Once I stopped immediately judging plants as weeds, the landscape became alive with stories.
About five years ago I set out to recover from plant blindness.
This has proven to be a deeply rewarding and at times, delicious, personal project. While some people focus on plants often sold at nurseries, I started my plant education on the sidewalk– hoping to better understand who my botanical neighbors are.
What we think of as “weeds” often have fascinating histories and forgotten relationships with people– many of the plants that thrive near human dwellings are medicinal and edible, which is of course– no accident.
Coming to know some of my photosynthesizing neighbors has provided me with an endless sense of fascination, and even a sense of ecological belonging. Once I stopped immediately judging plants as weeds and instead sought to understand their cultural, historical, and ecological significance, the landscape became alive with stories.
Instead of thinking of urban ecologies as a canvas for development what if we thought of it as an ecological community?
In the case of soil disturbed by construction the new life that emerges prevents erosion and often creates microclimates that are more conducive to other plants.
Eventually, more plants move into these newly hospitable ecological niches in a process called landscape succession.
In essence, weeds are often engaged in healing environmental wounds and helping each other. Considering that many so-called weeds are very nutritious, perhaps they also could also help heal us — if only we would notice them?
Maybe poisonous plants also have something to tell us! What if that poison ivy is saying– “hey, give me a rest will ya?!” I’ve come to believe that we need to cultivate our ability to listen to plants so that we too can become mutually supportive community members in our ecological niche.
As a lover of weeds, I want to suggest a more nuanced look at our botanical neighbors so that we can figure out how to be better ecological neighbors ourselves.
Even though many urban plants are edible, before you start foraging urban plants, make sure you are 100 percent sure that you have identified a plant correctly.
Consider the landscape where it is growing– is the soil likely to be contaminated? (It’s a good idea to skip plants growing right next to a road, train tracks, on old industrial sites or along urban creeks (which may be contaminated by combined sewer overflows or stormwater runoff).
Check out our Planet Detroit Facebook page for your weekly installment of Sidewalk Botany.
If you want to get started on your sidewalk botanizing journey, I recommend downloading the iNaturalist App on your smartphone (Join us on the Detroiters Do Science group!), and purchase a good field guide. Share your images in the comments when you see sidewalk botany posts (like this one!) on the Planet Detroit Facebook page or send them to us at [email protected]. And find more of my work at A.W.E. Society.