What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve muttered a bit before about weeds and how they might not be the baddies we’ve condemned them to be – and can also be quite beautiful.

Since then, I’ve started doing some reading about said weeds – mostly to see whether I was being naive to suggest that “weeds” and “exotic pests” will probably just take over the landscape as part of the natural cycle of things. So far I’m still straggling through the thick scientific-ness of the books but I’ve found some interesting insights.

For one, I’m certainly not the first one to show a little sympathy to the poor weed. Really, it’s a matter of nomenclature.

Beautiful invasive “weed” – Lantana Camara, spotted in Wakayama prefecture, Japan

Because really, there’s no difference between a so called “plant” and a “weed”. Weeds are just something we humans have decided are plants in the wrong place and are not advantageous for our purposes – eg invading an otherwise productive crop area, messing up a paddock we decided to graze sheep or cows in graze (also exotic, by the way), etc etc.

Some weeds can also be classified “invasive species”, which, if you want to get finicky and historical, is mildly unfair, given we Australians got off boats from overseas and spread all over this place. (ha!) As a side note, see this interesting explanation of why some call Australia Day, which falls on January 26th “Invasion Day.

One book I’ve started reading is “Beyond the War on Invasive Species” by Tao Orion. She’s all for taking a natural approach to controlling weeds and restoring habitats and one thing she says stands in the way of that is the way we talk about weeds using unscientific and emotional words like “invasive” and “noxious”.


Tao explains how some ecologists will make the case that introduced species are a threat because it can’t be predicted exactly what long term effects they might have on their adopted habitat or neighbouring species. And yet, there are actions taken to eradicate certain invasive species using herbicides that have, when you look into it, highly questionable ingredients and effects which no doubt pose risks in the future that cannot be fully predicted.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just let the “weeds” be? Probably that is too naive of me. I haven’t read far enough into the book yet to see what Tao suggests instead of severe chemical eradication.
It’s interesting how things have come to this point of demonising some plants over others. I guess it’s a side effect of agricultural society. When really, 

the idea of “invasive species” is peculiar since all plants and animals are native to our singular and unique planet. 

Tao Orion, “Beyond the War on Invasive Species”pg 10

Blackberry – Invasive (and delicious…) image from Eurobodalla Shire Council

On a different note, did you know there is an official list called “Weeds of National Significance” in Australia? Sounds quite noble, doesn’t it? (Not as much when you use their abbreviation of WoNS…) It’s a list of 32 weeds that is: 

“a proactive attempt to strategically manage priority weeds that pose future threats to primary industries, land management, human or animal welfare, biodiversity and conservation values. It is an effective tool that…assists States/Territories to prioritise their weed management strategies for the benefit of Australians”

On the list of 32 WoNS, only some are found in the ACT. You can find more info here, if you’re into that kinda thing. http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/invasive/weeds/weeds/lists/wons.html

More info HERE
One more book I found, which is not as relevant for the humble weeds issue but interesting in general is “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert. Her book title refers to the wave of extinctions that have occurred in the last 500 million years or so; “The Big Five” Extinction events which have been altering the species on the planet and suggests that we are now in the Sixth wave. In other extinction events, climate and sea level changes could have been the triggers but this “Sixth Extinction” is said to have been caused by Humans. There’s also suggestions we may be in a new epoch, the Anthropocene, marking the overwhelming human impact on recent modern history.

Kolbert’s book documents, amongst other things, some of the species that are becoming extinct around the world, at remarkable rates and the efforts by scientists to study them. She makes an interesting point about the mixing of species across continents in the modern era. To me it seems unavoidable that plants will mix and collide and naturalise.

“From the standpoint of the world’s biota, global travel represents a radically new phenomenon and, at the same time, a replay of the very old. The drifting apart of the continents that Wegener deduced from the fossil record is now being reversed – another way in which humans are running geologic history backwards and at high speed. Think of it as a souped-up version of plate tectonics minus the plates. By transporting Asian species to North America, and North American species to Australia, and Australian species to Africa, and European species to Antarctica, we are, in effect, reassembling the world into one enormous superccontinent – what biologists sometimes refer to as the New Pangaea.”

(pg 208 The Sixth Extinction, An Unnatural History)

Some examples of plants “jumping continents”. It’s all give and take though…

Prickly Pears – weed gift from the Americas to Australia

Sweet Hakea a weed gifted from Western Australia to South Africa

Tasmanian Blue Gum – hey California, you’re welcome!
Camphor Laurel – Thanks for that China & Japan! now a weed in NSW and QLD

ANYway. I’m still reading these books (well, let’s be honest, there’s not a whole lot of reading happening at the moment) and these are just tid-bits that have tickled my interest.

It’s all been part of thinking about a new series of work I’m making, “The Beautiful Weeds of Canberra”

For this series, I’ve been sketching and dyeing some of the weeds found aoround nature reserves and suburbia in Canberra, kind of elevating them from ordinary stragglers to elegant, proud plants. As I’ve been sketching them, which takes a lot of concentrated observation, I’ve noticed how many are really quite beautiful. Well, re-noticed. I already had an inkling this was the case and it’s proven true. I hope the weeds will come across as I intended when the works are complete. 

Here are a few progress shots. The finished works will be in show in Sydney next month. More to come on that next time!