After six months in lockdown, our Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment on Lexington Avenue and Marcus Garvey Boulevard had become a static, oppressive place. I longed to experience something immense and not manmade: an ocean, a forest, a storm. But when I looked out the window, I saw what I thought was a dead concrete landscape, empty of people, the sidewalks occasionally littered by pale blue face masks and dropped latex gloves. The soundscape of ambulance sirens intensified my sense of the city-at-large as an anxious landlocked darkness. Inexplicably, I pictured the virus as strands of poisoned saffron — deep orange-red crocus stigmas — covering everything, and remained indoors.
I looked out at what I thought was a dead landscape, littered by pale blue face masks and dropped latex gloves. Then I decided to save myself.
Then I decided to save myself. If I could not swim off the coast of a Hebridean island, I would press myself against the wilds available in Brooklyn. For 25 years, I had felt my blindness, my paucity of understanding in regard to my immediate flora, which manifested as a kind of distraction whenever I went outside. In late August, I resolved that I had looked at my last urban plant without knowing its name.
What wonders I had missed. After four months, I have discovered, in an eight-block radius, a botanical layer with direct connections to the first blob of aquatic algae that embraced the land 3.8 billion years ago. This continuously burning “green fuse” — the force coursing through all living things, according to the poet Dylan Thomas — inevitably calls up thoughts of the fuse’s opposite. That is, death — one’s own or, depending on the day, that of our species. While plant-hunting, I try to imagine the cityscape without humans, and how all architecture — Manhattan skyscrapers, Brooklyn four-stories — would quickly be covered in vines, as would all benches, light posts, traffic lights, fountains, power lines, parked cars, chain-link fences, bridges, street signs, mailboxes, and billboards. In this ruin reverie, all is consumed by plant life like Houtouwan, a Chinese fishing village abandoned in the 1990s and now engulfed by vines and grasses. I walk in a liminal state up and down Brooklyn blocks, past nail salons and bike shops, front stoops and storefronts, contemplating death and the green fuse in equal measure. Mostly, though, I scour, crouch, touch, smell, photograph, clip, and collect. Often I talk to strangers, which I consider a meaningful conversational pollination.
A plant ID app downloaded to my phone has replaced my mother’s Field Guide to Wildflowers, and while this instant gratification feels like cheating, I comfort myself by considering that the 21st century affords us less leisure time to learn. I photograph each plant, and also gather physical specimens, taping each stalk and stem to an index card in solidarity with the analogue practice that botanizing used to be. After all, this looking at plants is about matter, in urgent and specific forms — the vessels for the force. The change from flower head to seed head is a plant’s raison d’etre and, having accomplished it, my drying specimens flake and shed loose seeds. This seed swill mixes at the bottom of the plastic bag where the index cards now live, a layer of dormant potentialities.
I am currently at 112 plants and fungi and counting, not including trees; since I’ve been focused on looking down, I remain tree-blind. I have found maize (corn) and Huckleberry Finnesque jimsonweed, thanks to an unknown guerrilla gardener intent on random and radical “bewilderings.” Sorghum pops up here and there, a cereal that grows as tall as corn and also has long, shiny green-yellow leaves. Proso millet has been spotted, probably the result of birdseed eaten and excreted by a bird. In addition, I’ve identified clammy goosefoot, sandcolored flatsedge, stinking lovegrass, curly and bitter dock, common mallow, climbing false buckwheat, coprinaceae (a fungus), and hollyhock. Mullein, white snake root, mulberry, wild garlic, purslane, and nettles grow alongside pokeweed, dogfennel, celandine, and birdeye pearlwart. Red and green wood sorrel, common groundsel, ragweed, mugwort, nimblewill grass, and Lady’s Thumb (a knotweed) flourish on our streets, as do carpetweed, smooth blue aster, bittersweet, common milkweed, bindweed, crow’s foot, and common white clover.
White snake root, purslane, pokeweed, dogfennel, birdeye pearlwart: Plant names are worlds in themselves.
Plant names are worlds in themselves. Crack the surface of a plant’s name and watch knotty word-cousins tumble out: Common mallow is also known as cheeseweed and buttonweed. Purslane can be called verdolaga; pigweed, little hogweed or pusley. Horseweed is also known as butterweed, mare’s tail, and hairy fleabane. Jimsonweed travels as thorn apple and devil’s snare, and somewhere, apparently, lesser burdock is called cuckoo button. (The app lists a plant’s multiple names but does not locate those names regionally or historically.) Weed genera offer up still further linguistic sugar plums: bonesets, snakeroots, spurges, beardtongues. Now add the cascade of compound weed-words: goatweed, crumbleweed, quickweed, beggarweed, carpetweed, stinkweed, cudweed, wireweed, etc.
Such old-fashioned-sounding terms — mallow, fleabane, groundsel — recall a vegetal past when we lived closer to plants, and knew them more intimately. Consider the suffix -wort, indicating that the plant in question possesses medicinal qualities, and a pleasing kind of Tower-of-Babel situation emerges. Often a wort’s leaves resemble the body part that plant was thought to address: nipplewort, lungwort, liverwort, bladderwort. Other worts were named after the malady they cured: sleepwort, bruisewort, feverwort, birthwort. From this lexicon emerge thoughts of tinctures, teas, dyes, and Iron Age salads. Emerald green lambsquarters is a post-glacial annual that has been eaten by humans for millennia. I could forage a sidewalk dish of lambsquarters and dandelion if only there were less diesel and dog piss in the mix. I could poison my enemies with jimsonweed (and still might). I could stop bleeding with crushed yarrow. I could feed a herd of cows with curly dock. I could make a cup of mullein tea, or a pot of amaranth porridge, in a New York minute.
I could poison my enemies with jimsonweed (and still might). I could make a cup of mullein tea in a New York minute.
The great French gardener Gilles Clément calls plants “emissaries of life,” and makes no distinctions between rose and dandelion; he calls himself a “planetary flaneur.” In his essay “In Praise of Vagabonds” (2011) — which translator Jonathan Skinner calls “a manifesto of vitalism” — Clément encourages the accommodation of “Planetary Gardens,” meaning that we should leave meadows to their own devices, and make spaces in our gardens for weeds, and enact widespread guerrilla cultivations. 1 Vagabond growth often occurs in broken, abandoned terrain — empty lots, construction sites, highway embankments, roadsides, gutters, bioswales, medians. Clément encourages us to foster strays and ruderals; to engage with what he has termed the Third Landscape, where the untamed rubs against the man-made.
My first day out last August, I identified a brittle little clump of Virginia pepperweed at the end of my ragged Bed-Stuy block, growing out of a rusted-metal electrical panel. Then Japanese hops came into focus, a plant that for years I thought was Concord grapes. I found Mexican tea, a champion of ubiquity; it accounts for 40 percent of the vegetation in my eight-block square. The first truly transcendent plant portal was opened for me by a patch of lemon balm on Greene Avenue and Marcus Garvey. Lemon balm is in the mint family, and its leaves are bright light green with an oily shine. (Bed-Stuy is awash in mint of various kinds, though spearmint and lemon balm dominate.) I did not expect to be transported by a plant growing in a diesely tree-bed. I crushed a leaf between my fingers and inhaled a wild smear of something like verbena; a crazy yellow sunny smell emanated from this weed growing a few feet from a dreary phone store and our steamy local laundromat. I talked to myself excitedly, smelling the leaf, all the way home.
Since then, I have found a giant clump of the magical stuff several blocks away, on Hancock Street at Lewis Avenue. I visit it often, and rub a torn leaf — bruise it, in plant parlance — and if someone walks by, I share a whiff.
Finding amaranth (also known as prostrate pigweed) was a second true shock; I was on Throop Avenue, in an extra-overgrown shady spot, when I saw the curved green spike of what I learned was amaranth poking straight up from an overgrown planter, shining in the sun. A few days later I came across two massive red amaranth bushes, big as wild turkeys, growing (as the poet Theodore Rotheke might say) “obscenely,” right there on Quincy Street, one block from our apartment. (Their enormous red inflorescences rivaled the color of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust mullet.) I have walked down Quincy hundreds of times but did not see the amaranth until that day; I had been “plant-blind,” a phenomenon identified in 1998 by the American botanists James H. Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler. 2 We trample and ignore plants, exhibiting both insensitivity and superiority, enacting what has been called “zoochauvinism,” privileging animals, especially humans, as if greenery functions as mere backdrop. I was blind, until I began to look; that is all it took to enter this urban botanical world.
I had been ‘plant-blind,’ until I began to look; that is all it took to enter this urban botanical world.
At the beginning, discoveries happened fast: The maize and millet were early thrills, after lemon balm. Corn has been sown all over Brooklyn by whimsical humans; I have noted at least eight stalks in my eight-block square; on one block, three grow in a row out of a sandy curb, a kind of natural bioswale, near a fire hydrant. Soon after the amaranth, I spotted a fuzzy common mullein with big floppy leaves. I crouched down to pet it like a rabbit. A block away I found its terrifying mother, a plant from outer space, at least four feet across, growing out of a stump in someone’s front yard. I imagined its spores sailing in the air; how many had been released to account for its one successful offspring? (I recently visited this stump to find the enormous plant gone; I was told it had begun to rot, stink, and attract flies like a Venus flytrap from a horror movie. The sick thing had been dug out and burned.) After the mullein mother, I found my first giant bush of jimsonweed, its wickedly spiked pods jammed with poisonous black seeds, packed in like a puzzle; since then I have tripped across five more. Even after months of hunting, I continue to discover new varieties, albeit at a slower pace; in mid-December, I came across my first wee waterfall of pennyroyal mint, also known as pudding grass, growing next to a massing of henpecked deadnettles and shepherd’s purse on the lawn of the Eleanor Roosevelt Houses’ Building 4, on Lewis between Pulaski Street and DeKalb Avenue — a rich floral hoard across from a lowly bus stop.
I make mistakes. Sometimes I forget what I know; plus, as plants metamorphose, they can assume forms that temporarily resemble others. Amaranth can look like Mexican tea, which I can confuse with clammy goosefoot. Horseweed fakes me out for beggarsticks and lambsquarters. Cowslip looks like goldenrod without its golden tassel, though sometimes I think goldenrod is plantain. Yet scales continue to fall from my eyes as I try to align myself more closely with these beings. I imagine their entire bodies now, the parts mingling underground; I have a diagram pinned to my office wall of various root systems. Bindweed roots can go down 30 feet; the common dandelion’s tap root pushes fifteen feet under the sidewalk. Some root systems spread sideways like hairy drainpipes; others are bristle-short. Some plants self-seed underground via roots or rhizomes (think ginger root), or, as is the case with sedges, by throwing off underground propagative “nutlets.” Plants force the mind to contemplate not just the varied displays of their leaves and flowers, but the ground itself, our dirt underworld whether nutrient-rich or depleted.
Finding a new specimen reminds me of learning a new word, how we suddenly seem to hear it on all lips, as if emerging from a case of “word-deafness.” For example, two weeks ago, I identified a group of chubby little cleaver plants, also known as stickywilly because of the Velcro-like vegetal loops on the underside of their leaves that help them hitch rides. Now I see cleaver everywhere.
Plants force the mind to contemplate the ground itself, our dirt underworld whether nutrient-rich or depleted.
I appreciate neglectful homeowners, just as an archeologist appreciates poor housekeepers. Slovenly yards and domestic disorder are money to me. When I come across a tree-bed lovingly planted with decorative cabbages and kales, my mind slides off. In Bed-Stuy, some municipal tree-beds, as well as neglected front yards, are completely given over to piles of lofted and tangled Mexican tea, also known as wormseed or epazote — which, despite its trying qualities, I do love. Big and airy as tumbleweeds, wormseed bunches and sprawls, entangling itself with masses of lesser burdock or morning glory. Its hard, tight, tiny green flowers grow in long spikes, what’s called a spicate inflorescence; I relish the tactile pleasure of stripping its granular dry seeds off its stems. I have come to love the common sow thistle (a.k.a. sowies or swinies), its leaves tipped with prickers. I know of a giant bull thistle on Lewis Ave. and Decatur Street that is taller than me, and horseweed everywhere reaches my chin. In November, I found sandcolored flatsedge (a nutsedge or nutgrass) with a triangular stem, in a chained lot at Quincy and Malcolm X Boulevard, and as I walked away, there, right in front of me, was a delicate anise-like tuft growing at the base of a step. It looked like a sea creature. I read later that when bruised it smells of pineapples; this to date is my only sighting of pineapple weed. Common stinking lovegrass is a delight to spot; one day, its big but delicate deep-purple seed heads lay on the sidewalk, having breached the fence enclosing the Bed-Stuy Volleys, the volunteer ambulance service founded when ambulances did not serve the neighborhood fast enough, or at all. Eventually, I came across Queen Anne’s lace or wild carrot in a Lexington Ave. lot, making me feel that the space should be designated a meadow. As if I were crossing a desert, I saw sedum, a succulent, like purslane; stringy stonecrop, it’s also called. Even monitored municipal grass in Bed-Stuy is a catch-all for random pollination. A man sitting on the corner of DeKalb at Marcus Garvey watched me collect a specimen of millet at his feet, and told me to go look in the yard of the Eleanor Roosevelt Houses, Building 1. I did, and brought him back hoary crabgrass, common mallow, green wood sorrel, dandelion, and plantain.
We call weeds volunteers, pioneers or strays or invaders, or creepers, escapees, opportunists, aggressive colonizers. Plants are indigenous or they are invasive; guidebooks warn that such varieties want to “take over” and “choke and strangle.” There are only a handful of indigenous species on my list. How American.
There are only a handful of indigenous species on my list. How American.
Some early interlopers arrived in the rocky ballasts of colonial ships; once ballast rocks were dumped, stowaway plants were free to become “permanent colonists.” Mugwort, native to Europe and Asia, is believed to have been introduced by 16th-century Jesuit missionaries, as well as via continuous dumps of “contaminated” ship ballast throughout the 1800s. Kudzu, the best-known invasive other, traveled to Philadelphia for the 1876 Centennial Exposition and never left. Japanese stilt grass arrived around 1919, having been used as packing materials for imported porcelain. Nineteenth-century gentleman botanists kept records of New York’s ballast piles and other such mechanisms of dispersal, and recorded emergent shoots and colonies. Alien plants continue to come to our shores, now monitored and surveilled by several agencies, including the USDA Forest Service. These ICE-like squads determine which invasive species may “prey upon” our native species on their evolutionary way to becoming “naturalized.”
As a writing teacher, I have tried, conversely, not to anthropomorphize my subjects. Granted, it is difficult. Already I have called the giant mullein a mother, though this is a proper botanical usage; I have resisted calling this plant she. I usually denigrate the pathetic fallacy as a failure of imagination, telling my students that it speaks of a fairytale world where apple trees talk and stars dance, if not a world where smooth blue asters have the agency to “intrude.” I hope they do not read this essay. It is hard not to think of these plants as determined survivors whose seeds were buffeted hither and thither until landing in some crack where, as the mustard seed does in the Bible, they took root. Sometimes it’s hard to see what a plant is rooted to. I have seen things growing out of iron fence posts, cement curbs, and brick facades; out of seams where street joins curb where no dirt is; out of air, it seems. Plucky, scrappy, ingenious, tenacious, single-minded: These tough kids are my friends.
To persevere, as weeds do, seems akin to human acts of faith — in a weed’s natural calling to survive, one recognizes oneself.
In other words, inevitably, my collecting involves ranking, and I have come to dislike a few plants quite a bit. Nearly immediately I began to separate what I identified into rare versus ordinary, beautiful versus ugly, complex versus dull. Pineapple weed, candygrass, sandcolored flatsedge, and lemon balm are my diamonds. Mexican tea, which I first thought was slang for low-grade pot, is not really lovely — plus, it famously smells of motor oil. Lesser burdock can be frightening; its leaves are twice as large as my head; it seems to come from a steamy, buggy prehistoric forest; I shudder to think what greater burdock might look like. However, I save my true distain for the non-weeds. If I walk by a patch of pachysandra or a rouge snapdragon, garden varietals that have “escaped” their “borders,” I am unmoved. These coddled creatures do not interest me at all; they should be in the suburbs. If I identify what turns out to be an ornamental like false strawberry, I think less of it. I know that it did not drift here as a seed and burrow into a hostile corner to live. Underdogs by nature are stronger than the privileged and the chosen, and to persevere, as weeds do, seems akin to human acts of faith — i.e. to believe in something without a single twig of evidence, as Kierkegaard suggests. In a weed’s natural calling to survive, one recognizes oneself.
Recently I walked past a space growing weeds that haunts me, in part because I have not been able to locate it again. It was an image of a kind of cosmic luck. A large, deep, unused back entrance of what must be the residence hall for a church, this space-within-a-space has clearly been a fortunate place for seeds to land. Set back from the street and guarded by a thin, limp chain, dandelions here have grown glossy, plump, enormous. Emerald bugleweed has clung robustly to and climbed the building. The difference in health between these specimens and others of their kind is profound, like what one sometimes sees in neighborhoods where the wealthy live alongside the poor. How is it that the dandelions growing by the supermarket on Marcus Garvey and Lafayette Avenue, the one that smells of blood, are wan and dusty, while these have enjoyed special protection, as if in a spa or a nursery? I walked on past the little hortus conclusus contemplating inequity in the plant world, and took a left at the corner where the three corn plants grow, to walk home past the yellow primrose with its hexagonal pods and the purslane growing like crazy in front of the gang house near the park. I am my own imperial weed, I admitted to myself. As a white woman in Bed-Stuy, I am considered an invader by some, though I don’t own property here or anywhere. Like Japanese hops, I can be understood as an aggressive species looking to take over, though I understand myself more as a sow thistle holding on for dear life.
Now that I see plants, if I walk down a truly bare street — where a new building has gone up, or new sidewalk has been laid — I feel I am inside the objective correlative of my heart during this last year. Our world without wild growth is Hell. We need to see grasses pushing up through concrete. When fall comes, we need to acknowledge the turning-black of black-nightshade berries, and how the false climbing buckwheat’s nictitating membrane-white calyxes turn to translucent wings of tracing paper. Since late September, I’ve watched a kingdom of seeds emerge as plant flesh withers. What is more mysterious than a seed? A single dandelion tussock, for example, produces about 5,000 seeds a summer, so that over the course of an average dandelion’s long life (thirteen years), upwards of 65,000 seeds will have been released. We need to know that, at any given moment on any Brooklyn street, we are surrounded by thousands and thousands of seeds and spores. Dynamic processes of sucking, gripping, exchanging, emitting, growing, and propagating are taking place under our feet, over our heads.
In the spring, I will be another guerrilla gardener for Bed-Stuy. I’ll be like the wind, or a passing animal.
In Bed-Stuy, often one finds a cluster of spent candles outside a building, sometimes with a dedicatory sign. Sometimes libations are left, sometimes fried chicken or french fries. Flowers too, often plastic ones that will stay bright and in bloom. Sometimes these memorials are for gang members, and red handkerchiefs are tied on nearby gates and trees. In July, a one-year-old, Davell Gardner, Jr., was killed on Madison Street at Raymond Bush Park; his memorial was made around the spot. Among the stuffed animals, cards, and plastic panicles, I noticed real blue violets growing lushly along the fence, along with bunches of green cleaver and feathery mugwort. The baby was hit by a stray bullet in his stroller, and he died surrounded by these plants. I thought of Paul Goodman’s poem “Pagan Rites” (1967), in which he names each weed and flower on the mountainside where his son Matty fell to his death. He brings Matty a dandelion, “because he was a common weed / and also he was splendid.”
Winter is here. The ragged nightshade’s berries have indeed gone black. The sidewalks, still littered with masks and gloves, are now also strewn with sweetgum pricker-balls, pinecones, pine needles, banana-shaped caster beans, black walnuts, and prehistoric-looking magnolia seed-husks. Acorns ping off car hoods and sometimes my head. Homeowners sweep up leaves and tie bunches of sticks together to be taken away by sanitation workers (even those who are plant blind perform these attentions). Sugars are surging and pods splitting; small white flowers have emerged on some plants; others have gone skeletal. A large dandelion on Monroe Street has grown willowy and ghostly; as it expires, its milk-filled stems have turned into attenuated, yellowy-glowing tubes. The lambsquarters are red, as is the Virginia creeper that covers our kitchen window — though, to be precise, what leaves are left are more an orange-fuchsia color with extra light in it. In the next few months, I imagine myself walking these streets like Demeter, grieving the loss of my darlings. However, I have a plan: in the spring, I will take the inch-deep layer of varied seeds from the bottom of my plastic bag and I will be a Johnny Appleseed, another guerrilla gardener for Bed-Stuy. I’ll be like the wind, or a passing animal.
If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.