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4.5 out of 5 stars
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4.5 out of 5 stars
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This book keeps changing its subtitle, reflecting our uneasy relationship with this treif* category. Scroll inside and you'll see it's properly subtitled (take a deep breath) How vagabond plants gatecrashed civilisation and changed the way we think about nature. Not in a good way, Richard Mabey might have added, but vagabond is right - don't we all want to roam free? I don't doubt for a minute the strictures of reviewers more learned than I, but for me Mabey will always be on the side of the angels, and no maybes about it. Illustrated with discrete line drawings by Clare Roberts

* Treif: opposite of kosher
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on 25 March 2014
I am very interested in nature and I garden for wildlife. Wildflowers that some people regard as 'weeds' (and that is their right to do so) are the mainstay of the flora in my wildlife garden, along with more 'cultivated' varieties. So to read about where many of these plants originated is fascinating to me. It lets me know I'm on the right track. I'd recommend this book to all those interested in wild plants and wildlife in general. I read it as an ebook on an original Kindle, so probably missed out on any quality illustrations, but this didn't detract from the book.
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on 4 August 2011
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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on 24 June 2017
Good read, has given me a new perspectives on what we see as unwanted visitors to our garden. Recommended.
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on 13 May 2017
Brilliant book in 1st class condition
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 24 February 2011
"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.

This is a book that sets out to challenge the idea the "weeds are bad" (my words) in all circumstances and as such makes valuable reading if you are interested in the development of modern human influence ecosystems and our relationship to the plants within them.

This should not be taken as meaning this is a "heavy" or "over-serious" book - far from it. It is written with Mabey's familiar style and passion and in a few places it actually and intentionally funny.

If you are already a fan of Mabey's work you will enjoy this book, and it should also appeal to new readers of the author. Recommended.
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on 29 July 2011
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. There's an echo of these ideas later on in 'Burdock' when Mabey revisits Ruskin's attempt to classify plant species on the basis of their aesthetic qualities, at a time when our understanding of botany and evolution was beginning to give us a real understanding of why plants grow in the way the do.

I got bogged down in 'Love-in-idleness', which is about the presence of plants in literature. Shakespeare I can cope with, but as I have no appreciation of poetry the latter half of the chapter was heavy going. I skipped it and moved on to 'Gallant Soldier', which is fascinating because it talks about the ways in which weeds are transported around the world, and also because it mentions locations with which I am more than familiar. Mabey makes it clear that the biosecurity genie is well and truly out of the bottle. We have been transporting plants around the globe - on purpose and unwittingly - for as long as we have been on it.

Mabey rounds out the book with a glossary of plant names, a bibliography and an index and his hope that whilst our concept of weeds is an indication of our separation from the natural world, their habit of refusing to accept or acknowledge boundaries could show us the route back to a life more in tune with nature. If you have even a passing interest in plants and their impact on our lives, this is an essential read.
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on 25 November 2011
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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on 6 June 2012
This is a fascinating book for laymen like me who haven't progressed further than identifying dandelions. I have moved into the world of wildflower identification with a couple of picture books from the garden centre so 'weeds' is a natural progression.

The author makes weeds enchanting with his discussion of their history, propogation and place in popular culture and I have started peering into hedgerows and building sites as a result.

I recommend this to anyone with an amateurs/allotment holder's interest in flora and fauna.

The only other weed book on my shelf was published by a herbicide manufacturer in the 1970's and reading it now it seems like a poisoner's manual on the dark arts.
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on 17 May 2014
Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature is a book stuffed to the gunwales with endlessly re-tellable stories and factlets. An excellent representative of Mabey's brilliant non-fiction output, the narrow remit of Weeds perfectly suits his skills as a writer of beautiful entertaining prose and as an unparallelled linker of apparently unrelated trifles. By turns witty, informative and dazzlingly well read, Mabey is the perfect companion for this cultural odyssey into the natural world.

Full disclosure: As a lazy and economically challenged gardener with a tendency to embrace the appearance of weeds in my patch (all that ground-cover reduces watering on hot days, attracts beneficial wildlife and fills in the gaps where the plant budget runs out... right?) I am naturally delighted by arguments in their favour. And make no mistake, this is a book which comes out cheering on the side of the thistles and the tares. Lovers of hoed bare soil between regimented clumps of begonias should look away, or at least attempt to approach with a (wide) open mind.

Weeds has the merit of being both refreshingly funny and charmingly enthusiastic about the characters (both human and plant) that fill its chapters. Organised around individual plants, although always prone to digression, the book is beautifully produced and illustrated. It's also the kind of book that frequently sends the reader scurrying to the internet or home library in search of illustrations of the plants referred to in the text or pursuing more elusive quarry: Janet Malcolm's burdock portraits or Simon Starling and his Island For Weeds.

As Mabey observes, the names of weeds have the character of found poetry: rosebay willowherb, scarlet pimpernel, green alkanet, fuller's teasel. In his monumental Flora Britannica he collected the common names of many of the British species of wayside plant; names that reflect historical uses and forgotten customs as well as the sense of place and familiarity created by a local weed population. Here he speaks of the fondness people feel even for invasive foreign plants such as Indian balsam (perhaps more commonly known as policeman's helmet) and quotes the lovely Ann Stevenson poem (Himalayan Balsam) likening the scent of the plant to that of "a girl's breath through lipstick".

As Mabey outlines in his opening chapter:

"How and why and where we classify plants as undesirable is part of the story of our ceaseless attempts to draw boundaries between nature and culture, wildness and domestication. And how intelligently and generously we draw those lines determines the character of most of the green surfaces of the planet."

Confidently covering the criss-crossing trails of botany, gardening, farming, art, religion and popular culture, Weeds opens up the paradox of our own attitudes to weeds while allowing the plants the dignity of their own eloquent histories. From Culpeper to Ruskin to John Wyndham, this is a smart, wise and fascinating look into a world both foreign and familiar.
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