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Review: Author gives weeds a loving tribute

By Mary Foster

Associated Press

Published: Monday, July 25 2011 11:06 a.m. MDT

"Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants" (Ecco), by Richard Mabey: After reading "Weeds," Richard Mabey's loving tribute to the common weed, you may still pull out the herbicide but feel a little respect for the plants you're zapping.

Mabey, one of Britain's most respected nature writers, loses no time launching into praise for the plants that seemingly flourish everywhere, even managing to sneak into the tidiest of gardens unless the owner practices constant vigilance.

He discovered his fascination with weeds in his 20s, when he was working in an outer section of London that presented "wildness in the city."

In this stretch of urban wasteland, slowly building into an industrial stronghold, Mabey discovered weeds galore, including immigrants from three continents.

In sharing his amazement with the plants that "become weeds when they obstruct our plans, or our tidy maps of the world," he writes that they can be "botanical thugs" that destroy everything they cover, but can also be great restorers.

After World War II, bomb sites in England became so covered with plants that many people claimed the Germans had dropped those seeds as well as bombs. The plant Rosebay Willowherb was called "bombweed" by residents because of its rapid colonization of bomb craters.

A weed invasion took place in London, with bracken carpeting the nave of St. James and thorn apples growing in the cellars of Cheapside.

One observer counted 126 species in what Mabey calls a weed storm.

The history of these plants, which includes once popular varieties imported for use in gardens and later falling out of favor to those used as medicines and food, includes many myths and beliefs.

Mabey can spin both frightening yarns about some species and laugh-out-loud stories about his adventures — and those of others — in the wonderful world of weeds.

But his admiration for the ability of weeds to survive natural disasters, human destruction, climate change and almost every eradication effort ever launched against them is the main reason to read this fascinating book — that and the lessons that these unloved plants may have for humans as they face an uncertain future.

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