For about two years now, I have been making artworks that focus on the subject of “Beautiful Weeds”. Taking those plants we know as roadside pests, garden over-growers or paddock infiltrators and making ‘portraits’ of them.

First “Beautiful Weeds” series, 2016. Blackberries and Sedges on silk. Shown at solo exhibition at the Japan Foundation Gallery, Sydney. Photo by Document Photography.

At first, this was a kind of straight-up visual fascination. Plants which I hadn’t considered drawing before, let alone dyeing, were suddenly everywhere I looked. Actually, that was the clincher – realising that in trying to depict a realistic and natural Australian landscape, I was editing out many plants in order to represent just the natives – the Eucalypts and the Wattles. When I looked at the natural environment most familiar to me though, (the nature reserve at the back of our suburb), it was quickly evident that trying to depict the area without weeds would mean some serious editing. A vast majority of the intriguing plants up on that hill ARE weeds (according to lists and information compiled by our local government).

my 2017 edition of “The Beautiful Weeds of Canberra” shown in solo exhibitions in Canberra and Kyoto, October 2017. Series including Blackberry, Fennel, Yellow-Flag Iris, Salvation Jane….

Scarlet robins love sitting on these Greater Mullein stalks.
It’s a Weed. Just saying.

Blackberries, sedges, “rosehips”, cootamundra wattles, plantation pines, purple-top, mullein, salvation jane…all of these co-exist on the hill with Silver wattles, Eucalypts, Native Bluebells. Not to mention Crimson Rosellas, Black Cockatoos, Scarlet Robins, Superb Fairy Wrens, Golden Whistlers…(some of which, by the way, FAVOUR perching and feeding on the plantation pine trees, cootamundra wattles and greater Mulleins…but anyway, I digress)

So this whole “Beautiful Weeds” obsession that I’ve had going for 2 years or more began as an attempt to render a realistic depiction of the landscape before me; a more faithful conglomerate of present species than if I were to edit the ‘weeds’ out and leave only the ‘natives’.

Since diving into this topic, it turns out – as it always does when you dig a little deeper into anything – that I’m not the first to think weeds could actually be beautiful.
Like, I’m about 500 years late to the party.

‘Large Piece of Turf’ 1503 by Albrecht Dürer

Here’s a beautiful close up of some ordinary grasses by Albrecht Dürer from 1503. Even in 1503, artists were recognizing the beauty of the ordinary plants at our feet.

Albrecht Dürer, ‘Large Piece of Turf’ 1503 (detail)

It’s also been interesting to find other people out there doing cool things to do with weeds. Here’s just a couple.

  • Spontaneous Urban Plants, is a research project based in New York with a website and instagram account that aims to spur discussions about the place of weeds in an urban environment and the cultural perceptions we attach to them.  
  • Diego Bonetto based in Sydney calls himself “The Weedy One” and is leading a revival of foraging and edible weeds education. His website includes a link to this great “Wild food Map” sharing information about locations of different edible species. He is also an artist and has some wonderful prints of common weed species here.

Now don’t get me wrong.
This isn’t to say that weeds are all great and that they don’t come with a whole load of emotional and political baggage. Because they do. I acknowledge that but I am merely acting as observer, depicting the environment as I see it.

“Narrabundah Hill”, katazome and yuzen on silk, 2017. On show at Solo Exhibition at Galerie h2o, Kyoto October 2017. This piece was an ode to my “local hill” with it’s co-existing Cootamundra wattles, Mulleins, Blackberries, Scarlet Robins and native grasses.

Slowly, I am reading opinions of scientists and researchers who know far more than I do and learning from them.

One book I eventually made it through was “Beyond the War On Invasive Species”, by Tao Orion. Whilst her book was written more for those working in environmental restoration, she had some really poignant things to say about the role of weeds and our interactions with them.

“Invasions are happening faster now than at any point in recent history, a fact that leads to a great deal of concern since invasive species appear to disrupt the “fragile balance” of nature…however, evolution is at work even in these scenarios….” pg 91

Tao notes that even though weeds can be unpredictable in a new environment, they are often favoured by local birds and insects for food or nesting habitat.

“..All organisms, including invasive species, require the participation of other organisms to ensure their survival – plants depend on pollination and seed dispersal to survive and spread, and animals need adequate food and habitat. If invasive species are spreading and thriving, then they benefit from, and are benefiting, such ecological assiciations…even the world’s “worst” invasive species are being used by other organisms in their new habitats.” pg 94.

This observation is seconded by Australian biologist and author Tim Low in “New Nature”. Low lists different relationships between Australian native animals and foreign weeds: Lantana provides protection for fairy-wrens, bandicoots and reptiles. Red-Tailed Black Cockatoos feed on the seeds of weed ‘Spiny Emex’. Muir’s Corellas, a rare member of the Cockatoo family, eat another weed, Guildford grass. Low goes as far as to say “Many species now rely largely on alien tucker. If Australia’s foreign contingent vanished overnight, many eco-systems would be kicked into chaos.” pg 93

Low also points out that the birds or animals themselves are simply being opportunistic in their use of foreign weeds as food or habitat. “ law of nature forces native animals to prefer their natural foods, or even to recognise them.” pg 104.

I call these next images “Native Birds happily tucking into Alien Tucker”

Satin Bowerbird raiding berries off next door’s ivy vine. They don’t see a foreign plant, they see food! 
Crimson Rosella eating pansies outside the Legislative Assembly (silly parrot)
Sulphur Crested Cockatoos destroying, I mean eating, Cherry Blossoms in the Canberra-Nara Peace Park. 

Admittedly, the birds above aren’t eating weeds exactly, they’re eating non-native plants. Still, the sentiment is the same: non-native plants can serve a purpose in an eco-system too.

Back to Tao Orion, she brings the subject of weeds back to the bigger picture of how the environment is shifting, and will continue to change.

“we will not achieve anything…by continuing to eradicate these novel organisms in the vain hope that the ecosystems where they live will be the same as they were at some idealized time in the past. We are here now, on the cusp of the sixth great planetary extinction, with climate change intensifying, and the ways that we relate to the land that sustains us will become ever more central to designing our way through the challenges to come.”

It reminds me of the problems faced by traditional crafts and this attempt to stem alterations to the long-held traditions when change is the only certaintyWhen we can step back from our own points of view and ego for a moment, we see that our worldviews are based on our human expectations of how something should be in order to benefit us. Not everything exists in the way that humans would like. Nature is a far more complicated and interconnected system than we can hope to exert control over.

This has become a long and winding, probably flawed, musing on weeds. I am still focusing on them in my work. I plan to expand my “Beautiful Weeds of Canberra” series into next year. You can see more on my homepage here, too.

Beautiful Weeds works on my website

I want to finish with a snatch from “The Book of Thistles” by Noelle Janaczewska. I loved this book, it’s part poetry, part musings on the nature of the weed and the thistle in social history.

 “Australia’s relationship with hardhead thistles digs into a series of deeper, thornier questions. About what we believe counts as responsible citizenship. About evolving notions of national identity, the siting of frontiers, and how we relate to each other across our differences. About deserving and undeserving nature. All those shades of green – Legal. Scientific. Romantic. Tragic.”