Book Review: Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast


Hello my dear plant people!  I’m realizing more and more how much folks are looking to reconnect with nature, but don’t know where to begin.  Over the next few weeks, I’m hoping to review some of my favorite books, that enlighten, inspire, and help me make sense of all the plant friends around me.  Often we feel a little isolated on this journey, maybe we don’t know many people who know or care to know anything about the plants surrounding us, or maybe it’s hard to coordinate spending time with others that do. What do we do when we can’t ask a friend or an expert what the plant is that we see every day on the way to wherever we need to be?  I have found some of the books in my life to be an easy and beautiful entry to connecting to the flora around me.  Once I got excited and inspired to go out on my own, I also to started to find my plant people to exchange this knowledge with.  I hope this helps inspire and excite you wherever you are on your plant journey!

Years ago, when I first started studying herbs and looking at plants, it was like blinders were taken off of my eyes.  It was hard for me to walk down the street without stopping and looking at all the little (and sometimes huge) plants growing out of the sidewalk.  The closest reference I had for this was when I was studying art and would go spend some time in a museum.  There was so much to see, you either spent too much time examining a very small amount of work, or you had to ignore huge amounts of artwork, to find the few that pulled you in.  I spent 5 years in NYC, and felt very far removed from all the living and growing habits of all the new (to me) plants I was studying and learning about.  When I made the transition from the “Big City” to the “Little city”(Pittsburgh), it didn’t immediately get better.  I would still stop and look at many plants, often having no idea what they were.  Now though, it wasn’t just looking at plants growing through fences and out of asphalt, it was plants on hiking trails through the woods as well.  It hadn’t occurred to me yet, that different plants enjoy growing in different places, and some are much more adapted to cities than others.  I was also only beginning to hear the term “invasive” applied towards plants, and realized that even in the natural world, we tend to polarize everything into “good” and “bad” categories, as if nature could ever be so black and white.

I first picked up this book, “Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast”, at a friend’s house, and immediately fell in love with it.  Here were plants I walked by every day, easily recognizable, described in detail, including their ecological functions, and even their cultural significance.  There are many reasons I love this book, and here a just a few of them:

1)When I first picked it up, and thumbed through it, I saw and identified at least 3 plants that I had seen hundreds of times, had been wondering about, but hadn’t taken the time to key out.  If you are the type of person who walks along city streets and looks at the flora, but knows almost no names for the plants you see, you will be identifying more than a few handfuls of plants you see every day, after just one sitting with this book.


2) The photos are excellent.  And by that I mean they are useful.  They show a wide view of the plant (many books do not do this), up close views of plant parts and different stages of growth, different changes to the plant seasonally, and there is usually at least one of it growing in its “natural” urban environment.  The photos that don’t try to “pretty it up” makes it immediately accessible to those of us who saw it every day growing through that rusty chain link fence, or out from under that abandoned car.  And those urban indicators also give you and excellent sense of the size of each part.  Most of us can look at these pictures and know exactly what size the flower or leaf would be based on the girth of a telephone pole that it’s growing beside in the photo.

3) It doesn’t favor rare or native plants, but gives equal time to both native and invasive species that are commonly found in urban spaces. This is important to me, because so many times we are tempted to just cast a plant off as a “weed” without knowing anything about it, aside from the fact that it grows everywhere that we don’t want it to.

4) The author makes the case for valuing each plant rather than demonizing the so-called invasives.  This can be a controversial topic in plant circles, but I appreciate that the author is determined to recognize the positive aspects of plants coming in and colonizing our abandoned city spaces.  Too often they are thought of as part of the “blight”, when they are still in fact helping us breathe by creating more oxygen, pulling pollutants out of the air and the ground, providing shelter and food for wildlife, reminding us that we can’t control everything, especially not nature and her evolving ways.

5) It even has occasional plant-based fashion tips!



I’m not getting paid to say this (but perhaps I should look into that, ha!), but it’s one of my favorite plant books to have around.  I think it’s great for beginner and intermediate naturalists alike, by virtue of it’s breadth and depth, and intriguing philosophy on the “invasive” plant debate.  I highly recommend checking it out, getting it from your local library, or suggesting it if they don’t already have it.  Stay tuned for more of my favorite plant books!



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