Can people really love urban weeds? Birds are a much easier sell.

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I read in The Guardian about “More than Weeds,” a French group using graffiti to highlight the “names and importance of the diverse but downtrodden flora growing in the cracks of paths and walls in towns and cities across Europe.”

Downtrodden? Why the big concern for weeds? Continuing…

France banned pesticide use in parks, streets and other public spaces in 2017 and in gardens from 2019, leading to a surge in awareness of urban wild flowers in the country.”

Well, I say go for it but it must be challenge to turn people on to opportunistic weeds that appear, post-pesticides. Their best-known American proponent is probably Harvard’s Peter Del Tredici, whose book Wild Urban Plants got a lot of attention but didn’t inspire graffiti, that I know of.

The movement reportedly spread across Europe but ran into a curious obstacle when it reached the U.K. “In the UK it is illegal to chalk anything – hopscotch, art or botanical names – on paths or highways without permission, even if it educates, celebrates and fosters interest and knowledge in nature.”

A law like that would be a real loss to my town, where sidewalk art is keeping lots of us sane these days. I’m collecting recent works here. (Of the 42 so far, “Saint Anthony Fauci” here seem to be the favorite.)

But back to those glorious weeds, kept in check no longer. “With less spraying and weeding, we might expect to see up to 400 plant species on walls and paths…That is 10% of our wild flora richness.” And they provide eco-services:

Every flower counts and will be targeted by pollinators – a patch of nettles can be swamped with caterpillars. And bird’s-foot-trefoil, a not uncommon urban verge plant, is a food plant for more than 160 different invertebrates. If we change our perceptions and see the dandelion flower for what it is – an absolute lifeline to our bees in early spring – we might learn to love them more.”

Indeed, a “study by pollinator researchers revealed that many wild urban ‘weeds’ rank very highly for the quantity of nectar and pollen each flower provides, often much higher than a variety of garden plants.”

Like Del Tredici, these researchers take an inclusive approach to plant origin. They make no mention of nativity or not except for a study they link to, where I found this: “We found some non-native species in annual seed mix used to provide substantial resources, and there is evidence that, in an urban context, non-native species can provide useful resources to pollinators.”

More about Wild Cities!

Kudos to The Guardian for their entire “Wild Series” feature, of which the article about weeds is an example. They’re covering urban birds especially, which I happened to publish an article about yesterday. (Like gardening, birding is surging in popularity during the pandemic.) I asked a local expert to simply list the most common Birds of Greenbelt, with location and time of year, and all I had to do was add photos and links.

Common birds at Greenbelt Lake

The lake near me is full of water again after more than a year of construction, and I’m determined to at least learn the names of the waterfowl there. Binoculars at the ready!

7 COMMENTS

  1. Urban weeds in Raleigh, N.C.? Crabgrass, alas!

    Oh the nostalgia… An evening stroll down a lane in England. Ferns. Flowers. Foliage. Wild, not planted. The scent of water, the flash of blue that might be a kingfisher… Blackberry Hill, Stapleton.

  2. Oh, I wish pesticide, herbicide, and lawn fertilizer would be banned here. My lawn is a nice mix of grass, clover, and “weeds”; my neighbors’ look like golf courses. I have seen more bees this year in my yard, but nary a butterfly. 🙁

  3. I may be in a minority but I like weeds. I know they’re not always pretty and some can be pesky, but this year especially, having spent so many more hours prowling around my gardens, I think I appreciate them more than ever. Creeping Jenny, a weed to many, ajuga, clover, and beefsteak plant are all slowly taking over what little lawn I have behind my house. And I got a nice big bowl of wine berries from an overgrown patch I’ve been letting grow for 3 years. The birds and I share the berries.

  4. I keep many of my weeds…dandelions, oxalis, and henbit and others for the bees. I actually think dollarweed a.k.a. pennywort (which is edible) looks pretty, and it acts as a green mulch in some of my garden beds.

  5. A really refreshing read though disappointing to hear about illegal chalking in the UK I think it would be a fantastic teaching tool. I’m going to try it in the prison where I work , what’s the worst that could happen?

  6. Peter Del Tredici came to San Francisco in 2015 to deliver a presentation to a roomful of unhappy people who are dedicated to eradicating non-native landscapes, usually using herbicides. He advocates for a pragmatic approach to urban landscapes, which values novel ecosystems for the functions they perform and their sustainability in stressful environments. Using specific examples, he described how urban environments have been irrevocably altered, such that a return to native vegetation is physically impossible. Efforts to eradicate novel ecosystems have failed and the widespread use of herbicides has done more harm than good. Take a look at Professor Del Tredici’s brilliant presentation in San Francisco: https://milliontrees.me/2015/05/29/restoration-is-just-horticulture-dressed-up-to-look-like-ecology/
    Thanks for publishing this excellent article that makes the most important point that pollinators are well served by weeds and that spraying those weeds with herbicide doesn’t benefit anyone, especially pollinators.

  7. Agree we should start this here in the USA. My lawn is like BittenByKnittin’s, I consider it “normal”, same as the lawn was when I was a kid growing up in a 1910 house with a typical Victorian era lawn. Now in a Queen Anne house, I consider the same type lawn “appropriate”. And due to a dry winter and late spring freeze, butterflies were turning their noses up at my meager butterfly garden and nectaring on the white clover in the lawn!

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