Weeds: The beauty and uses of 50 vagabond plants, by Gareth Richards, 2021. Welbeck, in association with the Royal Horticultural Society.
Weeds. Now, that’s a word that usually elicits a knee-jerk reaction of foreboding. At least, amongst gardeners because the presence of these undesirable plants in their carefully-tended plots – which compete with the deliberately cultivated vegetables and flowers – means extra work in eliminating them. But, what if we’ve been unfairly labelling plants as weeds? What if we actually took the trouble to find out about these so-called ‘vagabond’ plants and discovered that they had ‘value’? Arguably, answering these questions is what Weeds by Gareth Richards [which book is here appraised] is all about.
One of the world’s worst weeds is cogongrass (Imperata cylindrica (L.) Beauv.). But, that’s not included in Richards’ book. Why not? Because Weeds, published in association with the UK’s RHS (The Royal Horticultural Society), is devoted to the weeds of Britain’s gardens. However, having defined the book’s geographical focus doesn’t mean that all of the plants covered are native to Britain. Indeed, several of the weeds featured – e.g. Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria [Fallopia] japonica) and rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum) – are foreign to the British Isles, having been deliberately imported and planted in British gardens and stately homes. It was only after their introduction to the unsuspecting British landscape that their rampant, spreading and invasive qualities became all too evident. Now, in their new ‘home’, those plants are considered to be weeds; Richards notes that Japanese knotweed is a contender for “worst weed” (page 156), and rhododendron is considered to be ”a weedy supervillain, an unequivocally invasive non-native of Britain” (page 159). The importance of a plant’s country of origin and its weed status is underlined by this statement: “It’s a shame buddleia isn’t native to the West; if it were indigenous, we might appreciate it more” (p. 40).
Overwhelmingly, the plants considered in Weeds are flowering plants, primarily dicots, but also included are the fern ally horsetail (Equisetum arvense), and fern proper, bracken (Pteridium aquilinum). The plants covered in Weeds are set out in alphabetical order of their scientific name, from Acer pseudoplatanus [who knew this could be considered a weed??!] to Vicia spp. Although the book’s cover specifies 50 plants, many more than that are actually featured because multiples taxa are included for several entries, e.g. 3 Ranunculus spp., 4 Veronica spp., and an unspecified number of Sonchus spp. and Cirsium spp. re plant No. 13. I counted 66 featured species/taxa in the book’s 199 pages of main content. Whilst that revelation rather contradicts the book’s sub-title The beauty and uses of 50 vagabond plants, it should probably be viewed as a bonus beyond the number that was expected. Weeds features many lovely illustrations of the plants* – which are usually in colour and hand-drawn. Sadly, the identity of the artist(s) appears not to be stated; should we therefore assume they are by Richards?
Each of the 50 numbered entries, which is either 2 or 4 pages long, has a formulaic lay-out: Scientific name (but without Authority); English common name(s) (and with the Welsh name – pani Cymraeg** – for Welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica); Type of weed (e.g. perennial, annual, shrub…); Family (usually the -aceae version, but does include Leguminosae (re Vicia)); Uses (e.g. edible, medicinal, ornamental, and ‘none’ re Solanum dulcamara and S. nigrum); Poisonous – generally either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but also “slightly” (re Welsh poppy), “uncooked seeds are toxic” (re Vicia sativa and V. hirsuta), and “partially” (for Heracleum sphondylium and H. mantegazzanium). The main entry is approx. one side of text that says more about the plant’s properties, and virtues.
As one might expect from its RHS credentials, Weeds has an important gardening bias. However, there’s also a lot about folklore, medicinal value, culinary uses, and much more of relevance and interest to people. Richards’ book is therefore a great addition to the plants-and-people genre.
Weeds is highly readable and written with wit and charm – e.g. regarding the ‘old wives’ tale’ that seeing the reflection of a buttercup’s flower on your chin means that you like butter,*** Richards wryly observes that, “Sadly, all it really tells you is that you don’t have a beard” (page 152). It also features some lovely phrasing, e.g. “The history of nettles [Urtica dioica] (Gionata De Vico et al. (2018), Front. Physiol. 9:285. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2018.00285) is woven into human history” (page 190). Fibres extracted from stinging nettles have long been used to provide fabric to clothe people.
Richards never really explains why the plants it includes have been selected. Nevertheless, in his attempt to get readers to look more closely at so-called weeds and appreciate their beauty and usefulness, it succeeds. Weeds certainly gathers lots of interesting information about the showcased plants to satisfy anyone’s need to know more about these plants (and maybe encourage them to find out more…).
Although Weeds is beautifully illustrated, where more than one plant is covered in an entry, the legend to the illustrations doesn’t necessarily make it clear which species is shown. For example, plant No. 25 is three species of Hyacinthoides – Spanish, English, and hybrid bluebell. The illustration on page 101 has no caption so we don’t which of those three taxa is/are illustrated; the legend to the single flower shown in the figure on page 102 merely tells us that it’s a bluebell, so we don’t know if the illustrated bluebell is Spanish, English, or hybrid. ‘Plant’ No. 49 is actually four species of Veronica, but the illustration of a single plant on page 193 is without a legend, so we don’t know which of the four it is. And the single plant featured on page 195 is merely described as a Veronica species. Which of the four is it? I think the readers deserve to know.
A major negative of the book is the complete absence of any references in-text, which is compounded by the lack of any listing of sources or further reading elsewhere in the book. I know I tend to mention this sort of deficiency a lot in my book appraisals. That’s because I believe it’s important to state your sources (e.g. here, here, here, and here). I won’t repeat the arguments for that view here, but will just say that this is a book one has to take completely on trust [see also the Disclaimer section below…].
Pleasingly, Weeds seems to be relatively-error free [with the caveat that without sources being stated the veracity of statements made cannot easily be verified…]. But a few issues I noted are: the same bit of text at bottom of page 154 repeated at the top of page 155; the specific epithet arvensis should be shown all in lower case (page 192); the figure of Sonchus on page 57 is in black and white, but the legend refers to yellow flowers. All of which can be easily sorted by a reprint with revision?
As one expects nowadays, Weeds includes the standard Disclaimer (on page 4) regarding any harm that may be caused if readers act on dietary or medical information found in this book. Whilst that seems a reasonable precaution, the way the warning is phrased has a bit of a sting in the tail. The statement reads: “The publisher, the RHS and the author make no representation, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in this book is accurate, complete or up to date, and accept no liability whatsoever in relation to the use or application of any part of this book”. Which – rather sadly – also casts doubt on the veracity, etc. of every fact presented in the book(!). And that’s a great pity because it contains some really fascinating stuff, e.g.: the connection between NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] and ivy (Hedera helix); the name of the tree under which the Tolpuddle Martyrs met; the name of the plant also called the ‘plant doctor’; the identity of the plant whose seed heads were used in the manufacture of baize for billiard and card tables; which plant glories in the common name of ‘mare’s fart’; the name of the weed which is one of the 9 sacred herbs of the Saxons****; the Himalayan botanic that was originally planted as pheasant cover, and which is also allelopathic (Fang Cheng & Zhihui Cheng (2015), Front. Plant Sci. 6:1020. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2015.01020); and the name of the person who invented the lawnmower.
What’s in a name?
Of all the definitions of a weed that exist (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here), a commonality appears to be that they are plants ‘growing where they’re not wanted’. However, the best definition I’ve come across is that attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson for whom “a weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered”. Reading Weeds with that latter definition in mind you will discover that many (and probably all) of the plants covered in his book are ‘virtuous’. And that realisation will liberate dozens of plants in British gardens from being unjustifiably classified as ‘weeds’. We can then probably all concur with Richard’s assertion that “Every weed has some redeeming qualities” (page 6), and “There really is no such thing as a definitive weed. Weeds are much more a perception than a definition” (page 6). Indeed, Richards has arguably done such a good job of persuading the reader that the plants in his book are actually virtuous – and therefore not weeds in accordance with Emerson’s definition – that the title Weeds is clearly wrong!
There is an old proverb in English, “Give a dog a bad name and hang him”, which seems apt in the context of the plants we call weeds. Richards argues for much more thought and care to be applied before we label any plant a weed. It is probably time that we stopped vilifying these vagabond botanics and simply call them ‘plants’. But, if you still think of Richards’ plants as plants in the wrong place, you should have been sufficiently enlightened by his words to know that these weeds can easily be reclassified by removing them to an area where they are wanted.*****
Weeds by Gareth Richards is a charming book that will challenge your understanding of what plants should be categorised as weeds. If it doesn’t convince you that many of Britain’s so-called weeds are in fact not weeds but more virtuous plants, it will at the least educate you about the ecology, folklore, medicinal and culinary merits of a good selection of the UK’s flora.
* For photographs of many of the plants covered in Richards’ book, visit the RHS site.
** Although shown as pani cymreig on the listing of Welsh names for plants at The National Botanic Garden of Wales. [Welsh-speaking editor’s note. I’d use pabi Cymru or pabi Cymreig for Welsh poppy. Cymraeg is Welsh in the sense of the Welsh language, Cymreig is Welsh in the sense of being of Wales. /Alun]
*** To read about the science behind this phenomenon, see here.
**** Interestingly, nettle (Urtica dioica), and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) (e.g. here, here, here, and here) are included amongst the full set of nine. Although both of these plants are featured in Weeds, there is no comment about their sacred Saxon status. We will probably never know why plantain (Plantago major) alone is singled out for this particular mention.
***** Unless it’s horsetail, couch grass (Elymus repens), ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria), lesser celandine (Ficaria verna), or hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium), which are never welcome in my garden – despite Richards having done his best to signal their virtues to me!