With summer drawing to a close, it is time to conclude the Summer of Weeds. That does not mean that my interest in weeds has waned, or that posts about weeds will cease. Quite the opposite, actually. I am just as fascinated, if not more so, with the topic of weeds as I was when this whole thing started. So, for better or worse, I will much have more to say on the subject.

In fact, I am writing a book. It is something I have been considering doing for a long time now. With so many of my thoughts focused on weeds lately, it is becoming easier to envision just what a book about weeds might look like. I want to tell the story of weeds from many different angles, highlighting both their positive and negative aspects. There is much we can learn from weeds, and not just how best to eliminate them. Regardless of how you feel about weeds, I hope that by learning their story we can all become better connected with the natural world, and perhaps more appreciative of things we casually dismiss as useless, less quick to jump to conclusions or render harsh judgments about things we don’t fully understand, and more inclined to investigate more deeply the stories about nature near and far.

Of course, I can’t do this all by myself. I will need your help. If you or someone you know works for or against weeds in any capacity, please put us in touch. I am interested in talking to weed scientists, invasive species biologists, agriculturists and horticulturists, edible weed enthusiasts, plant taxonomists, natural historians, urban ecologists, gardeners of all skill levels, and anyone else who has a strong opinion about or history of working with weeds. Please get in touch with me in one of several ways: contact page, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or by commenting below.

Another way you can help is by answering the following poll. If there is more than one topic you feel particularly passionate about, feel free to answer the poll as many times as you would like; just wait 24 hours between each response. Thank you for your help! And I hope you have enjoyed the Summer of Weeds.

Quick Guide to the Summer of Weeds: