Review of ‘Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants’ by Richard Mabey

What are weeds? They’re those annoying spiky things which are impossible to shift from your lawn because they just keep on coming back. They’re foreign species, escaping from gardens and invading the countryside. They’re aggressive and tough, breaking through concrete, choking the waterways, eager to reclaim our ruined cities after the zombie apocalypse. What can possibly be said about weeds, except that they are evil?

Enter the famous nature writer, Richard Mabey. His book, Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants (Profile, 2010) is a celebration and defence of weeds. He points out that weeds are plants which spring up in the wrong place or at the wrong time. By this definition, most plants are actually weeds. This isn’t a science book, or an identification guide. It’s a very readable and interesting account of humanity’s relationship with wild plants through literature, art, folklore and history. Each chapter is headed with an elegant black and white illustration of plants in the wild, by Clare Roberts.

The book is also a memoir of Mabey’s encounters with weeds (and literally, in one case, weed – when a cannabis plant appeared in his garden, a legacy of hemp production from earlier times). He roams the countryside and urban spaces alike, fascinated to see what’s taken root. Giant hogweed, fat-hen, mandrake, houseleek, Duke of Argyll’s teaplant? Japanese knotweed? That’s the scariest weed I can think of – I’ve seen someone’s garden actually closed off with a warning sign because of knotweed – but Mabey admires it all the same. He doesn’t seem like the type to use weedkiller. He thinks that the less we understand weeds, the more we’ll end up fighting them… and losing. Weeds are winners. That’s why they survive.

Pansies have been appearing in the cracks on my patio. I thought this was very random and assumed they were left over from a flowerbed beneath the stone, but now I know – they’re weeds. I used to think of pansies as sweet little plants from the garden centre.

They’re wild. They’re survivors.

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