It’s a brave man who sets out to write a book about weeds. It’s about the most unpromising topic you can think of in gardening, short of, maybe, digging techniques, or the finer points of a bowling-green lawn (though I’m revealing my none-too-well-hidden prejudices here).
But Richard Mabey attacks his subject with gusto, and the result is – amazing though it might seem – a fascinating book.
He mentions a quote from the 19th century poet John Clare several times, in the frontispiece as well as within the text, and with good reason: it perfectly captures the spirit of the book. I think it’s worth reproducing in full:
“I markd the varied colors in flat spreading fields chekerd with closes of different tinted grain like colors in a map the copper tinted colors of clover in blossom… the sunny glare of the yellow charlock and the sunset imitation of the scarlet head aches with the blue corn bottles crowding their splendid colors in large sheets over the lands and ‘troubling the cornfields’ with destroying beauty.”
It’s that inherent paradox in the nature of weeds – their ‘destroying beauty’ – which Mabey investigates so entertainingly. He challenges so many of our long-held beliefs: the definition of a weed, for example, so often ‘a plant in the wrong place’. Mabey argues that for ‘place’ we should read ‘territory’: a weed is a weed not because of any natural traits, but because we made it so.
We define as ‘weeds’ plants which are inconvenient to us, ignoring their part in the wider scheme of things. They slip into the corners we ourselves create for them, by farming, or making gardens, or knocking down buildings and leaving it all to rot.
And worse; we make weeds by moving plants quite literally into the wrong place. The Romans brought ground elder for salad leaves, and the Victorians introduced giant hogweed into gardens (it was described in the Gardener’s Magazine of 1836 as a ‘magnificent umbelliferous plant’: the author goes on enthusiastically to say he has given friends plenty of seed to scatter while on holidays in the north of England, Ireland and Norway). Who knows what weedy horrors lie in wait from all those imported plants we’re currently planting in our gardens (it’s only a matter of time before people realise bamboos are just Japanese knotweed in drag).
The book is stuffed to bursting with wonderful, unforgettable stories. I never knew that soldiers in the trenches in World War I made little gardens with weeds pulled from the battered fields around them: tiny pockets of normality in a world gone mad. In the Second World War, rosebay willowherb sprang up in thickets in central London as the streets were split apart by bombs and the hidden earth exposed; as Mabey comments, ‘how thinly the veneer of civilisation lay over the wilderness’. Victorian naturalist Edward Salisbury raised 300 plants of over 20 different weed species from seed found in his trouser turn-ups; and in 1916 a garden was created in New York’s Central Park (it still exists) in which all the plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s works are grown – including hemlock and nettles.
And the language. Ah…. the language. It sparkles and crackles from every page: he talks of ‘vegetable guerrillas’, a ‘ragged Arcadia’, ‘rage against the dying of the weeds’, ‘the whole plant has the jizz of a street hooligan’ (this last of bristly ox-tongue, Picris echioides). It’s such a pleasure to read the writing of someone who takes such delight in language and is so utterly passionate about what he’s saying.
I have just one tiny criticism: the weeds are referred to by their common names throughout, and until you realise (in my case more than halfway through) that there’s a glossary with the Latin names in the back, you’re often mystified as to which particular weed he’s on about. Even when you do know about the glossary, it’s a pain to keep flicking backwards and forwards. I expect he was just revelling in the poetry of common names: but I did long for some Latin to cut through the confusion.
But I feel mean and carping just writing that. Go and find this book: sit down on a rainy evening by the fire and devour it from cover to cover. You’ll come away with the way you view our least favourite plants subtly shifted: and with a richer view of the natural world.