"WEEDS: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants," by Richard Mabey, Ecco, $25.99, 324 pages (nf)
Don’t get your hopes up, gardeners. In “Weeds,” Richard Mabey doesn’t offer us any guidance on how to eradicate nature’s most aggressive and despised growth. Quite the opposite. The renowned British naturalist wants us to learn to love them.
The intriguing “Weeds” is meticulously researched and well-written. The book could be considered entertaining were it not so frustrating. The pervasive vegetation-smothering common bindweed, the scourge of gardeners everywhere, “is a beguilingly attractive plant, with pink, white or candy-striped bellflowers which have a light almond fragrance and whose nectar attracts a large number of beneficial insect species,” he rhapsodizes.
We learn that bindweed can put down roots to a depth of 18 feet, spread 30 square yards in a season and germinate its own seeds after 40 years. As Mabey points out, “A bindweed root or stem chopped into 100 pieces by a frustrated gardener is simply the starting point for 100 new plants.”
True to the subtitle, “In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants,” Mabey’s argument is that the qualities we hate most about these garden villains are what make them worthy of fascination — and even our admiration. From dandelions to poison ivy, stinging nettles to crabgrass, weeds outlast ice ages, natural catastrophes and global war.
As evident in the author’s other works, Mabey, hailed as Britain’s “greatest living nature writer,” has an engaging writing style to transform what could easily be a stodgy field guide into a literary garden stroll.
While exploring man’s relationship with weeds of all kinds, the author mixes natural history, botany and interesting anecdotes. Mabey even looks to A.A. Milne for support. Eeyore believes, “Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”
Quoting a U.S. Department of Agriculture report that “over 50 percent of our flora is made up of species that are considered undesirable,” Mabey correctly points out that weeds “give something back.”
Along with their healing powers, weeds stabilize soil, conserve water loss, provide shelter for other plants and “begin the process of succession to more complex and stable plant systems.” Mabey asks us to look more dispassionately at these outlaw plants into what they are, how they grow and the reasons we regard them as trouble.
Weeds are called “the tithe we pay for breaking the earth,” and it is noted that weeds began at the Beginning. Adam and Eve were offered the choice of living in Eden or facing a wilderness of briars, thistles and noxious weeds. Mabey makes it clear the world will not be free of the invasive plants without divine intervention.