Dear Readers, you might have noticed that, since the lockdown, people have been looking at the plants and animals in their neighbourhoods with new eyes. As we patrol our local ‘territories’, many of us are starting to wonder what the plants making their presence felt at the base of walls and amidst the pavement slabs are, and some people, including Sophie Leguil, have been chalking their names next to them, so that we’ll know what we’re looking at.
Well, none of this is any surprise to me: since I started the Wednesday Weed in 2014 I have become great friends with the plants in my neighbourhood, and any walk in Bugwoman’s company is likely to involve a litany of botanical and vernacular names as I pass my pals. So it was with great pleasure that I joined the latest in the London Natural History Society’s online talks, this time about ‘Pavement Plants’. You can watch the talk on Youtube here.
Sophie Leguil is the woman behind ‘More Than Weeds‘, an organisation that aims to help us be more aware of the plants that surround us in the city, and encourages us to record what we find on sites such as the BSBI(Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland)’s website. She is a very engaging and knowledgable speaker, and we covered a lot of territory in our thirty minutes. We started with a history of ‘weeds’, and Sophie showed a picture of Canary Wharf where, apart from a few tightly pruned beech shrubs, there was no life at all – not a hillock of moss, not a scrap of lichen. Historically, weeds became a ‘problem’ when we first domesticated plants, and realised that there would usually be some interlopers in our fields or grain stores. More recently, however, weeds would have grown prolifically in our cities, and some of the street names reflect this: there is a ‘Nettle Street’ in Paris, for example, and this was no doubt a back alley where humans would go to urinate, nettles being very fond of phosphate and nitrogen.
Some people profited from the weeds: Sophie showed an illustration of the ‘Groundsel Man’, who gathered groundsel and chickweed and sold it to wealthy city dwellers for them to use as food for their caged birds. However, by the nineteenth century people were beginning to see weeds as ‘noisome’, and there were various home-grown recipes for weed-killer, some including prodigious quantities of sulphur. By the twentieth century there was ‘Eureka’, a weed-killer containing arsenic. And then, of course, we were into the whole array of chemical herbicides, such as glyphosate.
The great bonus of the lockdown has been that the chap who usually wanders along the street with a tank of weed-killer on his back, spraying everything on the pavement, has not been seen, and so the ‘weeds’ are proliferating. And what a joy they can be!
Incidentally, it is illegal in the UK to use chalk to mark walls or pavements, but more power to the chalkpeople, who are highlighting the wild plants around us and bringing so much happiness to those who had gone ‘plant-blind’.
Some councils are becoming more enlightened on their spraying policy: Hackney is making weeding-free areas, has banned glyphosate and is moving towards more targeted weeding rather than the blanket blitz that most councils go in for. Lambeth plans to phase out glyphosate by 2021. But alas the rest of the councils are still in full-on plant-murder mode, and intend to do what they’ve always done. Fortunately, campaigns such as Sophie’s ‘More Than Weeds‘, and Plantlife’s Road Verges Campaign are at least awakening people to the importance of ‘pavement plants’.
Why are they important, though? Well, for one thing they are an extremely useful resource for our embattled insects. 76% of insect species only feed on one plant family, so they are specialised creatures, threatened when their foodplants disappear. Fortunately, our roadside plants are extremely varied – on one survey, Sophie found 62 species of plants from 26 different families. And with the insects come the birds who feed on them. We might get excited about rewilding when it comes to beavers and white-tailed eagles, but how about the creatures at the bottom of the food chain? As I know from my own garden, it’s surprising what turns up if you have a variety of plants, and aren’t overly tidy.
Sophie also makes the point that many weeds are associated with the amelioration of pollution – ribwort plantain is known to reduce the presence of heavy metals in the soil, while an ivy screen was shown to reduce nitrogen dioxide pollution by 24-36% and particulate pollution by 38-41%. Plus, plants make soil when they die and are broken down, and this helps to absorb run-off and even surface flooding.
I think that if we don’t start seeing ourselves as part of the natural world, rather than separate from it, we really will be in for a shock. Historically we have lived alongside plants and animals because we didn’t have a choice: before mechanical methods for sieving grain, for example, we couldn’t get rid of the corncockles and the cornflowers that hid amongst the seed. How ironic that these days we want nothing more than a wildflower meadow in the back garden! But maybe, just maybe, people are starting to realise how much abundance surrounds us, given half a chance, even in the city.