Monday, 5 March 2012

Seeds and books

This week we are thinking about seeds and some of the books that have been inspired by seeds. Spring always catches me by surprise and March has arrived and I have only managed to plant some potatoes and carrots in pots in the greenhouse. When I look at my neat packets of seeds it is easy to take them for granted and forget the thousands of years of human effort that it has taken to turn often inedible plants into our staple foods. Nobody really knows what lead people 10,000 years ago to start the selective breeding process that evolved a hard inedible seed into the modern maize plant that is now grown all over the world.

But don’t think that we humans have it all our own way. Richard Mabey has taken a fresh look at weeds in the eponymously named book. The seeds of some weeds have been germinated after several thousand years of dormancy and poppies are legendary for appearing after the destruction of war. Mabey goes beyond the usual definition of a weed ‘being a plant in the wrong place’ and considers how agriculture has also accidentally selectively bred the weeds that we now pour so much herbicide on. The sieving of seeds to remove weeds from the crop led to the survival of those weeds whose seeds were closest in size to the crop and has bred the wild oats that now appear in every wheat field. The harder we try to kill the weeds the more they mimic the crops that we really want to grow.

Mabey invites us to reconsider mankind’s relationship with weeds. He observes that weeds preserved the fertility of light middle eastern soils and saved early civilizations from starvation. By evolving to exploit the artificial habitats that we create – both deliberately and by accidents such as pollution – weeds heal the damage that humans do to the planet. In the process they have given us many medicines. Mabey devotes a chapter to the days when the common plants of Britain provided the only available medicines.

I think that anyone interested in Transition will enjoy Weeds and I will tempt you with the final paragraph –

“At the start of this book I suggested that weeds were a consequence of our rigid separation of the natural world into the wild and the domestic. They are the boundary breakers, the stateless minority, who remind us that the world is not that tidy. They could help us to live across nature’s borderlines again.”

I will be looking at weeds a lot more closely from now on!


  1. Really enjoyed this post, John.

    I'm also reading and enjoying 'Weeds' at the moment (on your suggestion some time back) and as a 'weed' lover myself can also recommend it as a way of looking at these fellow denizens of the planet in a very different light.

    We have a lot of Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) in the garden, which is the ancestor of our familiar vegetable. It's a beautiful umbellifer with a bloodred spot in the middle which you can often mistake for an insect. I keep meaning to eat the root, which smells like a stronger version of cultivated carrots but is much smaller - I don't think we would be able to rely on it in a time of crisis, though!

    And our most common 'weed' Plantain has so many medicinal virtues it's astonishing.

    Anyway, great post, John! Let's go for a 'weed' walk together some time this year.

  2. Lovely post John. Thank you. Those seed packets look so exciting. Bet your plants and toads are happy with all this rain!

    Wishing you a good Spring on the roads as well as in the garden, Charlotte

  3. I'm afraid that the rain is a bit late for the toads and has not gone far towards filling the dry ponds round here.
    In case anyone wonders why I have seven varieties of radish - some of the packets were a present form someone who knows of my radish addiction!