Rebel Botanists, Pavement Plants and #MoreThanWeeds

A movement is developing…

It is an oft-ignored ecological system but just beyond our doorsteps there exists a remarkably rich variety of plants made up of ever-changing and unruly assemblages. This urban flora takes root along roadsides, fences, in pavement cracks, within unused spaces and wherever these plants can find spaces to thrive.

If you follow environmental, conservation or horticulture groups on social media you may have noticed that a movement is developing which encourages people to embrace urban nature by learning about the plants that appear through cracks in pavements and on grass verges in towns and cities across the UK. The trend gathered momentum during the 2020 lockdown after the hashtag #MoreThanWeeds, started by French botanist Sophie Leguil, went viral – and is now continuing with local groups of ‘rebel botanists’ coming together and the idea of an interactive map of ‘weed-friendly’ local authorities being created. Leguil, who lives in London, set up the campaign to alter perceptions of urban plants in the UK after helping to spread the Sauvages de ma rue (“wild things of my street”) chalking campaign in France and she gained permission to chalk in Hackney to raise awareness of street plants.

There is now a growing number of botanists armed with chalk who have taken up street graffiti to highlight the names and importance of the diverse but overlooked and downtrodden urban flora growing in the cracks of paths and walls in towns and cities across Europe. This idea has gone viral, with people marking-up pavements and sharing their images across social media. Over 125,000 people have liked a photo of chalked-up street-tree names in an area of London and a film of Boris Presseq from the Toulouse Museum of Natural History chalking up names to highlight street flowers in the southern French city has had around 7 million views. Presseq said “I wanted to raise awareness of the presence, knowledge and respect of these wild plants on sidewalks. People who had never taken the time to observe these plants now tell me their view has changed. Schools have contacted me since to work with students on nature in the city.”

Chalking plant names on streets does present a bit of an issue, as in the UK it is illegal to chalk anything – whether it be hopscotch, art or botanical names – on paths without permission, even if it educates or creates an interest in and an understanding of nature. (The Rebel Botanists of Plymouth use the slogan ‘we’re shadows chalking on the street, to name the wild plants at your feet’.) UK Plantlife spokesman Trevor Dines said that the charity could not condone breaking the law, but commented: “The incredible response to graffiti plant names is astonishing and I think it’s part of something profound. It’s as if the plant is declaring its own place in our world. “In a recent YouGov poll, just 6% of 16- to 24-year-olds were able to correctly name a picture of a wild violet. The same poll showed nearly 70% of respondents would like to be able to identify more wild flowers.” With less spraying and weeding, we might expect to see up to 400 plant species on walls and paths, he suggests. That is 10% of our wild flora richness. In France, pesticide use in parks, streets and other public spaces was banned in 2017 and in gardens from 2019, leading to a surge in awareness of urban wild flowers in the country.

We really need to stop thinking of these urban plants as ‘weeds’ and think of them as living things of function and beauty; they add colour to the urban landscape as well as increasing biodiversity since bees, butterflies and birds all benefit when plants are left to grow. They also produce oxygen and help reduce pollution. Studies have shown that many of these wild urban plants score very highly for the quantity of nectar and pollen each flower provides and usually this is much higher than a huge number of garden plants. The best plants included Dandelions and the similar looking Rough hawkbit, Cat’s-ear and Sow-thistles as well as Ragworts, Viper’s-bugloss, Mallows, Self-heal, Scentless-mayweed, Rosebay willowherb, Thistles and Poppies.

Andrew Whitehouse, of conservation trust Buglife, has noted that path and wall plants are also important as a winter food resource when there is not so much blossom available for insects such as bumblebees. “Below the concrete, the roots create tiny microhabitats that support woodlice, worms, harvestmen, spiders, baby slugs and snails, which in turn become the food for birds and hedgehogs”

The assemblages of plants that arise in urban areas can be seen as problematic – many people tend to like plants and planting schemes that turn the urban environment into a more standardised and neatly manicured place and view negatively as ‘weeds’ those flowers which don’t fit into this ideal. It is true that a small number of species can be problematic – Giant hogweed, Buddleia (great for butterflies!) and Himalayan balsam being examples – but the vast majority of these plants cause no problems at all (if they do block pavements then it’s clearly fine to remove them…) The issue is one of perception – the idea that ‘urban green’ should be anything other than dull bedding schemes, boring shrubbery, closely-mown verges, lawns or parks still seems to be seen as controversial in some quarters.

The increasing interest in urban ecology really has led people to take fresh look at these neglected plants. (It is not well-known that, for example, brownfield sites can be more floristically diverse than chalk grasslands and home to more red-data-book and nationally scarce insects than ancient woodlands.) It’s a shame these plants are often seen as valueless – they really are #MoreThanWeeds.