In an alley just around the corner from NPR's studios in Washington, D.C., you'll find an impressive array of plant life. Plantain, chickweed, spurge, thistles and even nightshade thrive among the empty cigarette packs, trash and broken glass.
That's right — they're weeds, and they're everywhere.
And while many might think of them as pests, British nature writer Richard Mabey prefers to think of them as "vegetable guerrillas" and "forest outlaws." Mabey's new book, Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants, is a spirited defense of weeds. He tells NPR's Melissa Block that his love for weeds began when he discovered a forest of the disreputable plants in an industrial wasteland near London's Heathrow Airport.
"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," Mabey recalls. "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."
Still There ... 20,000 Years Later
Weeds have a history of surviving everything from the passing of millennia to World War II bombings. Just consider the weeds that thrived in the rubble of London after World War II.
"About two 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," he says. "And it was precisely the same as had come up after the bombing."
Those historic weeds are the very same ones gardeners battle with today: plantain, chickweed, dandelions, field poppies, buttercups and horsetails.
Killing 'The Beast' Is Not So Easy
One weed that needs no introduction — at least not to gardeners — is bindweed, a plant Mabey describes as "one of the most wily."
"The number of things that bindweed is capable of doing are really quite awesome," he says. "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've simply created another hundred bindweed plants because each one of those little cuts ... can produce a new mother plant."
According to Mabey, bindweed is so set on survival that it can find its way out of a maze inside a black box with only a pinprick of light.
With a plant that crafty, there's no wonder that it's won Mabey's respect. After all, he says, weeds deserve some thoughtful consideration.
"In earlier agricultural periods, people understood the relationship between what they did and the growth of the weeds that resulted," he says. "I think we've lost that because we're so distanced from plants generally. ... Why is this weed here? What is it doing? I think if one can reach those two areas, then the response to [weeds] can be much more intelligent."
And an intelligent response from one intelligent species to another is just what the situation calls for — especially considering whom Mabey believes the lowly plants are most like.
"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," Mabey writes in his book. "It's curious that it took us so long to realize that the species they most resemble is us."