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Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants Paperback – 8 Mar 2012

4.4 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books; Revised Edition edition (8 Mar. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846680816
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846680816
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2.1 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 62,789 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard Mabey is a naturalist and award-winning author and journalist. He won wide acclaim on the publication of the original Food for Free in 1972 - which has never been out of print since - and again with the publication of the colour edition in 1989. Among his many other acclaimed publications are Gilbert White (Whitbread Biography of the Year) and the ground-breaking bestseller Flora Britannica, which won the British Book Awards' Illustrated Book of the Year and the Botanical Society of the British Isles' President's Award and was runner-up for the BP Natural World Book Prize. He collaborated with Mark Cocker on Birds Britannica, and his book Nature Cure, described as 'a brilliant, candid and heartfelt memoir', was shortlisted for four prestigious prizes: the Whitbread Biography, the J.R. Ackerley for autobiography, Mind (for its investigation into depression) and the Ondaatje for the evocation of the spirit of place. He is an active member of national and local conservation groups and lives in Norfolk.

Product Description


The nation's favourite nature writer. (Sunday Telegraph)

Mr Mabey is the kind of person you wish you had with you on every country walk, identifying, explaining, deducing, drawing on deep knowledge lightly worn. (Country Life)

This book will open your eyes to the significance, wonder and exasperation felt about weeds. I couldn't put the book down once I started reading. Mabey offers a diversity and richness of fact, fiction, philosophy and fun (Professor Stephen Hopper, Director, Kew Gardens)

Richard Mabey's journey through the realm of weeds is witty, learned and original. It says as much about us as these maligned plants, and is a surprising tale. His delightful book will not make weeding any easier but it will make it an intellectual activity and thus a philosophical one. The writing is stunning, the argument undeniable. Some plants and most people have a problem which will never go away. (Ronald Blythe)

A fascinating display of personal knowledge of the history of different species and their changing status in the minds of our ancestors. Excellent. (Daily Mail)

[Mabey] is the steward of a pastoral tradition in which highly personal responses to landscape are matched by expert environmental concerns; his ideas have become standard with no loss of urgency ... he deepens symbolic value by combining close attention to details with a more sweeping sense of things. In Weeds, Mabey has written a memorable hymn to the marginal. (Andrew Motion Guardian)

Mabey weaves social history, psychology, literature and art into his clear rendering of plant biology. Explanations of evolution sit alongside explorations of flower symbolism in Shakespeare. (Nature)

Told with delight in the "sheer opportunism" of weeds, and their right to do what all living things do - to grow, whenever and wherever possible. A treat. (Financial Times)

Enraptured, visionary, witty and erudite ... firmly in the Gilbert White tradition. Why, by the way, can English writers do this better than anybody else?

A fascinating read.


A witty, wise insight into the floral world and our capricious relationship with some of its more boisterous inhabitants. (BBC Countryfile)

Delightful and casually learned. (Economist)

Mabey's amble through the low-level, high-rise world of weeds is rich in lore and usefulness. As in all his work, what comes across is his abiding passion for plants and the sustenance they give both imaginatively and spiritually.
Richard Mabey writes about weeds with the confident affection of someone discussing old friends ... this [book] is as much a celebration of the vexed coupling between mankind and plantlife as it is a fine marriage between subject and author.

(Bella Bathurst Observer/The Guardian)

Mabey is the gardener's greatest comforter. (Stephen Anderton The Times)

A fascinating read. You read this book you will never look at weeds in quite the same way again - Richard has done them a service and us by enabling the reader to join him in this entertaining and insightful book. (

A newish sort of nature has flourished: desolate, unruly, even rank and unwelcome, but suited to an age of ecological decline and catastrophist visions. Richard Mabey is in several senses the modest eminence behind this almost-movement ... As ever with Mabey there's a poetry to all this creeping ecology. Even the book's glossary of plant names is a verbal joy ... He's a precise and witty writer (Sunday Telegraph)

The best book on British wild flowers in a decade ... Read this quietly enthralling book and you will never again look at these most familiar plants in quite the same way. (Independent)

Mabey is incapable of writing a tedious sentence and this book strays into as many byways as the seed of rosebay willow herb ... completely riveting ... he's at his best in the most unexpected areas.
His strength lies in his ability to view his subject not dispassionately, for he writes with magnificent passion, but in a way that removes us, the true interlopers as the most important characters in the plot.

(Anna Pavord Gardens Illustrated)

Weaves together his unrivalled botanical knowledge with tales from history. (Countryman)

Mabey is as well versed in the literature of weeds as in the botany, richly weaving his own observations with the words of others; Shakespeare on nettles, Ruskin on poppies, Thoreau on brambles and Will Self on 'blisterweed'.
Mabey uses weeds as a way to explore wider ideas about the natural world and how humans interact with it ... a profound and sympathetic meditation.
You'll look at weeds in a whole new way.

(Sunday Times)

A fascinating and eye-opening book, one that makes you view the world around you afresh. (Big Issue Scotland)

A fantastic cultural history of vagabond plants ... fascinating and truly eye-opening. (Big Issue London)

Profound stuff (Irish News)

A delightful and quietly funny read (Irish Times)

He never disappoints - buy this book for the gardener in your life, and convert them to the wonder of weeds (Guardian)

As long as humanity has tried to control nature, weeds have been our unwanted companions. In this fascinating, richly detailed book, Richard Mabey gives weeds their full due, chronicling their changing relationship to us from the ancient world to the age of invasive species and genetically modified plans. Weeds are not just a particular collection of plants, Mabey makes clear; they are, instead, a reflection of our own culture - perhaps, our own weediness. (Carl Zimmer, author of Evolution)

Weeds are persistent, ubiquitous, and, to the uninitiated, annoying, but they are also biological marvels that have evolved side by side with human civilization. Richard Mabey's personal, historical, and cultural viewpoint converts weeds into intellectually stunning wild flowers! (Bill Streever, author of Cold)

Richard Mabey is Britain's leading natural history writer, and this is his witty and beguiling meditation on weeds and their wily ways. Mabey suggests that weeds and wild flowers, those ruthless "gatecrashers of civilization" are really part of nature's secret immune system, rushing in to repair our damaged planet. Provoking and affectionate, this extraordinary book challenges notions of both culture and agriculture. You will never look at a weed, or flourish a garden fork, in the same way again. (Richard Holmes, author of The Age of Wonder)

Book Description

A lively and lyrical cultural history of plants in the wrong place by one of Britain's best and most admired nature writers

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
"Weeds" is a study of our relationship and understanding of plants which are growing in the wrong place.

A number of themes and ideas reoccur throughout the book - and a number of these will be familiar if you have read some of Mabey's other books. So, we have the stories of plants which have been brought into the UK from the far corners of the world that have now become familiar, we have the softening of urban landscapes through the growth of plants and we have John Clare - poet and appreciator of the small and the beautiful.

The chapters in the book are organized (loosely) around a single plant - and through that plant our relationship with weeds is explored. These relationships are explored in the USA, Australia and the UK - but predominantly the UK. (In fact one book about the impact of feral species in Australia comes in for some pointed criticism at one point, largely because of the use of language Mabey considers imprecise).

But the key theme (and this is identified in the sub-title of the book) is that weeds force us to reconsider what we mean by wild, or what we mean by natural. Ecosystems are not static, and weeds have become an important part of the dynamic ecosystems that have been created by man.

In many ways this book is an extension of "The Unofficial Countryside" which was published by Maybey in the 1970's. In fact a number of pages of this book are a summary of parts of this earlier publication and a number of the anecdotes about weeds occur in both books. While this is not really a problem it is rather frustrating if (like me) you have read the earlier book within the last few months.
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Format: Hardcover
I didn't particularly expect to enjoy this book - my father-in-law, who's a keen gardener, absolutely hated it, which was the main reason I picked up his copy: to see if it was quite as bad as he said it was - and to my surprise found it completely fascinating. That may, however, be because though I have a garden, I wouldn't describe myself as a gardener, so the mistakes spotted by other reviewers went straight over my head. I do happen to know a bit about the Civil War, though, and though Mabey may perhaps be excused for thinking, perhaps due to his title, that the Earl of Essex was a Royalist commander, when in fact he was a Parliamentarian, which makes the anecdote in which he appears fairly meaningless, a decent editor or proofreader really ought to have picked it up. That was the most obvious non-horticultural solecism, so the comments elsewhere about accuracy are probably pretty close to the mark. I can well understand, therefore, that an expert would find this book infuriating, but as a layman it had me gripped. Whether saying that a book's appeal is to to the ignorant really counts as a recommendation, I'm not sure, but as a gardening dunce I'd give it a hearty 9 out of 10.
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Format: Hardcover
In 'Weeds', Richard Mabey has shown himself to be a true Renaissance Man. As he explores weeds and their history with man (for without man, there are no weeds), he effortlessly combines history and myth with science, art, literature and architecture. And he does it using language that makes no attempt to dumb itself down to the lowest common denominator, and yet to the literate reader is as enthralling and readable as mass-market paperbacks are to the masses.

The book itself is divided into twelve chapters, each given the common name of a plant that is considered to be a weed. But the chapters aren't mere discussions of the virtues (or not) of that plant, they have wide-ranging themes and touch on many plants and their stories. They are all tied together by the main story arc of how our perceptions of weeds have changed through the ages, and scattered with entertaining anecdotes. In 'Adonis', for example, we discover that Edward Salisbury raised more than 20 species of plant from the debris he found in his trouser turn-ups!

'Knotgrass' looks at the way weeds and theology have become entwined through the ages and how that has coloured our view of them. It's all caught up with the development of agriculture (before which 'weeds' as a concept did not exist) and the simultaneous advent of a life of toil and strife, before which we lived free and easy lives as hunter gatherers and weren't cursed by pestilent weeds.

'Self-heal' discusses the different ways that medicinal plants have been selected since history began, including the Doctrine of Signatures that professes that a plant's medicinal qualities (and the ailments they cure) can be seen in their form by an experienced practitioner.
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Format: Hardcover
A fairly good read though somewhat UK-centric in terms of plant names: the Glossary helps but the length gives some idea of the variety of weeds covered in the text.

I totally agree with several reviewers that suggest the text was rushed, e.g. "Nor it is it easy for Europeans..." (p.245) should not have escaped a sharp-eyed proofreader, nor should the repetition, e.g. the phoenix of the Great Fire of London - 'London rocket' rose twice inside of 70 pages or the constant naming of authors - Culpepper, Clare etc.

Parts of the book were hard going with swags of quoted text and I found the referencing of works thorough but annoying - sometimes in the text other times in the Notes and References: for me it did not help the flow of the text. As one reviewer (Snail "the-snail2") suggested - "A 4-page synopsis of the Day of the Triffids..." - a filler? And another "Pen" who wondered whether their dad managed to get past the half-way point... I wondered whether I would too but found it was worth the effort!

The topic is very interesting and large parts of the book I found terrific: the writer clearly passionate and knowledgeable. However, my feeling is that the book could be improved considerably with a little... pruning (yes, I was tempted to use the 'w' word!)
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