Weeds of Boise: Hellstrip on Jefferson Street

Growing plants in urban areas comes with a variety of challenges. Soil conditions aren’t always ideal; shade thrown by buildings and other structures can be difficult to work around; paved surfaces lead to compaction and, among other things, can increase temperatures in the immediate area; and in locations where water is limited, keeping plants hydrated is a constant concern. One location that tends to be especially difficult for gardeners is the hellstrip – the section of ground between a roadway and a sidewalk. Much can be said about gardening in hellstrips, so much that there is even a book about it called Hellstrip Gardening by Evelyn Hadden, which I spent several posts reviewing a few years back.

The difficulty of maintaining a hellstrip (and perhaps questions about who is responsible for maintaining it in the first place) can result in it being a piece of property frequently subject to neglect. In urban areas, neglected land is the perfect place for weeds to take up residence. The conditions in a hellstrip being what they are – hot, dry, frequently trampled, and often polluted – also gives weeds a chance to show what they can do. It’s a wonder that any plant can survive in such conditions, but the wild flora of our cities consists of some pretty tough plants, and a hellstrip is an excellent location to familiarize yourself with some of these plants.

On a walk with Kōura, I came across a weedy hellstrip on Jefferson Street in downtown Boise. Many of the classic hellstrip challenges are present there – it’s surrounded by paved surfaces, there is lots of foot traffic in the area, parking is permitted on the roadside, urban infrastructure (street signs, parking meters, stoplights) is present within the strip. It’s clear that at one point the area was being maintained as irrigation is installed and there are remnants of turfgrass. Three honey locusts were also planted in the strip, one of which has clearly died. Now that maintenance seems to have ceased, weeds have become the dominant flora in this hellstrip. What follows are a few photos and a list of the weeds I’ve identified so far. Like all posts in the Weeds of Boise series, this list may be updated as I continue to check back in on this location.

shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) and prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola)
dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
salsify (Tragopogon dubius)
seed head of salsify
knotweed (Poylgonum sp.)
prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola)
mallow (Malva neglecta)
orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata)
  • Bromus tectorum (cheatgrass)
  • Capsella bursa-pastoris (shepherd’s purse)
  • Dactylis glomerata (orchard grass)
  • Epilobium brachycarpum (tall willowherb)
  • Lactuca serriola (prickly lettuce)
  • Malva neglecta (dwarf mallow)
  • Polygonum sp. (knotweed)
  • Salsola sp. (Russian thistle)
  • Taraxacum officinale (dandelion)
  • Tragopogon dubius (salsify)
  • Trifolium repens (white clover)
  • Vulpia myuros (rattail fescue)

Are there unkept hellstrips in your neighborhood? If so, what weeds have you seen taking up residence there?

Flowers Strips Bring All the Pollinators to the Yard

The longer I garden the more I gravitate towards creating habitats for creatures that rely on plants for survival. I’ve always been more interested in functional gardens rather than gardens that are simply “plants as furniture” (as Sierra likes to say) – a manicured, weed-free lawn, a few shrubs shaped into gumdrops, sterile flowers for color – and that interest has grown into a way of life. A garden should be more than just something nice to look at, and for those of us who’ve embraced the “messy ecosystems” approach, what’s considered “nice to look at” has shifted dramatically.

Thankfully, I’m not alone in this thinking. Gardens focused on pollinators, birds, habitats, native plants, etc. seem to be gaining in popularity. The question is, is it making a difference? At least one study, referred to below, seems to suggest that it is. And as more gardens like these are planted and more studies like this are done, perhaps we will get a clearer picture of their impact.

In 2017, eight 1000 square meter flower strips were planted in Munich, Germany. The sites had previously been lawn or “roadside greenery,” according to the report published in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research (2020). An additional flower strip, planted in 2015, was included in the study. Over the next year, an inventory of the number of bee species found in these nine flower strips was taken and compared both to the number of bee species that had been recorded in Munich since 1795 (324 species) and the number of bee species recorded in the 20 years prior to the planting of the flower strips (232 species).

In just a year’s time, these newly planted flower strips quickly attracted a surprising number of bees. The researchers identified 68 different species (which is 21% and 29% of the two categories of previously recorded species). As they had expected, most of the bees they identified were common, non-threatened, generalist species; however, they were surprised to also find several species that specialize on pollen from specific groups of plants. Future studies are needed to determine whether or not such flower strips help increase the populations of pollinators in the city, but it seems clear that they are a simple way to increase the amount of food for pollinators, if nothing else.

But perhaps these results shouldn’t be that surprising. Urban areas are not necessarily the biodiversity wastelands that the term “concrete jungle” seems to imply. Though fragmented and not always ideal, plenty of wildlife habitat can be found within a city. In his book, Pollinators and Pollination, Jeff Ollerton lists a number of studies that have been carried out in cities across the world documenting an impressive number of pollinating insects living within their borders [see this report in Conservation Biology (2017), for example]. As Ollerton writes, these studies “show that urbanization does not mean the total loss of pollinator diversity, and may in fact enhance it.” After all, “many of us city dwellers see every day, nature finds a home, a habitat, a place to thrive, wherever it will.”

In a chapter entitled, “The Significance of Gardens,” Ollerton continues to explore the ways in which cities can host a wide variety of flower visiting insects and birds. “Planted patches” don’t necessarily need to be managed as pollinator gardens in order to provide resources for these creatures, nor do all of the plants need to be native to the region to be effective. Rather, diversity in flower structure and timing seems to be key; “floral diversity always correlates with pollinator diversity regardless of the origin of the plants,” Ollerton writes in reference to pollination studies performed in British cities. The more “planted patches,” the better, as “a large and continuous floral display in gardens is the only way to maximize pollinator abundance and diversity.” Add to that, “if you allow some areas to become unmanaged, provide other suitable nesting sites or areas for food plants, and other resources that they need, a thriving oasis for pollinators can be created in any plot.”

ground nesting bee emerging from burrow

Bees and other pollinating insects are finding ways to live within our cities. There is no need to go to the lengths that I like to go in order to help them out. Simply adding a few more flowering plants to your yard, balcony, or patio can do the trick. Eliminating or limiting the use of pesticides and creating spaces for nesting sites are among other things you can do. Learning about specific pollinators and their needs doesn’t hurt either. The continued existence of these creatures is critical to life on earth, and this is one important issue where even simple actions can make a real difference.


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Weeds of Boise: Vacant Lot on West Kootenai Street

Every urban area is bound to have its share of vacant lots. These are sites that for whatever reason have been left undeveloped or were at one point developed but whose structures have since been removed. The maintenance on these lots can vary depending on who has ownership of them. Some are regularly mowed and/or treated with herbicide, while others go untouched for long periods of time. Even when there is some weed management occurring, vacant lots are locations where the urban wild flora dominates. Typically no one is coming in and removing weeds in an effort to cultivate something else, and so weeds run the show.

As with any piece of land populated by a diverse suite of wild plants, vacant lots are dynamic ecosystems, which you can read all about in the book Natural History of Vacant Lots by Matthew Vessel and Herbert Wong. The impact of humans can be seen in pretty much any ecosystem, but there are few places where that impact is more apparent than in a vacant lot. In lots located in bustling urban centers, human activity is constant. As Vessel and Wong write, “numerous ecosystem interactions are affected when humans intervene by spraying herbicides or insecticides, by trampling, by physically altering the area, or by depositing garbage and waste products.” These activities “can abruptly alter the availability and types of small habitats; this will in turn affect animal as well as plant diversity and population dynamics.” The dynamic nature of these sites is a reason why vacant lots are excellent places to familiarize yourself with the wild urban flora.

Kōura relaxing in a vacant lot

On our morning walks, Kōura and I have been visiting a small vacant lot on West Kootenai Street. We have watched as early spring weeds have come and gone, summer weeds have sprouted and taken off, perennial weeds have woken up for the year, and grass (much of which appears to have been intentionally planted) has grown tall and then been mowed with some regularity. Someone besides us is looking after this vacant lot, and it’s interesting to see how the plant community is responding. As Vessel and Wong note, “attempts to control weedy plants by mowing, cultivating, or spraying often initiate the beginning of a new cycle of growth.” For plants that are adapted to regular disturbance, measly attempts by humans to keep them in check are only minor setbacks in their path to ultimate dominance.

What follows are a few photos of some of the plants we’ve seen at the vacant lot on Kootenai Street, as well as an inventory of what can be found there. This list is not exhaustive and, as with other Weeds of Boise posts, will continue to be updated as I identify more species at this location.

dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum)
henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)
wild barley (Hordeum murinum) backed by cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum)
narrowleaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and broadleaf plantain (Plantago major)
perrennial sweet pea (Lathyrus latifolius) surrounded by redstem filaree (Erodium cicutarium)
whitetop (Lepidium sp.)
white clover (Trifolium repens)
  • Bromus tectorum (cheatgrass)
  • Capsella bursa-pastoris (shepherd’s purse)
  • Ceratocephala testiculata (bur buttercup)
  • Descurainia sophia (flixweed)
  • Draba verna (spring draba)
  • Erodium cicutarium (redstem filaree)
  • Geum urbanum (wood avens)
  • Holosteum umbellatum (jagged chickweed)
  • Hordeum murinum (wild barley)
  • Lactuca serriola (prickly lettuce)
  • Lamium amplexicaule (henbit)
  • Lathyrus latifolius (perennial sweet pea)
  • Lepidium sp. (whitetop)
  • Malva neglecta (dwarf mallow)
  • Muscari armeniacum (grape hyacinth)
  • Plantago lanceolata (narrowleaf plantain)
  • Plantago major (broadleaf plantain)
  • Poa bulbosa (bulbous bluegrass)
  • Poa pratensis (Kentucky bluegrass)
  • Rumex crispus (curly dock)
  • Taraxacum officinale (dandelion)
  • Tragopogon dubius (salsify)
  • Trifolium repens (white clover)
  • Veronica sp. (speedwell)

If you live in an urban area, chances are good there is a vacant lot near you. What have you found growing in your neighborhood vacant lot? Feel free to share in the comment section below.

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.”

See Also: