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.”

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Drought Tolerant Plants: The Yarrows

Few plants are as ubiquitous and widespread as the common yarrow, Achillea millefolium. A suite of strategies have made this plant highly successful in a wide variety of habitats, and it is a paragon in terms of reproduction. Its unique look, simple beauty, and tolerance of tough spots have made it a staple in many gardens; however, its hardiness, profuseness, and bullish behavior have also earned it the title, “weed.” Excess water encourages this plant to spread, but in a dry garden it tends to stay put (or at least remain manageable), which is why it and several of its cousins are often included in or recommended for water efficient landscapes.

Achillea millefolium - common yarrow

Achillea millefolium – common yarrow

Common yarrow is in the aster family (Asteraceae) and is one of around 85 species in the genus Achillea. It is distributed throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. European plants have long been introduced to North America, and hybridization has occurred many times among the two genotypes.

Yarrow begins as a small rosette of very finely dissected leaves that are feathery or fern-like in appearance. These characteristic leaves explain its specific epithet, millefolium, and common names like thousand-leaf. Slightly hairy stems with alternately arranged leaves arise from the rosettes and are capped with a wide, flat-topped cluster of tightly-packed flowers. The flower stalks can be less than one foot to more than three feet tall. The flowers are tiny, numerous, and consist of both ray and disc florets. Flowers are usually white but sometimes pink.

The plants produce several hundred to several thousand seeds each. The seeds are enclosed in tiny achene-like fruits which are spread by wind and gravity. Yarrow also spreads and reproduces rhizomatously. Its roots are shallow but fibrous and abundant, and they easily spread horizontally through the soil. If moisture, sun, and space are available, yarrow will quickly expand its territory. Its extensive root system and highly divided leaves, which help reduce transpiration rates, are partly what gives yarrow the ability to tolerate dry conditions.

john eastman

Illustration of Achillea millifolium by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman, which has an excellent entry about yarrow.

Common yarrow has significant wildlife value. While its pungent leaves are generally avoided by most herbivorous insects, its flowers are rich in nectar and attract bees, butterflies, beetles, flies, and even mosquitoes. Various insects feed on the flowers, and other insects visit yarrow to feed on the insects that are feeding on the plant. Despite its bitterness, the foliage is browsed by a variety of birds, small mammals, and deer. Some birds use the foliage in constructing their nests. Humans have also used yarrow as a medicinal herb for thousands of years to treat a seemingly endless list of ailments.

Yarrow’s popularity as an ornamental plant has resulted in the development of numerous cultivars that have a variety of flower colors including shades of pink, red, purple, yellow, and gold. While Achillea millefolium may be the most widely available species in its genus, there are several other drought-tolerant yarrows that are also commercially available and worth considering for a dry garden.

Achillea filipendulina, fern-leaf yarrow, is native to central and southwest Asia. It forms large, dense clusters of yellow-gold flowers on stalks that reach four feet high. Its leaves are similar in appearance to A. millefolium. Various cultivars are available, most of which have flowers that are varying shades of yellow or gold.

Achillea alpina, Siberian yarrow, only gets about half as tall as A. filipendulina. It occurs in Siberia, parts of Russia, China, Japan, and several other Asian countries. It also occurs in Canada. Unlike most other species in the genus, its leaves have a glossy appearance and are thick and somewhat leathery. Its flowers are white to pale violet. A. alpina is synonymous with A. sibirica, and ‘Love Parade’ is a popular cultivar derived from the subspecies camschatica.

Achillea x lewisii ‘King Edward,’ a hybrid between A. tomentosa (woolly yarrow) and A. clavennae (silvery yarrow), stays below six inches tall and forms a dense mat of soft leaves that have a dull silver-gray-green appearance. Its compact clusters of flowers are pale yellow to cream colored. Cultivars of A. tomentosa are also available.

Achillea ptarmica, a European native with bright white flowers, and A. ageritafolia, a native of Greece and Bulgaria that is low growing with silvery foliage and abundant white flowers can also be found in the horticulture trade along with a handful of others. Whatever your preferences are, there is a yarrow out there for you. Invasiveness and potential for escape into natural areas should always be a concern when selecting plants for your garden, especially when considering a plant as robust and successful as yarrow. That in mind, yarrow should make a great addition to nearly any drought-tolerant, wildlife friendly garden.

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