Zine Review: An Urban Field Guide to the Plants in Your Path

Depending on where you live in the world, it’s probably not too difficult to find a field guide to the plants native to your region. In fact, there may be several of them. They may not cover all the plants you’ll encounter in natural areas near you, but they’ll be a good starting point. Yet, considering that most of us live in cities these days, field guides to the wild plants of urban areas are sorely lacking. Perhaps that’s no surprise, as plants growing wild in urban areas are generally considered weeds and are often the same species that frustrate us in our yards and gardens. Few (if any) of these maligned plants are considered native, so that doesn’t help their case any. Why would we need to know or pay attention to these nuisance plants anyway?

I argue that we should know them, and not just so that we know our enemy. Weeds are the wild flora of our cities – they grow on their own without direct human intervention. In doing so, they green up derelict and neglected sites, creating habitat for all kinds of other organisms and providing a number of ecosystem services along the way. Regardless of how we feel about them for invading our cultivated spaces and interfering with our picture-perfect vision of how we feel our cities should look, they deserve a bit more respect for the work they do. If we’re not willing to go that far, we at least ought to hand it to them for how crafty and tenacious they can be. These plants are amazing whether we want to admit it or not.

Luckily I’m not the only who feels this way. Enter An Urban Field Guide to the Plants in Your Path, a zine written and illustrated by Maggie Herskovits and published by Microcosm Publishing. This zine is just one example of the resources we need to better familiarize ourselves with our urban floras. While there are many weed identification books out there, a field guide like this differs because it doesn’t demonize the plants or suggest ways that they can be brought under control or eliminated. Instead, it treats them more like welcome guests and celebrates some of their finer qualities. That being said, this is probably not a zine for everyone, particularly those that despise these plants, but take a look anyway. If you keep an open mind, perhaps you can be swayed.

Illustration of Pennsylvania smartweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum) from An Urban Field Guide to the Plants in Your Path

After a brief introduction, Herskovits profiles fifteen common urban weeds. Each entry includes an illustration of the plant, a short list of its “Urban Survival Techniques,” a small drawing of the plant in its urban habitat, and a few other details. The text is all handwritten, and the illustrations are simple but accurate enough to be helpful when identifying plants in the wild. The descriptions of each plant include interesting facts and background information, and even if you are already familiar with all the plants in the guide, you may learn something new. For example, I wasn’t aware that spotted spurge (Euphorbia maculata) was native to North America.

some urban survival techniques of common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Capsella bursa-pastoris in its urban habitat

Urban weeds often go ignored. They may not be as attractive as some of the plants found in gardens and parks around the city, and since they are often seen growing right alongside garbage, they end up getting treated that way. But if you’re convinced that they may actually have value and you want to learn a bit more about them, this guide is a great place to start. Perhaps you’ll come to feel, as Herskovits does, that “there is hope in these city plants.”

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6 thoughts on “Zine Review: An Urban Field Guide to the Plants in Your Path

  1. Hi Daniel – thank you for your beautiful and thoughtful write-up of the little zine I wrote! I am just seeing this now and it is so cool to know that the zine is out in the world uplifting urban plants. It is especially meaningful that someone like yourself, who is already so immersed in the wonderful world of weeds, has found it useful. Thank you again.
    Heres to uplifting all marginalized beings!

    • Thanks, Maggie! It’s a wonderful zine, and I’m happy to share it with others on my blog. I echo your sentiment – may all marginalized beings be uplifted. And thank you in particular for speaking up for the weeds. 🙂

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  3. I *love* urban plants and weeds. In fact, I’m controversial, because I also like some which are considered “invasives”, although I’m not quite sure what precisely that means. I think Alliaria petiolata is beautiful, and very hardy. We have some that grows at the margin of our pesticide- and herbicide-free property, right up against the lawn of our herbicide-using neighbors, and, while the other plants die away after application, petiolata thrives. It’s unfortunate they use pesticides, because I understand Alliaria petiolata was grown as a food crop in the 19th century, and I’d love to try some, but wouldn’t chance picking up some residual toxins.

    Why do I think “invasives” are worth considering? Because as climate disrupts and places warm, and people continue to destroy habits and ecosystems by building and spreading, we need all the botanical diversity we can get, and it helps if the plants are tough. It’s not an accident Toxicodendron radicans thrives along Northeast roadsides, particularly where salt is dumped in the winter: It’s salt-tolerant, even salt-loving, and seizes a place where most others simply cannot grow. Whose fault is that? Radicans? Or people who put salt down. And oughtn’t an Alliara strategem like allelopathy towards mycorrhizae. Allelopathy is there in Ailanthus, too.

    Some other references:

    P. Del Tredici, Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast : a field guide, Cornell University Press, 2010.

    R. H. Uva, J. C. Neal, J. M. DiTomaso, Weeds of the Northeast, Cornell University Press, 1997.

    J.Eastman, A. Hansen, The Book of Field and Roadside : Open-Country Weeds, Trees, and Wildflowers of Eastern North America, Stackpole Books, 2003.

    Del Tredici and Eastman-Hansen are pretty open-minded about so-called invasives.

    Frankly, I’d rather the invasives than see Glyphosate-based herbicides sprayed, particularly in the manner they are. People develop properties around here, destroying trees and native fields. The so-called Conservation Commissions assign penance: “Do us a favor and spray these herbicides to take out invasives, and we’ll call it even,” they say. Bupkis.

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