A world of weeds


Here's my take on Weeds (on Kirkus last week). If you missed Amy's Washington Post review of this book, check here. And go here for Susan's Kirkus post on the digital revolution at Timber and more.

Some delightful weeds I've been hosting behind the garage.

Weedscover How you define weeds is intrinsically connected to how you define gardening. For someone whose garden consists of little more than a front lawn, a back lawn, and maybe a shrubbery surrounding the house, a weed could be anything higher than grass level that does not flower. For example, a perennial garden I helped install on behalf of my neighborhood association consisted of—among other plants—epimedium, brunnera, daylilies (hemerocallis), Russian sage (perovskia), and flowering bulbs. The owner of the empty lot that contained our garden saw it at a time when none of these were in flower and immediately sent for a bulldozer to have all the raised beds torn down. His explanation? “It looked like weeds.”

I have also been with non-gardeners on garden tours who thought a lot of what we were praising “looked like weeds.” In the City of Buffalo, homeowners can be cited by neighbors for “high weeds” that may in fact be perennials, sunflowers, shrubs, or tomato plants. Whether a fine is actually levied depends on what definition of weeds the city inspector uses.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are truly horrific situations like the kudzu that now covers 2 million acres of forest land in the American South, the Japanese knotweed that forms immense, smothering thickets in the UK, and the prickly pear cactus that is considered the most widespread weed on earth, and once covered 25 million acres in Australia. I recently read about all these scary weed infestations and much more in Richard Mabey’s delightful new natural history title, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants.

I’ve been dipping into this book much in the same way I weed my garden—browsing around, noticing certain things, and choosing to ignore others.  It seems to me that Mabey is sharing his fascination with how weeds survive, thrive, and revive throughout the world rather than defending them. It is a fascination with which I have great empathy. One of my favorite and most optimistic gardening strategies consists of allowing strange plants to grow to maturity in the hopes that they might be desirable additions to the garden, rather than—as they inevitably become—lanky invaders with miniscule, unattractive flowers and spiny foliage.

Like me, Mabey eschews the “take no prisoners” attitude that wants to eradicate alien invaders in the landscape. He points to plants like the horse-chestnut and snowdrop; both are cherished to nearly fanatical degrees in the UK., and both are aliens from other continents (though the snowdrop was introduced centuries ago).  Mabey also notes that “there are invasive species which ought never to get their naturalization papers,” but the purpose of his book is not to discuss weed control. Rather, he reveals fascinating moments in the social history of weeds, and our relationship with them.

It was by no means surprising that the British naturalist looks to Buffalo, NY for one of the most famous disagreements over what makes a weed.  As Michael Pollan did before him in Second Nature, Mabey retells the story of Stephen Kenney, a University at Buffalo grad student who attempted to grow a wildflower garden in his front yard during the 1980s. After enduring a trial, an appeal, gunshots, an attempt by neighbors to infest the garden with snakes, and, finally, the illegal mowing of his front yard, Kenney moved to Pennsylvania, where he finished his doctorate on Thoreau. (He now teaches at a small college in northern New York, and owns 10 acres where he grows vegetables and raises chickens and ducks.)

The most poignant intersection of weeds and history is told in Mabey’s chapter on the role of poppies during WWI.  In the wake of the bloody devastation wrought upon the farmlands of northern France, wildflowers flourished, most notoriously the poppy. As writer William Orpen said in 1919:  “Red poppies … stretched for miles and miles. … It was like an enchanted land, but in the place of faeries, there were thousands of little white crosses, marked Unknown British Soldier.”

Mabey does not ask us to grow or even tolerate such plants as burdock, nightshade, nettles, thistles, or docks—but his book is an important opportunity to understand how and why we share their world.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. I love the pokeberry in the picture. Isn’t it such a beautiful plant — burgundy stems and purple berries and spreading vase shape. I always used to let a few grow to maturity in my old larger garden, but I have to admit that they re-seed like crazy and will will try to take over. I wish someone would develop a less-prolific variety for sale.

  2. I also admire your pokeberry–I had a small stand of it in an out-of-the-way spot in the garden for several years, and was sad that this year none came up at all.

  3. I have to agree with Cindy & Ursula – pokeberry is a beautiful plant. Planted in the right spot with the right companions it would be an amazing accent, especially to a cottage-style garden. And the leaves of the very young shoots are edible (in case they are getting too “prolific”).

    When I was a kid we threw the berries at each other for fun. They don’t hurt, but they do stain nicely.

  4. The punchline is that these horrible weeds are usually edible and/or medicinal; and if any one with capital gave it a thought, they could totally capitalize. Prickly pear fruit tastes great, knotweed shoots are just like bamboo shoots (and have resveratrol), etc.

  5. I surrounded my backyard with shrubs, in part to hide the “meadow”. It is less weedy than my vegetable garden, tho – lol! Still, there are some weeds I discourage, but not pokeweed or milkweed (may regret that).

  6. My husband doesn’t like my laments about weeds, so instead they are “unplanned vigorous volunteers” in my garden.

    If anyone wants to do a study, let me know. We have an astonishing variety, and they seem to invite new diverse friends every year in spite of my endless pulling, torching and crying.

    The deer, of course, don’t touch them…

  7. Forgot to add: the reason I don’t care for these vigorous volunteers is that they inhibit the growth of the food trees and bushes I’ve planted.

    Live and let live, but don’t thwart my pears!

  8. Our community garden lot is about a year old. Dyouville wouldn’t sell us the lot so we asked grassroots gardens to intervene on our behalf. Dyouville used to do a chemical wipe every year which kept weeds out, for the most part, and every living thing in addition.

    The first year was tough. Perennial weeds and dormant seeds were very wearing on the will power to proceed. Clevers for example were bad last year and I had to do an entire sweep to pull them all out. They came back full vengeance that same year. I left them to over winter and they stayed green all year, and are easy on the eyes during the cold months. When there are a lot they looks like a little forest. Pulled them before they flowered this year and that seemed to have taken care of that.

    We also have a giant burdock which is taller than I am. Last year he was much more impressive. This year he divided and is flowering which makes him look goofy. I like the form of them when they don’t flower. I may end up nipping the flowers because there are a lot of them and feel it will spread all over next year if I let it.

    We also have a few thistles which I think are just great looking. One is tall and the other is short and fat and showy.

    We also have pokeweed, which is one of my favorite “weeds.” Last year there was little babies and this year there is really only one decent sized grouping of them hiding. But still not impressive at all.

    We let the back corner, which is of decent size as a “wild” area as a little experiment. We will probably take care of it when they rest of our garden establishes. Nightshade grows a lot here, which is pulled on sight everywhere else. Bindweed as well. Clevers are still in there. Wild strawberrys, goldenrod, rose of sharon, black raspberrys hold their own, mulberry saplings do okay. Overall pretty disappointing. When I read people doing these wild “reclamation” areas I often wonder how they can get away with it. Ours is more of a weed recreation area. 🙁

    I’m not really sure how it happened but we are in Garden Walk this year at 220 Jersey if anyone wants to check us out.

  9. During one of those summers when gardening is a low priority (do we all have those summers?), I allowed a pokeweed to grow to amazingly lush maturity right next to my front door. A very nice Dutch woman came to visit and asked me, “What is that beautiful plant? It looks so exotic.” It just goes to show- one man’s weed. . .

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