In Praise of Vagabond Plants – A Book Review

A weed is a highly successful plant that shares a close relationship with humans. In many instances, weeds are seen as nuisance plants, interfering with the goals and intentions we have for a piece of land. In natural areas, they are blamed for, among other things, threatening the existence of the native flora, despite the fact that human activity and disturbance brought them there in the first place and continued human disturbance helps keep them there. In some instances, such as a vacant lot in an urban area, they pose no threat and their existence causes little if any harm, yet they are disparaged for being unsightly, hazardous, and out of place. Nevermind the fact that they are offering a number of ecosystem services free of charge.

For all these reasons and more, weeds get called some pretty nasty things and are the recipient of an unduly amount of ire. The extent that some of us will go to vilify a plant is a bit disturbing to me, so it’s always refreshing to come across a more reasonable approach to weeds. That tempered take is what I found in Gareth Richards’ book, Weeds: The Beauty and Uses of 50 Vagabond Plants, a production of the Royal Horticultural Society and whose vast archives were used to beautifully illustrate the book.

There seems to be a growing trend in the U.K. and other parts of Europe to be more accepting of weeds, to see them as part of our urban, suburban, and exurban flora, and to focus on the value they may bring rather than constantly reviling them as interlopers and thus trying to blast them out of existence with chemical warfare. (See also Wild About Weeds by Jack Wallington). I hope this is true, and I hope the trend continues and catches on in other parts of the world. As Richards writes, “Often the only crime a plant has committed is growing too well.” Thankfully, books like this help bring awareness to these highly fecund and robust plants and their many redeeming qualities.

Richards’ book starts out with a brief introduction and then proceeds with short profiles of 50+ different plant species that are commonly considered weeds. The focus of the book is on weeds found in the U.K.; however, weeds being what they are, at least a few (if not most) of the plants covered are bound to be growing near you regardless of where you live in the world. While there is some discussion of the invasive nature of a few of the plants profiled and the illegality of growing or transporting them – see Japanese knotweed, Himalayan balsam, and pontic rhododendron for example – the focus is not on management nor control. Instead, the discussion revolves around interesting aspects of the plants that makes them worth getting to know rather than something to simply eliminate.

As is often the case when discussing specific plants, medicinal uses and edibility feature heavily in Richards’ plant profiles. It’s interesting to learn about the many ways that humans have thought about and used plants historically, and some of the ways they were historically used are certainly still relevant today; however, many medicinal claims don’t stand the test of time nor do they have empirical evidence to back them up. For this reason, I generally take medicinal uses of plants with a grain of a salt and a healthy dose of skepticism. Edibility, on the other hand, has always been interesting to me, and just when I thought I had heard all the ways that dandelions can be eaten, Richards introduces me to another: “You can even harvest the flower buds for pickling; they make a useful homegrown caper substitute.”

What follows are a few excerpts from the book with accompanying photos of the plants in question.

Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) was originally introduced to gardens for its medicinal and edible qualities, but its aggressive behavior can be frustrating. Richards notes, “A useful plant for brave gardeners!”
The rhizomatous nature of yarrow (Achillea millefolium) makes it an excellent addition or alternative to turf grass, and thanks to its drought-tolerance, Richards asserts, “certainly lawns containing yarrow stay greener for longer in dry spells.
Speaking of lawns, “Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) in your lawn is generally a sign that it’s too wet for short grass to thrive.” Richards recommends letting it become a meadow instead. “Sometimes the most rewarding way of gardening is to let nature do it for you.”
Regarding teasel (Dipsacus spp.), Richards writes: “It’s not only bees that adore them; when the seeds ripen they’re loved by birds, especially goldfinches. Try planting some in your garden as a homegrown alternative food source to replace shop-bought nyjer seed.” (photo credit: Sierra Laverty)
“Cats and dogs seek out couch grass (Elymus repens) when they want to chew on something – either for its minerals or to help them vomit to clear their stomachs, often of furballs.” Kōura can frequently be found chewing on it.
“Like many weeds, herb bennet (Geum urbanum) has some clever adaptations. Its nondescript leaves blend seamlessly with other plants, never drawing attention to themselves. And those [clove-scented] roots are really tough, making plants physically difficult to pull up by hand. … The seeds have small hooks and readily attach themselves to fur and clothing to hitch a free ride to pastures new.”

Regardless of how you feel about weeds, if you’re interested in plants at all, this book is worth getting your hands on and these plants are worth getting to know. They may not be the plants you prefer to see growing on your property, but they have interesting stories to tell and, in many cases, may not be as big of a problem as you originally thought. In discussing Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) and its weedy relatives, Richards hits on a point that for me is one of the main takeaways of this book: “In an age where gardens are becoming wilder and the countryside ever more fragmented, and nature is on the march due to climate change, perhaps we should just learn to treasure the wild plants that thrive in the the new conditions we have made – wherever they originally came from.”

More Weeds Themed Book and Zine Reviews:

Randomly Selected Botanical Terms: Prickles

Let’s start by getting something out of the way: roses have prickles, not thorns. However, just like peanuts aren’t actually nuts and tomatoes are actually fruits, our colloquial terms for things don’t always match up with botanical terminology. This doesn’t mean that we should be pedants about things and go spoiling a friendly dinner party with our “well, actually…” corrections. If you hear someone saying (or singing) something about every rose having its thorn, it’s okay to just let it go.

So why don’t roses have thorns? And what even is a prickle anyway?

Plants have a way of modifying various body parts to form a variety of features that look like something totally new and different. When the development of these features are observed at a cellular level, we find that what once may have grown into something familiar, like a stem, is now something less familiar, like a thorn. A thorn, then, is a modified stem. Stem tissue was used by the plant to form a hardened spike. Thorns help protect a plant from being eaten, so going through the trouble of producing this feature is a benefit to the plant.

thorns of hawthorn (Crataegus sp.)

Spines and prickles are similar features to thorns and serve a similar purpose, but they have different origins. Spines are modified leaf or stipule tissue (the spines on a cactus are actually modified leaves). Prickles are outgrowths of the epidermis or bark. In plants, epidermis is a single, outer layer of cells that covers all of the organs (i.e. leaves, roots, flowers, stems). Outgrowths on this layer are common and often appear as little hairs. The technical term for these hairs or hair-like structures is trichomes.

the stems of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) are covered in dense trichomes

Prickles are much like trichomes, but there are usually less of them and they are hardened and pointy. They can be sharp like a thorn or spine and so are often confused for them. (Spines are also confused for thorns, as is the case with Euphorbia milii, whose common name is crown of thorns but whose “thorns” are actually spines.) As stated above, their cellular origin is different, and unlike thorns and spines, prickles don’t have vascular tissue, which is the internal tissue that transports water and nutrients throughout all parts of the plant. In general, prickles can be easily broken off, as they are often weakly attached to the epidermis.

Prickles are most commonly observed on roses and come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.

Prickles on roses are commonly called thorns, and that’s okay. Thorn is perhaps a more poetic word and easier to relate to. But really, I’m torn and forlorn that they aren’t thorns. It puts me in a pickle trying to rhyme words with prickle.


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Permaculture Lessons, part two: Disabled Permaculture

This is a guest post by Laura-Marie River Victor Peace Nopales (see contact info below).


Hello! I made a guest post on Awkward Botany in March, introducing myself and my spouse, and talking a little about my life with permaculture. Permaculture is a way I learn about plants, love the earth, grow delicious foods, and connect with others. Permaculture has a community aspect, and respect for all beings is part of that. Permaculture is a great idea for disabled people.

Being disabled is a lot of work, and butting up against ableism all around is part of that. A default assumption many have, including many permaculture teachers, is that people are full of abundant energy and can live our values if we choose to. But being disabled means that what we want to do often isn’t the same as what we can accomplish. Disabled permaculture is a great take on permaculture that Ming and I have been doing together for 11 years of friendship and partnership.

Disabled permaculture is a valuable concept that many people can benefit from and customize to their own needs. Throughout this essay, I’ll mention many ways it helps me and Ming live a beautiful interdependent life.

how we’re disabled

My spouse Ming and I are both disabled. He has narcolepsy, so he falls asleep at unwanted times, doesn’t get restful sleep, and many aspects of life are impacted by his low energy and lack of wakeful cognition. Narcolepsy can contribute to struggles with memory, language, and reality comprehension. Ming also has a diagnosis of OCD.

Ming endures heartache trying to get his medical needs met, since a medication he uses for wakefulness is a controlled substance. The drug war plus health insurance nonsense means he has to jump through more hoops than anyone should need to, let alone a disabled person.

As for me, I have psychiatric diagnoses and hear voices, along with social differences and sensory sensitivities. Some terms that might apply to me are anxious and autistic. I like “crazy” as a reclaimed term, like queer and fat, which also apply. I have a schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type diagnosis. I was sedated on a bipolar cocktail for around 11 years.

how permaculture suits us

Permaculture is a helpful design system for disabled people such as ourselves. We have limited energy and fluctuating capabilities. Sometimes we’re not up for much. Permaculture is helpful as a realistic, forgiving, less energy intensive way of growing plants and doing community.

Permaculture is about working with the land forms and nature’s rhythms, not fighting against them. It’s observantly respectful to Mother Earth and one another.

A goal is to create food forests that are self-sustaining. We permaculturists like to take a long view, start small, design for resilience, and rest in hammocks. We create closed loop systems. It’s fun to consider the weaknesses of our systems’ interdependence and arrange backups for our backups, with layers of redundancy. Problems are seen as opportunities. We have a thing for hugelkultur. We enjoy rich diversity, especially at the edges.

image credit: wikimedia commons

Permaculturists love nourishing the land, with compost, generous mulching, water catchment in swales, and other ways of making the land more rich than the scraggly vacant lots and neglected yard space we arrived to. We like doing land justice, so inviting people in, opposing food deserts by sharing our bounty, organizing community gardens, and working together with locals.

We prefer collaboration over gentrification. Smiling, we get a lot of joy out of seed bombs, guerilla gardening wild areas, and having a lemonade party, when life gives us lemons and we make lemonade.

I’ve enjoyed gleaning fruit to share with Food Not Bombs, harvesting olives with neighbors, and lots of sheet mulching with discarded cardboard to unmake lawns. Permaculture has helped me by giving me a framework for the regenerative, earth-nourishing impulses that stirred within me already.

community and energy

If all of this sounds fun, that’s because it is. Why is permaculture especially good for people who are disabled?

Inviting people in and nourishing community means more people care about our garden, and are willing to step in when Ming and I are less out and about. Thank you to the kind community members who see what needs doing and are empowered to contribute to the thriving of garden life.

Also, permaculture is less energy intensive than other ways of growing plants. Long term solution is a relief. Food forests are like Eden. Creating and tending food forests means there can be a bit by bit accumulation of plants that work well together.

It’s not a stressful, all-at-once venture. There’s not the once or twice annual “rip everything out and start over” that I’ve seen other gardeners do. It feels relaxed and cumulative, good for a disabled pace.

When we have the energy and the weather is cooperative, we evaluate how the garden overall is doing. Do we have room for more herbs? Are enough flowers blooming to attract pollinators and keep them happy? What foods do we want to eat more of, in the next few months? Should we put sunflowers somewhere different this time? It’s unrushed, experimental, fun, and slow.

tree collards for disabled permaculture

The tree collards I mentioned last post are easier to grow than regular collards and kale. Let me tell you about these delicious leafy brassicas as a disabled permaculture example. Tree collards give tasty greens perennially, for years. We get a lot of delicious food from them!

Tree collards are easy to propagate. No need to buy or save seeds, then tend tender seedlings. Just break off a branch, stick it in the garden ground, make sure it stays moist for a few weeks, and hope for the best. It may root and start growing soon.

The tree collards we have are purple with the green. They’re gorgeous and can get lush in the winter. They’re tasty by themselves, sautéed with garlic, added to beans. We had some on our Passover Seder plate recently. When I cook rice, I might add a few tree collard leaves at the end to steam and greenly compliment my carbs.

When I make pesto, I throw in a few leaves of tree collard with the basil. When Ming is gardening, he often munches a few leaves. I smell them, pungent on his breath, when he returns indoors and kisses me.

It’s fun to give cuttings to friends and share the bounty. We talk about perennial vs annual and biennial. We talk about permaculture as an important guiding force in our disabled family. Even if the cuttings die, ideas and love were propagated. By sharing our values, we’ve inviting them into our life.

I like watching tree collards age, lean over, flower, die back, surge forth, reach for the sun. We keep them in our permaculture zone 1, right by our front door, as they are our darlings. They’re available to us all the time.

inevitable

Many people are disabled one way or another, and many people will become disabled, if lucky enough to live into old age. Disabled permaculture is a way most anyone can garden. The investment can be small and gradual.

Some people think of gardening as expensive, requiring tools and the building of raised beds, remaking the garden seasonally, and the accumulation of books and arcane knowledge. But permaculture is humble, less expensive, and becomes an intuitive part of life.

Our garden is not a separate thing that we can choose to do or not do, this spring. It’s always happening, like the other aspects of our creativity, our health, our family, and the cycles of nature.


Laura-Marie River Victor Peace Nopales is a queer trikewitch who enjoys zines, ecstatic dance, and radical mental health. Find her at listening to the noise until it makes sense.