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2006 07 26
Philosopher’s Walk V: Toronto the Wild and Weedy
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A kind of latter-day class snobbery exists among Toronto arborists and horticulturalists with respect to the city's flora. Some of Toronto's most robust and abundant trees and plants are subject to regular pogroms or are, at the very least, viciously impugned. Two of the city's common trees -- Manitoba maple (Acer negundo, also known as box elder), and Chinese sumach (Ailanthus glandulosa, also known as "tree of heaven"), are widely denigrated as "garbage" or "junk" plants. Indeed, the City of Toronto's Urban Forestry Services Department has issued a Fact Sheet (.pdf format) explaining how to eradicate Manitoba maples, and the Task Force to Bring Back the Don laments the presence of the "invasive" Chinese sumach. The City is slightly kinder to weeds (dandelions, creeping charlie, broad-leafed plantain, and the like), which it describes as "annoying interlopers", claims are symptomatic of unhealthy lawns, and suggests choking out by hand.

But we are faced with an urban conundrum. The City's "get a free tree" program, in which City crews will plant a tree on your front lawn or boulevard within the City-owned road allowance, is commendable but does not in practice keep up very well with the aging of Toronto's urban forest. There are also numerous areas of Toronto where neither the City nor property owners pay much attention to the character or health of trees and plants. And it is in these areas that the very "garbage trees" and "weeds" the City maligns are best suited to thrive. These areas include abandoned properties and lots under construction or demolition, the fringes of parking lots, alleyways, industrial scrubland, passages along the city's major roads, unmaintained ravines and parkland, and rail corridors. It is not that these areas might not be improved if they supported whole glades of domestic species -- sugar and silver maples, red oak, black walnut, honey locust -- native to the mixed deciduous forests that grew here before Toronto did. But the reality is that they do not and perhaps (because the soil is disturbed or contaminated by chemicals or concrete and rubble) cannot. And so, at least in the interim, these unkempt spaces are occupied by interloper species that manage to do the same job of contributing oxygen to the air, holding the soil, and providing animal habitat that the elect species would do in the same locations. As naturalist Wayne Grady writes in Toronto the Wild (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1995: 147), "it is in the nature of wild plants to take over waste places, and cities provide a lot of waste places." Accordingly, it is my view that these trees and plants should be valued as ecological placeholders in the same way that farmers in the past valued (and indeed sowed) the clovers that grew in fallow fields between periods of cultivation. I do not suggest the city necessarily encourage the cultivation and tending of Manitoba maples, but that it should not mandate the wholesale eradication of them, either. I would rather see a vacant lot overgrown with Manitoba maples and garlic mustard than one denuded or planted with an inappropriately placed native tree destined to be cut down when the land is converted in five or ten years.

I will admit to a liking for the Chinese sumach. We have two growing in our back garden, and one is highly ornamental, its lower branches silhouetted against the garage like a tree of life. I enjoy their heady, musky scent in June (which the people over at Spacing Wire have reported give rise to the tree's vernacular name, "cum tree"). We also have three Manitoba maples, cutting and cultivating two of them to provide privacy in places no other tree or shrub will grow: an overlooked advantage of the Manitoba maple is that it is nearly impossible to kill, meaning that careful (and regular) pruning will turn it into an attractive and functional hedge. (For the record, we also support more socially acceptable trees -- cedars, several maples, a mulberry, a red ash, and a honey locust, which rub shoulders with the unwashed legions of 'lesser' trees on our 25 by 120 foot city lot.)

I confess a similar admiration for weedy plants as well.While researching this post I discovered that the attractive biennial growing beside our front verandah is Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), a plant high on the City's list of undesirable weeds. On our front lawn, too, we have cultivated an as-yet unknown (to us, anyway) plant we call (like the Borg) "the meadow", which grows better and more attractively than grass and provides a low jungle for the neighbourhood cats to lie and pounce in. The first year we began gardening seriously, a neighbour (one with a fanatically maintained front garden) asked, incredulously, why we were so carefully transplanting creeping Charlie. And it is not that we do not also grow more usual garden plants, either. We also support an array of enchinacea (purple Coneflower), shasta daisies, chrysanthemums which grow as perennials, evening and cowslip primrose, four kinds of iris, lavender (of course, being my namesake), a dozen other kinds of herbs, a climbing rose, and a sweeping mat of different groundcovers. We also provide housing for spreading ornamental plants which have escaped from neighbours on both sides.

On the whole, our view about gardening is faintly Darwinian, in the sense that we grow what the soil will support. And as with most residential properties in Toronto, that can be a tall order between a centrury's worth of rubble buried beneath a few inches of topsoil and the clay-sand mix that seems to top the shale and limestone that underlie the city's soil strata. To add to that, Toronto's summer climate can often be characterized as a kind of humid drought which is devastating to plants needing significant amounts of water. In this respect I am warmly inclined toward Wayne Grady's view on weeds, about which he observes,
Clearly, the definition of "weed" is a matter of personal preference and has very little to do with the behaviour of plants in nature. ... [I]t may also be that in the city, where plants have a utility beyond commerce, we can afford to be more tolerant. (ibid.: 146)
I think, also, that it is worth remembering that the favoured plants of childhood are almost always weeds: dandelions, with their golden blush and stalks suitable for making into bracelets and chains; pineapple weed, with its evocative blooms late in the summer; shepherd's purse, named for the little, satchel-like leaves on its stem; bell flowers that look like fairy hats; violets, that seem to grow specifically at a child's-eye view. It seems an erasure and undoing if we wipe out such memories by killing off these plants. Moreover, many of the weeds we chafe and pull at have culinary or medicinal properties and are considered herbs. Plantain, for example, is reportedly used as a herbal remedy because of its mildly astringent and antispetic qualities when the leaves are made into a poultice helpful for bites, rashes, and cuts. Indeed, in Rosemary Aubert's Toronto novel Free Reign (Berkeley, 1997), a vagrant ex-Judge living in the Don Valley (who serves as the novel's protagonist) does this very thing in an effort to soothe and heal abrasions and an infection picked up in the polluted river.

I suppose, though, that I do not need to protest too much about the value of weeds. Whether we loathe or tolerate them, they are are likely as termites to stick around.

(The above photograph of plantain (Plantago major) growing seditiously and unchecked at the University of Toronto was taken by Noaman Ali and is used under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.)
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 07/26 at 09:38 AM

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