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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Out Now! Dispersal Stories #1

Before I started this blog, I had spent 16 years publishing zines at a steady clip and sending them to all corners of the world through the mail. I had never really meant to abandon zines altogether, and in some ways, putting all my writing efforts into a blog felt a little like a betrayal. My intention had always been to one day put together another zine. Now, six and a half years later, I’m happy to report that day has come.

Rather than bring an old zine back from the grave, I decided to make a new zine. Thus, Dispersal Stories #1. It’s quite a bit different from zines I’ve made in the past, which were generally more personal and, I guess, ranty. In fact, Dispersal Stories is very much like this blog, largely because it is mostly made up of writing that originally appeared here, but also because its main focus (for now) is plants. What sets it apart is that, unlike this blog, it zeroes in on a specific aspect of plants. As the title suggests, it’s all about dispersal. For much of their life, plants are essentially sessile. Once they are rooted in place, they rarely go anywhere else. But as seeds, spores, or some other sort of propagule they are actually able to move around quite a bit. The world is their oyster. What’s happening during this period of their lives is the focus of Dispersal Stories.

But why do a zine about this? Apart from just wanting to do another zine after all these years, my hope is that Dispersal Stories will be the start of a much more ambitious project. A book perhaps. My interest in dispersal was born out of my interest in weeds, and there is so much that I would like to learn and share about both of these subjects – so much so that the blog just doesn’t really cut it. So, I’m expanding the Awkward Botany empire. First a zine, then a book, then … who knows? I’m an oyster! (Or something like that.)

Dispersal Stories #1 is available in our etsy shop, or you can contact me here and we can work something out. While you’re at it, check out our new sticker.

If you love looking at plants and learning their names, then you probably enjoy doing it any chance you get. Usually it’s an activity you do while walking, but who says you can’t botanize while riding a bike? This sticker is inspired by a friend who once said that while mountain biking you get to “see three times as many flowers in half the time!” Stick it on your bike or in some other prominent location to remind yourself and others that we can botanize anytime anywhere.

Your purchase of one or both of these items helps support what we do. You can also support us by buying us a ko-fi or putting money in our donorbox. Sharing these posts also helps us out. If you get a copy of the zine, let us know what you think by sending us an email, a message on twitter or facebook, or by leaving a comment below. As always, thanks for reading.

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Why Awkward? Why Botany? Why Now?

Have you ever wondered why this blog is called Awkward Botany? I have. Naming things can be difficult, and there are days that I question whether Awkward Botany was the right choice and if instead another name would have been more appropriate. Most days I am happy with the name, but I also perceive that there might be questions about where it came from and what it means. Or maybe no one cares? Either way, I figured I would start the year off by putting this out there. It may or may not be of interest to anyone, but so be it. Rest assured that regular programming will resume shortly.

Why Awkward?

Awkward is a word that best describes my general state of being. I am uncomfortable in virtually all social situations. The degree to which discomfort manifests itself varies depending on the circumstances, but it is always there. Anxious is another fitting word to describe me. On the surface I may appear calm and collected, but my mind is constantly racing. It’s hard to relax.

I am a high level introvert, and there was a time when this really bothered me. I didn’t like feeling so shy, nervous, and bumbling. I didn’t like that my voice got shaky every time I talked in front of a group of two or more people (no matter how well I knew them). I wanted to be able to make a phone call or start up a conversation without first having to rehearse what I was going to say a dozen times in my head. I envied people who could socialize so freely and who could dance like no one was watching even when plenty of people were. I saw my shell as a curse and thought I was defective because of it.

These feelings haven’t gone away, but they have waned. In my adult years I have grown to accept, even embrace, my awkwardness and introversion. I’m not particularly thrilled about being this way, but I find ways to celebrate it. Claiming the awkward title is one way that I do that. It is nothing to be ashamed of, despite at times feeling shamed for it. Just acknowledging that fact makes tiptoeing out of my comfort zone that much easier.

Awkward can also mean amateurish or inexpert. I am a degree holding and professional horticulturist and I have taken a number of graduate level plant science courses, but I certainly don’t claim to be an expert botanist. I am passionate about botany, and I love to study and explore it, but I am not on the same level as professional botanists. I could be someday, but that isn’t really the point. I would rather illuminate the amateur aspect, the part an enthusiast can play, the role of the citizen scientist…or citizen botanist in this case. The point being that anyone can join in the conversation regardless of their credentials; all that is required is passion, enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn (and to admit when you’re wrong). That is why I have settled on the tagline, “citizen botany for the phytocurious.” Perhaps this approach will inspire other awkward entities to emerge, like awkward history, awkward herpetology, awkward astronomy, awkward linguistics… Just a thought.

Why Botany?

I am unapologetically obsessed with plants. It is not something I fully realized about myself until I was in my twenties; still it feels like it must be in my DNA. I spend significant portions of each day thinking about plants, reading about plants, writing about plants, and working with plants. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. If I am this taken by plants, then why not botany?

But why should people care about plants? Those who already find themselves fascinated by them don’t really need an answer to this question, and the space it would take to enumerate the myriad reasons why plants matter is more than I want to take up in a single post. Suffice it to say that if plants were not around, we would not be around. And if the vital functions of plants don’t convince you to care, just imagine a world without green things and ask yourself if that’s a world you’d want to live in. Dr. Chris Martine, a professor of botany at Bucknell University, defends botany famously in an article he wrote for the Huffington Post last summer.

Why Now?

This is a nebulous question, and I could take it in several directions. To simplify things I will address this line of inquiry: why am I blogging now, rather than expressing myself using some other medium (or none at all)?

When I was in the 7th grade, I discovered that I like to write. It feels wired into my DNA the same way my interest in plants does. I have been writing regularly ever since. At first it was just poetry, short stories, and song lyrics. Then when I was in my teenage years, I discovered punk rock and along with that fanzines, or zines for short. I had been envisioning something similar to zines before I knew about them, so once I came across them, I knew that I had to make one. Over the course of about 17 years, I produced at least 66 zines under 9 different titles. My two main titles were Elephant Mess and The Juniper. While I haven’t completely given up on zine writing, I have been on hiatus for about two years now.

juniper 16_edit 2

My hiatus is largely due to the expense of doing zines (photocopies, postage, office supplies, etc.) and the markedly reduced interest in them (a PO Box full of mail used to be a fairly common sight for me; now it never happens). So I blog instead. I hesitate to compare blogs to zines, though. For a seasoned zinester like me, that feels blasphemous. But there are clearly some similarities, and now that the internet has become nearly ubiquitous, for someone who likes to write and publish content regularly, blogs seem like the way to go.

But I don’t see this blog as the end goal either. I love to write, and I have long wanted to be a writer. Maintaining a blog doesn’t necessarily mean I’m on the road to a successful writing career, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. For now, Awkward Botany is where I hang my hat, and I am more than happy to call it home.