Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: Richard Mabey, Weeds

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mabey-weedsRichard Mabey, Weeds: How vagabond plants gatecrashed civilisation and changed the way we think about nature, Profile Books Ltd, ISBN 978 I 84668 076 2, £15.

Richard Mabey writes poetically and persuasively about plants which gardeners and farmers seek to exterminate. The Director of Kew Gardens, Stephen Hopper, in his endorsement of the book, sums things up well: ‘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 … [he] opens our minds and hearts in unexpected ways to the fallacy of an implacable divide between people and nature … a great read’.

However, as Mabey’s enthusiasm speeds ahead he abandons accuracy; his account of plantains seems to gather the lore associated with both ribwort and greater plantain and treat them as one species. For the reader who wants to take things further, the way in which references are given is regrettable. It seems as though most publishers are moving towards allowing only few references – just enough to give an illusion of academic respectability. It appears that Mabey’s publishers have limited him to a maximum of one reference per page, and such references are often cited in an unhelpful manner. For example, Marcel de Cleene and Marie Claire Lejeune’s Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe (2003) is given as a source of information on midsummer fires, but no page numbers are provided. Since de Cleene and Lejeune’s work extends to almost 1,600 pages, page numbers would help readers follow things up. It is apparent that Mabey consulted an extraordinarily wide range of publications and it would have been good to have fuller information about these sources.

Despite this major shortcoming, I, like Stephen Hopper before me, couldn’t put it down once I started reading.

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