Managing Spontaneous Urban Plants for Improved Aesthetics

As discussed last week, our wild, urban flora is a cosmopolitan mixture of plants that were either native to the area before it was developed, introduced from all corners of the world on purpose or by accident, or brought in by migrating wildlife. These are plants capable of establishing and sustaining themselves outside of human cultivation and management, and are found in abundance beyond the borders of our tidy gardens and manicured landscapes. They vegetate sectors of our city that have been abandoned, overlooked, or routinely neglected. Given enough time – and prolonged lack of intervention – such vegetation will proceed along the process of ecological succession in the same way that plant communities in natural areas do. And just like other plant communities within their respective ecosystems, these wild, urban plant communities provide a suite of ecological services vital to the health of our urban ecosystems.

Peter Del Tredici writes in Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, “landscapes that include spontaneous vegetation fit the technical definition of sustainable in the sense that they are adapted to the site, require minimal maintenance, and are ecologically functional.” In an interview with Scenario Journal, Del Tredici goes on to define sustainability as “the value of the services provided by the ecosystem divided by the cost required to maintain that ecosystem.” Spontaneous urban landscapes offer “substantial ecological services at relatively low cost, or in some cases no cost,” and thus, by Del Tredici’s definition, they are “highly sustainable.”

There is one unfortunate downside – “weedy” landscapes like this are, by popular opinion, thoroughly unattractive and a sign of urban decay. This belief is held in spite of the fact that many of the plants found therein would be cherished or admired in other settings. Among deteriorating infrastructure, litter, and less attractive plants, some of our favorite plants are rendered guilty by association.

Despite their ecological benefits, abandoned areas vegetated with wild, urban plants are not favored by the public. So, to appease our aesthetic standards, sites like this can be enhanced through minimal intervention to be more attractive while retaining their ecological functions. In a paper published in a 2006 issue of Journal of Landscape Architecture, Norbert Kühn asserts that “to use spontaneous vegetation for ornamental purposes, a kind of enhancement or design work is necessary.” Species can be added and removed, and simple, infrequent maintenance measures can be implemented. Examples include extending the flowering season with spring flowering bulbs and mowing the area once or twice annually to maintain and improve the composition of the stand.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) – one of the plants that Norbert Kühn included in his study as a candidate for improving the aesthetics of spontaneous, urban plant communities.

Favoring attractive weeds over less attractive ones and using minimal maintenance to improve aesthetics and function are the principles behind Del Tredici’s “cosmopolitan urban meadow.” In his book, he lists some criteria for plants that would be suitable for “this novel landscape form,” including: erosion control (long-lived; vegetatively spreading), stress tolerance (full sun; drought; compacted and polluted soil), aesthetic value (ornamental characteristics; not “weedy” looking), wildlife friendly (attractive to pollinators; edible seeds), and commercially available.

In an article in Harvard Design Magazine, Del Tredici and Michael Luegering describe the cosmopolitan urban meadow as “a stable assemblage of stress-tolerant, low-maintenance herbaceous perennial plants that are preadapted to harsh urban conditions and that will provide an attractive vegetation cover on vacant land.” Whether it is a “long-term landscape feature” or a placeholder until future development, it will have “the capacity to increase the aesthetic and ecological value of vacant land without the investment of large sums of money typically required for the installation and maintenance of traditional managed landscapes.”

Abandoned or undeveloped, urban lots like this one are ideal sites for “cosmopolitan urban meadows.”

In an urban context, some plant species are particularly noxious and may need to be removed from urban meadows, such as ragweed (Ambrosia spp.) for its allergens and poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) for its Urushiol-induced contact dermatitis. Species with a history of being invasive should also be avoided and contained, particularly in sites that are adjacent to or within a short distance from natural areas. Despite this and other minor concerns, spontaneous vegetation has great potential. In Kühn’s words it is “authentic” and a “reminder of the history of the site,” it is part of “the natural dynamic” with potential to bring us “closer to nature,” and finally, “it can be maintained for a long time [with] less care and low costs.”

Finding beauty in these urban, wild landscapes might even cause a shift in what we find appropriate for cultivated landscapes. In her book, Grow Curious, Gayla Trail reminds us that, despite all of our efforts, wildness persists even in our most earnest attempts to subdue it. Perhaps we should embrace it:

‘Wild’ and ‘cultivated’ are social constructs that we place in opposition to each other, when in reality there is a knotty labyrinth between them. We subjugate our cities and our gardens with chemicals and artifice because we are unable to see that wild and cultivated can be entwined, can be all at once tended, lyrical, surprising, domesticated, irrational, functional, and free.

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See Also: Arnold Arboretum’s Cosmopolitan Meadow at Weld Hill

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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.