Book Review: Weeds

Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants: A Cultural History

Richard Mabey


I should love to go on a walk in the countryside, or indeed anywhere with a hint of greenery, with the author of this book, Richard Mabey. He explains so well – and with such knowledge, humour and charm – where each weed we may come across has originated and how weeds have been the bane of humanity for hundreds of years. Our comprehension of their uses, purpose, growth habits and so on is so limited, yet Mr Mabey seems to know it all! This book is so fascinating I found myself taking notes!

First of all, he looks at how to define weeds, which only exist where humans are. Ploughing, for example, provides the optimal conditions for plants which sow themselves out regularly and grow rapidly.

He also examines the history of weeds; as medicine or food, in literature and common folklore, in superstition and religion. The allocation of characters and meanings to certain plants are discussed, as well as the weeding process in past ages. Poets and writers have referred to weeds and wild flowers since time began with nostalgia and familiarity, and Mabey frequently quotes one of my favourite poets – John Clare – whose pet subject was country life; our alienation from nature’s ways, and the changes in agriculture and horticulture are very clear when looking at old poetry. Mabey quotes from Clare’s The Shepherd’s Calendar:

“… Each morning, now, the weeders meet

To cut the thistle from the wheat,

And ruin, in the sunny hours,

Full many a wild weed with its flowers;—

Corn-poppies, that in crimson dwell,

Call’d “Head-achs,” from their sickly smell;

And charlocks, yellow as the sun,

That o’er the May-fields quickly run…”

The origins of many weeds found in the UK – some of which are extremely invasive – are explained too; how they were transported on ship hulls, in bales of cloth, in wood exported as building material, and nowadays in pot plants and birdseed, and even in coffins!

But my favourite part of the book was Mr Mabey’s reference to my most hated weed – Ground-elder. He says  “ there is one weed species that is beyond the pale even under our laissez-faire regime … in the herbaceous borders it permeates every inch of soil….. insinuating their white subterranean tendrils, as supple as earthworms, around and through any root system in their way.” His wife has contracted the name into Grelda, describing its witch-like qualities at the same time!

“Weeds” is very readable and entertaining, and yet at the same time extremely informative.

I highly recommend it!

31 thoughts on “Book Review: Weeds

  1. The best definition [albeit tongue-in-cheek] of ‘weed’ i have ever read: ‘the plant YOU do not want’! As many of my freinds and neighbours plant what are commonly thought of as weeds in their gardens, it must be true 😀 !

  2. Interesting..I’ll take a look at this book. Now, I wonder if those briars I can’t seem to get rid of are really weeds. They want to cover the space where hedges were removed next to my house and where the land once belonged to the woods and trees.

  3. I’m just fascinated with what some people choose to study! Weeds! I think I’d very much enjoy this book, and yes, the author would be a fascinating companion. I’ll make a note to put this book on m wish list! I have year-round weeds to contend with, that’s for certain! 🙂

  4. I like that ‘Life After People’ program which shows an entire city taken over by some Japanese weed – I cant remember what it s called but things like it and Ivy can only grow so high

    • The author has succeeded in making me dislike some of them less… but ground elder will probably be a lifelong “hate”! I’m sure you will love the book!

  5. Sounds good! I just saw on amazon that Mr Mabey wrote another book called “Food for free”, a guide to discover edible plants. Would be good for me as well, because I’ m not able to recognize anything….

    • It’s amazing how much we can eat from our back gardens! I’ll have to take a look at that book, but I’ve got something similar in German already… Thanks Simone! 😀

  6. I’ve seen this title at the library and thought maybe it should come home with me one of these days! After reading your review, I think maybe I’ll grab it sooner rather than later…it looks really interesting!

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