What is a Weed? A New Exhibition at RHS Wisley

Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)

Dear Readers, as you know I have long been a champion of weeds: I’m often driven to stand up for the most maligned members of our community, and that includes the botanical ones. So I was most intrigued to read about this exhibition at RHS Wisley in Surrey. Called ‘What is a Weed’ it features the work of young people from King’s College, Guildford, who are 14-15 years old, and 17-18 year-olds from St John the Baptist School in Woking. They have created a whole range of artworks,  from comics and magazines to interactive works in the show. What intrigued me most was hearing how the young people really ‘dug down’ into the whole concept of what a ‘weed’ actually is, and how strongly they identified with the plants. Many of the young people recalled either being called ‘a weed’ or feeling left out and rejected, and this seems to have given them empathy for these misunderstood and vilified plants.

The two facilitators, artists Ada Rose and Linden McMahon, seem to have done a great job in drawing out the bigger picture of the role of ‘weeds’. Ada explains below:

“There were two main areas that I knew it would be fruitful to explore. First, young people have a much more egalitarian perspective on the human relationship with plants: they don’t believe that we have a right to control or dictate the plant world. The second area is the concept of weeds and how that extends into their own lives. We looked at beauty standards and hierarchies of value and judgement, and how these have shaped their own existence, affecting their mental health and shaping wider society”.

All this heartens me greatly. The generation who are coming up largely seem to have an environmental awareness that many people lack, and a recognition that the lives of humans are deeply intertwined with those of plants and of the rest of the living world. Many of them feel passionately that we can’t keep doing things in the same old way, and this extends from ecological concerns to how we treat one another. After all, who gets to decide what’s beautiful and what’s not?

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna)

I remember being young, and full of rage at how unjust the world was, and how so often the weakest and most vulnerable were disregarded and trodden down. I’m still angry now, but it’s tempered by having less energy than I used to have, and being aware that it’s sometimes better to focus that rage rather than having a scattergun approach to every wrong that I encounter. But these young people should be listened to. Our binary thinking (good/bad, right/wrong, black/white) is not fit for what we’re facing. We need more nuance, to recognise that creative solutions are needed, and that, most of all, we need to work together.

As Ada says,

“What I think people might be most surprised by is the depth of their (the young people’s) compassion – not just for each other, but for everyone. They’re so invested in a society and an ecosystem that works for all of us. They inspire me so much”.

What is a Weed” is on at The Old Laboratory, RHS Wisley, from now until 23rd January

Cartoon from the ‘What is a Weed’ exhibition

8 thoughts on “What is a Weed? A New Exhibition at RHS Wisley

  1. sllgatsby

    My son is 19 and I am heartened that he and his friends are much more accepting of differences, and more likely to stand up for others than I remember my own cohort being. They are more flexible in their thinking, too. If the world can survive long enough for them to come into their full adulthood, I feel confident they can make a difference.

  2. Anonymous

    Schoolfriends (yes friends) sometimes called me ‘skinny weed’. It didn’t upset me, though, as I recognised its accuracy and also the lack of malice. For boys, being called a weed carries a double whammy, implying physical weakness and cowardice.

  3. Anonymous

    Yes, weeds are wild flowers, if perhaps not plants you might not want in your veg patch. But they are often beautiful, and some are used in complementary medicines. Let’s hear it for weeds.


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