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.

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In Defense of Weeds – A Book Review

Weeds have been with us since the beginning of human civilization. We created them, really. We settled down, started growing food, urbanized, and in doing so we invited opportunistic plant species to join us – we created spaces for them to flourish and provided room for them to spread out and settle in. During our history together, our attitudes about weeds have swung dramatically from simply living with and accepting them, recognizing their usefulness, incorporating them into our religious myths and cultural traditions, to developing feelings of disgust and disdain and ultimately declaring outright war against them. In a sense, weeds are simultaneously as wild and as domestic as a thing can be. They remind us of ourselves perhaps, and so our feelings are mixed.

Considering our combined history and the fact that weeds have stuck with us all along, perhaps it’s time we give them a little respect. This seems to be the objective of Richard Mabey’s book, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants. In Mabey’s own words, “this book is a case for the defense, an argued suggestion that we look more dispassionately at these outlaw plants, at what they are, how they grow, and the reasons we regard them as trouble.” Additionally, we should recognize that we wrote the definition for weeds: “plants become weeds because people label them as such.” We introduce them, create conditions in which they can thrive, and then turn around and despise them for doing what they do best. “In a radical shift of perspective we now blame the weeds, rather than ourselves;” however, as Mabey ultimately concludes, “we get the weeds we deserve.”

weeds book

But before he arrives at that conclusion – and certainly Mabey has more to say than that pithy remark – Mabey takes readers on a remarkable journey. Starting with the origins of agriculture – and the origins of weeds – he recounts the story of how weeds followed civilization as it spread across the globe. He describes our diverse reactions to weeds, how we have dealt with them, and how they have infiltrated our myths, art, cultures, food, medicine, rituals, philosophies, and stories. Along the way, certain weeds are profiled using Mabey’s unique prose. Each weed has a story to tell – some more sordid than others.

Mabey is a British author, and so the book has a strong Anglocentric slant. But this seems fitting considering that the explorations and migrations of early Europeans are probably responsible for moving more plant species around than any other group in history – at least up until the modern era. Mabey describes the myriad ways these plants were introduced: “Some simply rode piggy-back on crop and garden plants…others were welcomed as food plants or glamorous ornaments, but escaped or were thrown out and became weeds as a consequence of unforeseen bad behavior.” The seeds of many species hitched rides with numerous agricultural and industrial products, while others attached themselves to clothing, shoes, and animal fur. Everywhere humans traveled, weeds followed.

Weeds are one of the great legacies Europeans brought with them as they settled the American continent. A veritable wave of new plant species entered the Americas as the Europeans trickled in, some were purposeful introductions and some accidental. Ever the opportunists, Europe’s weeds traversed across the continent as settlers tilled and altered the land. Mabey details the introduction of “invasive European weeds” to the western United States, claiming that “by the twentieth century two-thirds of the vegetation of the western grasslands was composed of introduced species, mostly European.

One of these European species in particular has been wholeheartedly embraced by American culture; it was even given an American name. Kentucky bluegrass, Poa pratensis, “is a common, widespread but unexceptional species of grassy places in Europe…but in uncontested new grazing lands of North America it could color whole sweeps of grassland.” It has since become a preferred turfgrass species, and it’s innate ability to thrive here makes it partly responsible for Americans’ obsession with the perfect lawn. Oddly, other European invaders infiltrating a pristine, green lawn are unwelcome and derided as “weeds.” In actuality, considering its relentless, expansive, and spreading nature and its reliance on humans to perpetuate its behavior, turfgrass is much more fit for the label “weed” than any other species that invades it. As Mabey asserts, “a lawn dictates its own standards…the demands made by its singular, unblemished identity, its mute insistence that if you do not help it to continue along the velvet path you have established for it, you are guilty of a kind of betrayal.”

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) also known as smooth meadow-grass - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), also known as smooth meadow-grass – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Reading along it becomes clear that Mabey is infatuated with weeds. You can see it in sentences like, “the outlandish enterprise of weeds – such sharp and fast indices of change – can truly lift your heart.” This doesn’t mean that in his own garden he doesn’t “hoick them up when they get in [his] way.” It just means that his “capricious assault” is “tinged with respect and often deflected by a romantic mood.” Does Mabey wish his readers to swoon the way he does over these enterprising and opportunistic aliens? Perhaps. More than that he seems to want to instill an awe and admiration for what they can do. In many cases they serve important ecological functions, including being a sort of “first responder” after a disturbance due to their fast acting and ephemeral nature. In this way, weeds “give something back” by “holding the bruised parts of the planet from falling apart.” They also “insinuate the idea of wild nature into places otherwise quite shorn of it,” and so despite their dependence on human activities, they could be considered “the very essence of wildness.”

For all the love Mabey has for weeds, he remains convinced that some absolutely need to be kept in check. He calls out Japanese knotweed specifically – an “invader with which a truly serious reckoning has to be made.” In speaking of naturalized plant species – introduced species that propagate themselves and “spread without deliberate human assistance” – he makes the comparison to humans becoming naturalized citizens in countries where they were not born. In this sense he argues for more acceptance of such species, while simultaneously warning that “there are invasive species that ought never to get their naturalization papers.”

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is listed as one the 100 Worst Invasive Species - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is listed as one the 100 Worst Invasive Species – photo credit: wikimedia commons

This is an engrossing read, and regardless of how you feel about weeds going in, Mabey will – if nothing else – instill in you a sort of reverence for them. You may still want to reach for the hoe or the herbicide at the sight of them – and you may be justified in doing that – but perhaps you’ll do so with a little more understanding. After all, humans and weeds are kindred species.

As a type they are mobile, prolific, genetically diverse. They are unfussy about where they live, adapt quickly to environmental stress, use multiple strategies for getting their own way. It’s curious that it took so long to realize that the species they most resemble is us.

Listen to Mabey talk about his book and his interest in weeds on these past episodes of Science Friday and All Things Considered.

Ethnobotany: White Man’s Foot, part two

Earlier this year, as part of the ethnobotany series, I wrote about plantains (Plantago spp.), of which at least one species is commonly referred to as white man’s foot (or some version of that). Since writing that post, I happened upon a couple of other sources that had interesting and informative things to say about plantains. Rather than go back and update the original post, I decided to make a part two. Hopefully, you find this as interesting as I do. If nothing else, the sources themselves are worth checking out for the additional, fascinating information they contain about all sorts of plants.

plantago_boise capitol building

From The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

Concerning their cosmopolitan nature: “Although both plantains [P. major and P. lanceolata] are Eurasian natives, they have long been thoroughly naturalized global residents; the designation ‘alien’ applies to them in the same sense that all white and black Americans are alien residents.”

In which I learned a new term: “Both species are anthropophilic (associate with humans); they frequent roadsides, parking areas, driveways, and vacant lots, occurring almost everywhere in disturbed ground. Where one species grows, the other can often be found nearby.”

Medicinal and culinary uses according to Eastman: “Plantains have versatile curative as well as culinary properties; nobody need go hungry or untreated for sores where plantains grow. These plants contain an abundance of beta carotene, calcium, potassium, and ascorbic acid. Cure-all claims for common plantain’s beneficial medical uses include a leaf tea for coughs, diarrhea, dysentery, lung and stomach disorders, and the root tea as a mouthwash for toothache. … Their most frequent and demonstrably effective use as a modern herb remedy, however, is as a leaf poultice for insect bites and stings plus other skin irritations. The leaf’s antimicrobial properties reduce inflammation, and its astringent chemistry relieves itching, swelling, and soreness.”

Even the seeds are “therapeutic”: “The gelatinous mucilage surrounding seeds can be readily separated, has been used as a substitute for linseed oil. Its widest usage is in laxative products for providing bulk and soluble fiber called psyllium, mainly derived from the plantain species P. ovata and leafy-stemmed plantain (P. psyllium), both Mediterranean natives.”

Plantain’s “cure-all reputation continues” today: Claims range from a homeopathic cancer remedy to a stop-smoking aid, “supposedly causing tobacco aversion.”

Claims of the healing properties of plantains abound in literature: “John the Baptist, in the lore of the saints, used it as a healing herb; Anglo Saxon gardeners called it the ‘mother of herbs.’ Plantain is ‘in the command of Venus and cures the head by antipathy to Mars,’ according to 17th century English herbalist-astrologist Nicholas Culpeper. Plantains also bear frequent mention in the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare.”

The worst thing plantains have to offer according to Eastman: “the airborne pollen they shed in large amounts, contributing to many hay fever allergies.”

Illustration by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

Illustration by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

From Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey

Mabey’s too-good-to-paraphrase overview of plantain: “Plantain, ‘the mother or worts,’ is present in almost all the early prescriptions of magical herbs, back as far as the earliest Celtic fire ceremonies. It isn’t clear why such a drab plant – a plain rosette of grey-green leaves topped by a flower spike like a rat’s-tail – should have had pre-eminent status. But its weediness, in the sense of its willingness to tolerate human company, may have had a lot to do with it. The Anglo-Saxon names ‘Waybroad’ or ‘Waybread’ simply mean ‘a broad-leaved herb which grows by the wayside.’ This is plantain’s defining habit and habitat. It thrives on roadways, field-paths, church steps. In the most literal sense it dogs human footsteps. Its tough, elastic leaves, growing flush with the ground, are resilient to treading. You can walk on them, scuff them, even drive over them, and they go on living. They seem to actively prosper from stamping, as more delicate plants around them are crushed. The principles of sympathetic magic, therefore, indicated that plantain would be effective for crushing and tearing injuries. (And so it is, to a certain extent. The leaves contain a high proportion of tannins, which help to close wounds and halt bleeding.)”

On the inclusion of plantains in Midsummer’s Eve rituals: “On Midsummer’s Eve, great bonfires were lit in the countryside, and bundles of wild herbs thrown on them. Most of the plants were agricultural weeds, including St. John’s-wort, corn marigold, corn poppy, mayweed, mugwort, ragwort, plantain, and vervain.”

More about Midsummer’s Eve and the “future-foretelling powers” of this “divination herb, stretching sight into the future”: “On Midsummer’s Eve in Berwickshire, the flowering stems were employed by young women in a charm which would predict whether they would fall in love. It was a delicate, almost erotic process in which the sexual organs of the plantain were used as symbolic indicators. Two of the ‘rat’s-tail’ flowering spikes were picked, and any visible purple anthers removed. The two spikes were wrapped in a dock leaf and placed under a stone. If, by the next day, more anthers had risen erect from the flowering spikes, loves was imminent.”

"Greater - or 'ratstail' - plantain had by this time been nicknamed 'Englishman's foot' by the Native Americans, who had witnessed its prodigious advance in the white man's wake." - Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unwanted Plants

“Greater – or ‘ratstail’ – plantain had by this time been nicknamed ‘Englishman’s foot’ by the Native Americans, who had witnessed its prodigious advance in the white man’s wake.” – Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unwanted Plants

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