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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Summer of Weeds: Common Mullein

The fuzzy, gray-green leaves of common mullein are familiar and friendly enough that it can be hard to think of this plant as a weed. Verbascum thapsus is a member of the figwort family and is known by dozens of common names, including great mullein, Aaron’s rod, candlewick, velvet dock, blanket leaf, feltwort, and flannel plant. Its woolly leaves are warm and inviting and have a history of being used as added padding and insulation, tucked inside of clothing and shoes. In Wild Edible and Useful Plants of Idaho, Ray Vizgirdas writes, “the dried stalks are ideal for use as hand-drills to start fires; the flowers and leaves produce yellow dye; as a toilet paper substitute, the large fresh leaves are choice.”

Common mullein is a biennial that was introduced to eastern North America from Eurasia in the 1700’s as a medicinal plant and fish poison. By the late 1800’s it had reached the other side of the continent. In its first year it forms a rosette of woolly, oblong and/or lance-shaped leaves. After overwintering it produces a single flower stalk up to 6 feet tall. The woolly leaves continue along the flower stalk, gradually getting smaller in size until they reach the inflorescence, which is a long, dense, cylindrical spike. Sometimes the stalk branches out to form multiple inflorescences.

First year seedlings of common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

The inflorescence doesn’t flower all at once; instead, a handful of flowers open at a time starting at the bottom of the spike and moving up in an irregular pattern. The process takes several weeks to complete. The flowers are about an inch wide and sulfur yellow with five petals. They have both female and male sex parts but are protogynous, meaning the female organs mature before the male organs. This encourages cross-pollination by insects. However, if pollination isn’t successful by the end of the day, the flowers self-pollinate as the petals close. Each flower produces a capsule full of a few hundred seeds, and each plant can produce up to 180,000 seeds. The seeds can remain viable for over 100 years, sitting in the soil waiting for just the right moment to sprout.

Common mullein is a friend of bare, recently disturbed soil. It is rare to see this plant growing in thickly vegetated areas. As an early successional plant, its populations can be abundant immediately after a disturbance, but they do not persist once other plants have filled in the gaps. Instead they wait in seed form for the next disturbance that will give them the opportunity to rise again. They can be a pest in gardens and farm fields due to regular soil disturbance, and are often abundant in pastures and rangelands because livestock avoid eating their hairy leaves. Because of its ephemeral nature, it is generally not considered a major weed; however, it is on Colorado’s noxious weed list.

Several features make common mullein a great example of a drought-adapted plant. Its fleshy, branching taproot can reach deep into the soil to find moisture, the thick hairs on the leaves help reduce water loss via transpiration, and the way the leaves are arranged and angled on the stalk can help direct rain water down toward the roots.

Common mullein has an extensive history of ethnobotanical uses. Medicinally it has been used internally to treat coughs, colds, asthma, bronchitis, and kidney infections; and as a poultice to treat warts, slivers, and swelling. The dried flower stalks have been used to make torches, and the fuzzy leaves have been used as tinder for fire-making and wicks in lamps.

The hairy leafscape of common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

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From Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway

Here’s why opportunistic plants are so successful. When we clear land or carve a forest into fragments, we’re creating lots of open niches. All that sunny space and bare soil is just crying out to be colongized by light- and fertlity-absorbing green matter. Nature will quickly conjure up as much biomass as possible to capture the bounty, by seeding low-growing ‘weeds’ into a clearing or, better yet, sprouting a tall thicket stretching into all three dimensions to more effectively absorb light and develop deep roots. … When humans make a clearing, nature leaps in, working furiously to rebuild an intact humus and fungal layer, harvest energy, and reconstruct all the cycles and connections that have been severed. A thicket of fast-growing pioneer plants, packing a lot of biomass into a small space, is a very effective way to do this. … And [nature] doesn’t care if a nitrogen fixer or a soil-stabilizing plant arrived via continental drift or a bulldozer’s treads, as long as it can quickly stitch a functioning ecosystem together.