The wonder of weedscapes
We think of weeds as ‘plants out of place’, but even accidentally successful plant species can have benefits for their new found homes. As climate change threatens native ecosystems unable to adapt quickly enough to survive, it might be time to reconsider how we value our weeds.
The Gwelup Secret Garden in Perth’s northern suburbs is a weedy wonderland. It has become much less secret since gaining prominence on social media where amazed visitors share pictures of towering bowers of hanging vines and green curtains studded with flowers. The garden is part of a larger wetland area within the City of Stirling’s draft management plan for Careniup Wetlands Reserve. The January 2020 plan identifies a small area to the north of the reserve as ‘special use’ and intends to maintain the weedscape. It is dominated by noxious weeds, particularly morning glory. The invasive climber is draped over flooded gums, paper barks and other native species, all of which are destined to eventually collapse under its smothering weight.
‘Weeds’ are often seen as a moral problem or ethical dilemma. A landscape of weeds is one of rank overgrowth, opportunistic and sickly luxuriance, or unhealthy indulgence. The film Lantana is named after a major weed prevalent in its suburban Sydney setting. A tale of intertwined lives, frustrated hopes and betrayal, the opening sequence has the camera pushing through a woody tangle of flowering shrubs to find a body.
An ethics of ecosystem health based on ideas of indigeneity or ‘natural’ occurrence is easily linked to cultural ideas of place and confused and conflated with particular social rights to space. Academics Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn and Gert Gröning have drawn attention to this tendency in a series of articles including Some Notes on the Mania for Native Plants in Germany, The Native Plant Enthusiasm: Ecological panacea or xenophobia? and The Myth of Plant-Invaded Gardens and Landscapes, as have others. Such critiques were criticised in turn for setting back the vital work being done to identify and preserve threatened species. It is an argument similar to present criticisms being levelled at Michael Moore’s latest documentary Planet of the Humans for ‘[taking] aim at the supposed hypocrisy of the green movement’.
In a more recent commentary, the 2017 film Natura Urbana: The Brachen of Berlin tells the post-war history of Berlin through its plants. As the film’s blurb describes, the changing vegetation of Berlin serves as a parallel history to war-time destruction, geo-political division, and the newest phase of urban transformation. The brachen of the title loosely translates into English as ‘wastelands’, but here they are seen as “accidental gardens” that formed in the city’s leftover, fallow spaces.
Weeds are successful plants. Weed species are often those that have developed to make regenerative, good use of moisture and nutrients in their original environments. They are able to survive droughts, for example, by setting copious seed quickly with rainfall, or growing tubers underground that can last through long dry spells. As climate change ushers in longer periods of extreme temperatures and lower or less regular rainfall – the western United States is in the grips of a climate change-induced megadrought not seen in over 1000 years – weeds will become more common as they face less competition from other species unable to adapt. Weeds are the first plants to return to disturbed land and polluted waterways. They are the first to grow at ground zero after nuclear testing.
Edible common weed species have always had fans. Along with the spike in home gardening during coronavirus lockdowns, there has been a growing interest in local weed foraging, related perhaps to avoiding shops for fresh food. Collecting plants growing in the wild or on common land has been a dietary supplement, if not staple, of cultures around the world until very recently (even while these traditions have continued in pockets, such as with Italian migrants in Australia). By the late 20th century, even cultivated plants became unfamiliar to urban children in their raw state.
Landscapes are cultural constructs “in which our sense of place and memories inhere”. Gardens are crafted spaces, even when the hand of the creator has a light touch, but gardening involves growing plants out of place. The majority of classified Australian weeds are garden escapees. It is the same in other countries. Azaleas and rhododendrons were brought to the United Kingdom in the late 18th century. Popular on country estates for their ornamental flowers and providing cover for game birds they have become highly invasive weeds “responsible for the destruction of many native habitats and the abandonment of land throughout the British Isles”. But they remain popular species and some woods are heritage-listed and protected.
Some weeds are icons of places that they do not even come from. The tumbleweed of the American Wild West is a Russian interloper. Also known as the ‘Tartar Thistle’, it was introduced to South Dakota by Russian immigrants in the 1870s. Even more bizarrely, it was botanically classified in 1810 by Robert Brown in Australia and christened Salsola australis. But despite its iconic bad-plant status, tumbleweeds also do good, improving soil by trickling chemicals that make nutrients more available to other plants.
Even as Tim Enwisle, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, speaks of the gardens’ work to save flora from climate disasters, he acknowledges the complex challenges of saving species as well as their ecosystems. “If you start to plant out species into new areas, you’re effectively doing gardening, and it becomes very species focused,” says Entwisle. “So if you think the Wollemi Pine is the most important thing and you plant it where it needs to be to grow, you’re saying ‘who cares if the local orchids die because the Wollemi Pine needs to survive.’ You are making some God-like decisions!”
Just as ‘we are the virus’ memes undermine the eco-fascist tendencies of extreme environmentalism, the older (usually particular) humans-are-weeds-of-the-world cry is easily exposed as a distracting dog-whistle. But it seems actual weeds could also do with a rebrand. They can indeed, by popular definition, take over land, outcompeting and smothering indigenous species and destroying local ecologies. But at a time of rapid climate change, growing pollution and rampant land clearing, plants out of place can also provide food, shade and shelter for humans and other species, improve and stabilise soil, and bring life and joy to places that would otherwise be bereft of it.
With thanks to Foreground’s Editorial Advisory Board member Liam Mouritz for alerting us to the the Gwelup Secret Garden and the burgeoning interest in weedscapes as important novel ecosystems.
Dr Jo Russell-Clarke is a registered landscape architect and Fellow of the AILA. She is Foreground’s editor-at-large and a senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide.