Book Review: Weeds by Richard Mabey

I immensely enjoyed reading Weeds by Richard Mabey and completely recommend it. Truly a delightful look at humanity’s love/hate relationship for these oft misunderstood, haphazardly and sometimes wrongly judged members of plant world.

 “PLANTS BECOME WEEDS when they obstruct our plans, or our tidy maps of the world. If you have no such plans or maps, they can appear as innocents, without stigma or blame.”

That quote really sums up Mabey’s approach to the topic. And it is such a refreshing one in a more mainstream book (members of the herbalist community get it – even if we can tend to love some while being troubled by others.) By taking the long term view he highlights the complexity of our relationship with these plants that can be disturbingly a reflection of us – where many of these so called intrusive plants are only here and thriving because of our own actions.

He does a great historical overview, including an excellent summary of the early herbals (listing of plants and their medicinal uses), herbalists, and more. He charts the shortsighted attempts to get rid of unwanted plants that only served to entrench them more firmly. The even more comical, deliberate efforts to introduce and cultivate plants that ended running a muck and becoming our more infamous “weeds.” And plants that were loved and welcomed, then classified as weeds and unwelcome, only to become loved and welcomed again in succeeding generations – illustrating that often our attitudes can be more capricious than rational in these matters. Or plants classified as “exotic” invaders that have been existing in the area longer than protected “natives.”

There’s one wonderful section where he lists the various plants given “devil” names in medieval times including some of my (and other herbalists) favorites:

  • Mullein: Devil’s Blanket
  • Ground-Ivy: Devil’s Candlestick
  • Nettle: Devil’s Leaf
  • Dandelion: Devil’s Milk-Pail

But, as Mabey states, less likely because they were thought to be truly satanic but more out of sheer frustration trying to control them.

Overall, a really welcome read and interesting complement to the book Invasive Plant Medicine by Timothy Scott. Interesting enough, I found Mabey’s arguments far more persuasive than Scott’s because of the better historical overview and more balanced approach (I liked Scott’s book but found it often felt like he was leaving things out to that should have been discussed.) – his discussion of Japanese Knotweed for example, I found to be far more valuable in many ways than Scott’s by pointing out how the appearance of things may not actually be the full reality.

Is Mabey calling for a Kent Brockman-like “welcome our weedy overlords?” Not so much, but he does make a reasoned call for more careful examination of the context, how we’re too narrowly defining plants as useful/not, etc. And to recognize that our own invasiveness as really sowing the seeds and creating the opportunities for many of these plants.

Or as that ever lovin’ possum Pogo put it: “We’ve met the enemy and he is us!”

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