'Weeds': In Defense Of Botany's Cockroach Many of us see weeds as a pest, but nature writer Richard Mabey prefers to think of them as "vegetable guerrillas" and "forest outlaws." Mabey stands up for the incredibly adaptable and disreputable plants in his new book, Weeds.
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'Weeds': In Defense Of Botany's Cockroach

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'Weeds': In Defense Of Botany's Cockroach

'Weeds': In Defense Of Botany's Cockroach

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

I'm Melissa Block.

And just around the corner from our studios here in Washington, I went out to stalk the wild weed, those stubborn plants happily thriving, pushing up through gravel and brick.

Mr. GRAHAM DAVIS (Horticulturist, Smithsonian Gardens): This back alley has, obviously, you know, no care whatsoever.

BLOCK: My guide is horticulturist Graham Davis with the Smithsonian Gardens. And in this alley, among empty cigarette packs, broken glass, tossed away cups and straws, he's finding an impressive array of plant life: spurge, thistles, plantain, chickweed.

Mr. DAVIS: Well, it looks like we've got some nightshade, which is this...

BLOCK: Sort of tall and leafy.

Mr. DAVIS: Yeah. And then down here we've got - I think this is groundsel, and they have an amazing taproot that goes very deep into the soil. So it can extract water from deeper levels. So as the soil dries out, it still can tap into moisture and do quite well.

BLOCK: Now, these are very tall. There's one here that must be, gosh, it's about as tall as I am.

Mr. DAVIS: Yeah.

BLOCK: It's over 5 feet tall.

Mr. DAVIS: There's a tiny little crease in the asphalt here.

BLOCK: And that's what they found: a little bit of dirt.

Mr. DAVIS: You know, about half an inch, maybe. And they don't seem to be bothered at all being back here.

BLOCK: So it's just this ribbon of green down this alleyway.

Mr. DAVIS: Yeah, yeah. And left undisturbed, they'll, you know, they'll be here forever.

BLOCK: Graham Davis got his start in weed science, which he admits is really being a glutton for punishment.

Mr. DAVIS: Because it's sort of a subset of plants that, you know, are problematic. There's not a whole lot of glory. You're not like cultivating roses or growing trees or something that's beneficial. You're sort of dealing with the problem child.

Mr. RICHARD MABEY (Nature Writer): As we're dealing with a problem child, it really depends on how much you love them.

BLOCK: That's the prominent British nature writer Richard Mabey.

Mr. MABEY: If you're prepared to engage with some and try to see the world from their point of view, exactly, as with problem children, you'll probably get along with them a lot better and maybe reach a modus vivendi with them that head-on assault fails.

BLOCK: Richard Mabey has published his own spirited defense of weeds. He calls them vegetable guerillas, forest outlaws in his new book titled "Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants." His love of weeds started when he discovered a forest of disreputable plants in an industrial wasteland near Heathrow Airport.

Mr. MABEY: I was just astonished at the redemption that these places were getting by their vegetable growth. And these were covered in this rampant growth of plants from, you know, probably four continents. There was buddleia from Southeast Asia; there was Japanese knotweed from much the same area; giant hogweed, enormous 18-foot-tall umbellifer from the Caucasus. And together, they made a vegetation that is probably not like that anywhere else on the planet. And it seemed to me profoundly inspiring that this kind of post-industrial wasteland was actually producing this growth. It seemed to say something about the obstinacy and resilience of nature that spoke to me.

BLOCK: When you think about redemption of blighted landscapes, you give the example of what happened after the bombing around Britain in World War II, the devastating bombing of cities, where weeds took over and reclaimed these areas that have been utterly destroyed.

Mr. MABEY: Yeah. That's right. And the invasion was also weirdly atavistic because about 2 miles away from the very center of the blitz in London - maybe some 70 years before - there'd been a big excavation and archaeologists and botanists had moved in and they were able to reconstruct from the layers of central London what vegetation had flourished in London maybe 20,000 years ago. And it was precisely the same as had come up after the bombing.

BLOCK: What were those weeds that were springing up in those wasteland?

Mr. MABEY: Many of them will be very familiar to you, including your - what you found in your walk, plantain and chickweed, but also stuff like dandelion and field poppy, buttercups, horsetails, mare's tails, plants which continue to be extraordinarily familiar.

BLOCK: You spend a great deal of time talking about particularly strong and resilient weed called bindweed, and I'd like you to describe just how bindweed spreads, how potent it could get.

Mr. MABEY: OK. But I'm sure it doesn't need any introduction to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: I'm a little familiar with them myself, yeah.

Mr. MABEY: I think it's one of the most wily weeds. If you actually try to cut it up, which is what gardeners very often do when they're hoeing bindweed, they think, aha, we'll kill the beast, lam it with a hoe and cut it into a hundred pieces. You simply created another hundred bindweed plants because each one of those little cups, white threads of rootal stem can produce a new mother plant.

The number of things that bindweed is capable of doing are really quite awesome. The growing tip of a bindweed can find its way out of a maze inside a perfectly black box with just one pinprick of light.

BLOCK: I'm curious, Richard, maybe where your defense of weeds ends and your respect for them. I mean, when you talk about invasive species especially that are just taking over entire swaths of countries, maybe kudzu in our country in the South, at what point do you say, you know, they're - this is a problem, my respect ends and it is a real problem?

Mr. MABEY: No, it unquestionably is a problem. And in earlier agricultural periods, people understood the relationship between what they did and the growth of the weeds that resulted. And I think we've lost that because we're so distanced from plants generally, and what they're now thought - we now respond by kind of a reflex, not by reasoning, and we don't think through and ask that question: Why is this weed here?

BLOCK: What would you say to people, maybe to gardeners who do look at weeds -and I'm sure I'm in this category - as things to be rooted out, as things that are upsetting the balance of a garden and the enemy in a sense?

Mr. MABEY: Well, I think that's entirely understandable, and I do it myself. So I would say please don't think for a moment that this defense of these plants is saying that we can regard them absolutely complacently. All I would ask is we ask those significant questions. You know, why is this weed here? What is it doing? And I think that when - if one can reach those two areas, then the response to them can be much more intelligent.

BLOCK: Richard Mabey, I'd like to end by having you read a small section from your book where you're basically making the case for meeting weeds on their own terms. This is on page 37.

Mr. DAVIS: OK. Just let me get my spectacles.

(Reading) Weeds, as a type, are mobile, prolific, genetically diverse. They're unfussy about where they live, adapt quickly to environmental stress, use multiple strategies for getting their own way. It's curious that it took us so long to realize that the species they most resemble is us.

BLOCK: Richard Mabey, his book is titled "Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants." Richard Mabey, thanks so much.

Mr. DAVIS: Thank you very much. Enjoyed it.

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