Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation & Changed The Way We Think About Nature

Fiona Sanderson | Tuesday, 8th February 2011
Fiona Sanderson finds Richard Mabey's take on the relationship between humans and plants a refreshing reminder of our dependence on ecological systems
Author: Richard Mabey
Publisher: Profile Books
Publication year: 2010
RRP: £15.99

Equal parts travellers' tales, scientific exposition and autobiography, this exceptional book begins with Mabey's lunchbreak forays into the wastelands of London, during the sixties. Here he begins to notice the qualities of plants that live on the edge, an interest that later develops into botanical trips to landfill sites, finding all kinds of cosmopolitan interlopers.

His ability to find treasures in those places tells you a lot, I suspect, about the man, a quality that's also to be found in his writing, which presents the scrubby end of the plant kingdom with such fresh detail.

There's poetry too, and full page illustrated scenes make this feel a very well rounded book.

Weeds: the 'adaptive generalists'

The science of how weeds have become such successful 'adaptive generalists' is hugely interesting. Mabey goes beyond the usual biological detail, and is fascinating on the longevity of seed dormancy, for example, or the unsuspecting transportation of weed seed in Victorian trouser turn-ups.

I found the histories of weeds that have made global journeys as interesting and far reaching as any of those made by human pioneers. Take 'pheasant's eye', brought from the Mediterranean in Neolithic seed corn stores. Or 'alexanders', introduced by the Romans, where it has huddled by the south coast for millennia, but recently has begun to migrate northwards (what might we learn from this?).

But this book is not a romantic celebration of these 'vagabonds'; 'we have to keep them in check if we are to survive as a species', says Mabey; 'they are the prototypes of most of the plants that keep us alive. What we ignore more perilously is the fact that many of them may be holding the bruised parts of the planet together'.

Man and weed

The complex relationship between humans and wild plants gets sophisticated treatment here. Far from the cliche that a weed is a plant in the wrong place, Mabey notes Ruskin's astute observation that weeds have an 'innate disposition to get into the wrong place', on the way to examining the idea that our very presence and behaviour toward wild plants may enable weeds to congregate where they do; every human action to eradicate them making them more robust, more adaptable.

Reading this book, which was a real pleasure, also gave me a different sense of my own place on the earth; that humans too, are as much 'adaptive generalists' as the plants to which we feel such ambivalence.