Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants
by James A. Duke
One might get a different notion of author Richard Mabey’s purpose in writing Weeds from the British subtitle, “How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature,” than from the more American subtitle, “In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants.” The latter signals his purpose to somehow defend these plants from their many abusers.
Matter of fact, there are divisions within my family regarding our sentiments for some of the important weeds, a few of which, curiously, Mabey fails to mention. For example, he omitted sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua, Asteraceae), the world’s most promising antimalarial. My wife, Peggy, hates it, and Judi, my long-time right-hand lady, is incredibly allergic to it. My daughter, Celia, has no specific grudge against it, but sides with the many anti-invasive weed campaigners in the United States who fear that the proven anticancer and antimalarial properties of one of its key constituents (artemisinin) might encourage careless introductions of it to new areas, furthering the invasion.
Helen Metzman, the curator and director of our Green Farmacy Garden, precluded me from planting another antimalarial, Ailanthus altissima (Simaroubaceae), the so-called tree-of-heaven. Mabey mentions this genus because of its invasiveness. The weed grows to heights of 30 feet atop abandoned buildings in Detroit. Mabey also mentions it as the tree that took over an abandoned section of the New York Central Railroad in Manhattan.
I doubt that most readers will criticize the lack of scientific names within the text, but many of us who share his respect for the weeds do not know them by the names particular to Mabey’s British Isles that he uses. As a trained taxonomist, I find it annoying to have to look up plants in the book’s glossary. Perhaps the book’s editors [in the United Kingdom] deemed inserting the Latin names in the text as a potential distraction to the books primary target audience, i.e., general consumers and plant lovers, but not professional botanists like myself.
Like me, Mabey is interested in the edible weeds that are often more nutritious than their cultivated counterparts. He mentions many edibles in his chapter on knotgrass (Polygonum aviculare, Polygonaceae), including some that were discovered in the stomach of a 2,000-year-old corpse found preserved in a bog in Denmark. The preserved corpse’s stomach contained at least 63 varieties of seeds, including buttercup (Narcissus pseudonarcissus, Amaryllidaceae), fat-hen (Chenopodium album, Chenopodiaceae, aka lamb’s quarters), lady’s-mantle (Alchemilla xanthochlora, Rosaceae), rye-grass (Secale cereale, Poaceae), smooth hawksbeard (Crepis capillaris, Asteraceae), yarrow (Achillea millefolium, Asteraceae), and Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus, Poaceae). The index to Weeds lists these plants as appearing on page 52 in the knotweed chapter, but alas, sans scientific name. I fear that many taxonomists will be quick to lament ready access to the scientific names associated with the weeds Mabey mentions, like mealy-leaved fat-hen. I strongly recommend the Latin binomials be included in the main text if he and his publisher prepare a second edition.
Additionally, Mabey’s defense does not include much information on the plant’s medicinal uses. Ailanthus,which is growing—and, dare I say, overgrowing—in Brooklyn, Detroit, and Manhattan, contains some very potent antimalarial compounds worth mentioning.
I wrote this review in a rehab facility where my wife was recovering from a botched pacemaker operation. In retrospect, I think an edible weed tree, such as hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata, Rosaceae), could have prevented the atrial fibrillation that sent her to the emergency room. Mabey, however, does not mention any such medicinal virtues. His book is packed densely already without mentioning the potentials of medicinals. The edible weedy relatives of cultivated garlic (Allium sativum, Liliaceae) and onion (A. cepa) could have served as cardioprotectives almost as well as hawthorn. If Mabey mentions the wild Alliums, I missed it in my perusal of the book.
All of the still-cognizant little old ladies in their wheelchairs or on their rollators at the rehab center were strikingly inquisitive about why I was reading a book on weeds, so I showed them the aromatic invasive weed lemon balm (Melissa officinalis, Lamiaceae), telling them how it can do the same thing that Aricept®did for Alzheimer’s (preserve the choline messengers in the brain). As a chronic compiler, I could readily write another book cataloging the weeds of proven and folkloric medicinal value that Mabey mentions in his delightfully erudite and entertaining book.
For a change, I learned the meaning of waybread (Plantago major, Plantaginaceae) on the first page of Chapter 4. Waybread is called traveler’s foot in Great Britain, but we tend to call it plantain and white man’s footprint in the United States. Seeds of P. major have been substituted for Metamucil®, the bulk laxative made from the husks of the psyllium seed from a plant in the same genus (P. isphagula). Furthermore, in his accurate account of the ecology of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica, Urticaceae), he fails to mention its many traditional and modern documented medicinal activities, particularly that of the root, which is one of the 3 most clinically documented remedies for symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia.
The waybread chapter probably gives more information on St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum, Clusiaceae) than on waybread itself, but—surprisingly to me—there was no mention of its use for melancholy that predates its current use for depression. In the Middle Ages, midsummer fires were lit in honor of St. John on St. John’s Day, now June 24, burning several species of weeds including St. Johns wort. Finally, on page 245, Mabey notes that St. John’s wort is a “source of an effective anti-depressant.”
Chapter 5 correctly describes self heal (Prunella vulgaris, Lamiaceae), a panacea to Amerindians, as “the medicinal weed.” The chapter devotes much more space to interesting accounts of the doctrine of signatures and the idiosyncrasies of some of the early physicians and herbalists than to the herb itself. Medicinal uses of this weed focus on the tannin-rich leaves, which act as an anti-dyspeptic mint for unsettled stomachs.
Mabey has done an admirable defense and critique of many of the interesting facets of weeds. He discusses interesting asides that could spice up a boring account devoted to examining a single facet of these complex plants. Weeds is almost overwhelmingly dense with interesting reflections. Savor them leisurely. You do not need the scientific names to enjoy the read. But I do.
—James A. Duke, PhD
Economic Botanist (USDA, ret.)
First appeared HerbalGram. 2011; American Botanical Council