Weeds of Melbourne is an experiment in bootstrap botany and historical storytelling. The website archives material typically first published @weedsofmelbourne on Instagram.
The project charts a course triangulated between environmental history, historical ecology and popular botany. If ‘landscape is history made visible,’ the loudest and most uncomfortable visuals in Australia’s urban and rural landscapes are all too often the weeds, a living archive of the compressed 250 years of invasion and ecological devastation that followed 1770.
Everyone recognises weeds, and where we recognise a plant as a weed there are a set of aesthetic, moral and practical responses it generates. These plants manifest as evidence of disorder, pollution or neglect, and we often experience a very physical sense of dismay or disgust in recognising a weed in a landscape we value.
On this channel we don’t forget about that response, but we treat weeds as plants to go look for in their own right, and to try to understand when you find them. Some of the rarer introduced plants seen here may or may not pose problems somewhere, but where they do show up around the metropolitan they can perhaps be treated as a novel curiosity rather than something requiring hate or eradication. The more prevalent weeds are certainly economic or environmental problems (although often they are really just symptoms of larger problems in how we manage land); yet these too merit a more comprehensive understanding alongside necessary control measures. Finally, plants are fantastically beautiful things, and a weed is as capable of rising to that abstract aesthetic standard as is the rightly valued native flora.
Weeds of Melbourne consists of an ongoing series of occurrences recorded and researched organically, as a consequence of observing plants in the city. Every weed presents a series of provocative questions: what is it? where did it come from? who or what brought it here? how and why does it endure? Each species profile posted here is a start towards answering those questions.
The project dimensions
The project is interpretive, tentative where necessary, and will always be incomplete. It is not and should not be treated as an authority for identification, management decisions, or scientific purposes, although occasional observations here may have scientific value and ultimately will be documented for other archives.
Every plant featured has been located and photographed within the Melbourne metropolitan. This is typically within the formal metropolitan area definition that extends from Little River to the Mornington Peninsula; however from the perspective of the city’s historical ecology we do from time to time include weeds at satellite centres such as Queenscliffe and the major Goldfields hubs like Ballarat, and at Geelong. In practice, and with apologies to those who would strenuously argue that they do not live in Melbourne, this project treats Melbourne as the conurbation that envelopes Port Phillip Bay and extends along major infrastructural corridors to the closest regional centres and holiday towns.
Melbourne shares many weeds with the Western District, Gippsland, the Mallee and Murray, but there are also introduced plants in all those places which for reasons of climate (particularly rainfall and soil) and land management processes do not appear in the metropolitan region today. The project is unlikely to cover those weeds directly, except where there is an expectation that a species will soon show up in the metropolitan; Coast Capeweed (Arctotheca populifolia) is a good example of a plant we might soon cover here. It would be great to find the right opportunity to give the ‘Weeds of Melbourne’ treatment to some extra-Metropolitan species via another channel.
About the history
As an archive, Australia’s weeds record the intention, arrogance, ignorance and negligence of the British invasions, and all those features and others besides of individual people who arrived here both by purpose, accident and birth. They are an annual manifest of 250 years of plans both well and poorly made, and of the non-human or trans-human agency of plants from around the world that hitched a ride on the Imperial and 20th century networks that were stapled to this continent.
In so many of these stories, we also see the monumental incapacity of government officers, private enterprise and individual and collective action to recover real control over these offending flora once the scope of the problem was understood. The last century of scientific and industrial advances, pioneering biocontrol releases, and all-out ‘wars’ on weeds whether government-declared or citizen-led, have at their best succeeded in confining some weeds to the margins: the marginal, neglected or invisible land, spaces and environments where control efforts are impractical or impossible. Those are the best cases. In many cases, massive applications of innovative research, funded control programmes or volunteer labour achieved nothing at all.
Our weeds are rooted, literally and figuratively, in the devastation of Australian landscapes by the British imperial system and its Australian federal successor, imposed through:
- the violence of muskets, and of agricultural systems (beginning with the violent mouths and ravenous stomaches of sheep and cattle),
- the transformative logistics and physical engineering of shipping, road and railway construction,
- the sweeping extraction of mineral, timber and soil resources, and the conversion of the extracted landscapes into low-grade pasturage with imported plant species and superphosphates,
- horticultural activities both world-facing and colloquial, and
- countless further dimensions of the 19th and 20th century social economy.
Despite their evident relationship to the collective systems and practices that brought them here, many of our weeds have popular origin stories that reference instead the actions of individual settlers. Often these stories sit uncomfortably somewhere between apocryphal morality play and historical evidence, but they can also reveal how risk, responsibility and environmental change were perceived by early settlers (and by the media and government figures who were the first to tell these stories in a durable form).
Historical observers were also very conscious that weeds are themselves living agents, the product of ecological relationships and capacities which extend beyond the limits of human control, and which exist in defiance of our efforts to order places and landscapes to desired (economic / cultural / aesthetic) ends. The dispersal of weeds to and within Australia was kinetic in a host of ways, but critically it has relied as much on the plants’ own evolved traits, faculties and capacities to interact with new environments as it has on human systems of action.
All this points to the thick social and ecological history of weeds in Australia that has only occasionally received detailed coverage in official botanical references, journal articles and guidebooks. Some botanists have made efforts to get to grips with the history of weed introductions, whether by carefully combing the archival sources or more recently through phylogenetic analysis, but it would not be out of line to observe that nothing approaching a comprehensive history of weeds in Australia has been attempted.
Conventional botanical histories in Australia have often focused on the intentional distributions of colonial networks of botanical exchange (and their local agents in groups like the Acclimatisation societies and figures like von Mueller and Bunce here in Victoria), with as much rosy lighting as could be mustered. Telling histories of the outcomes of oversight, neglect and the incapacity of individuals, society and government to exert control over events and ecologies has been and remains much less comfortable. But is there a better or more bitterly contested signpost for the ecological devastation wrought by the European invasion of Australia than our weeds?
Within the project, the species featured are typically profiled with as little moralism or prescription as is practical.
The ‘weed’ epithet, as implied in a plant being featured by the project, is employed to describe a context, and should not be read as a pejorative. Some of the plants featured are barely weedy by conventional measures—they are adventives, enduring garden remnants, or plants capable of spreading only under very particular circumstances. Others are plants which seem to be exceeding the weediness attributed to them in the authorities, but for which this project will hardly be the last word.
Various jurisdictions apply ‘noxious’, ‘prohibited/controlled’, or similar declarations to a subset of weeds which have an economic impact to agriculture or are otherwise a threat to the health of livestock or (rarely) humans. These are a small fraction of the total number of weed species growing in Australian cities, agricultural lands and environmental areas. Many other species have been recognised as ‘environmental weeds’ by land managers, scientists and volunteers; this is a descriptive appellation and not a title that carries any legal weight in most jurisdictions in Australia.
While the project chronicles the effects of these introduced and invasive plants, it avoids treating plants as morally or objectively ‘bad’ outside of the (economic/social/environmental) contexts in which they are problematic. This is not in order to promote some sort of misguided relativism, and indeed the author supports efforts to control, remove and exclude problem weeds from valued environmental places. However, it is a response to the sheer impracticality of control in many cases, as well as to the ways in which a morally-based rejection of weeds is often a manifestation of other political and social claims. The moral rejection of weeds, whether in opposition to individual sloth and negligence (the late 19th/early 20th century response) or in demonstration of a commitment to Australian native plants (de rigueur from the late 20th century onward), is a critical part of the historical ecology that we are trying to unpack here.
Occasionally we will feature a plant that is a native or indigenous species. ‘All native plants are good’ is as misguided a tenet as ‘all weeds are bad’. Although written from a perspective that accepts the high value of indigenous ecological function and plant communities, this project does not subscribe to the easy moral assessments attached to ‘native’ status. The negative consequences wrought by a host of introduced, Australian native plants outside of their previous ranges are well-documented in Victoria and should be necessary background for anyone involved in planting or land management at all scales.
Locally indigenous species that prove capable of colonising Melbourne’s urban landscapes can also be both amusing curiosities and important evidence of the broader ecological potential of these species. When the project features a native fern or indigenous salt bush doing its thing in a novel location, we are not offering an argument in favour of destruction.
The project encourages thoughtful responses to all plants featured here, both exotic and indigenous. That can mean slashing and spraying plants where they do threaten valued places, public or private amenity, or cultivated land or other economic activities. It can also mean enjoying the appearance of a plant growing where it isn’t supposed to be: in the footpath, on the wall of a government building, or on the disturbed margins that accompany everything we build, do or manage.
This website is incomplete, a work in progress in which plants are researched and profiled ‘as they are seen’ (and conclusively identified).
At present, there are many holes and lacunae in the distribution of plants profiled, particularly among grasses, trees, aquatics, and several dense herbaceous groups that may be challenging to identify or photograph (or both). These gaps will resolve over time, but get in touch if you’d like to assist in bringing one of these aspects of the project up to speed.
Some groups of plants will also be over-represented, based on ease of identification, seasonal and spatial availability, and the personal interest of the observer.
As described above, this is an effort at bootstrap botany. Identifications are made cautiously, to the extent that this limits the frequency and volume of posting; to the extent practical, we will avoid errors in identification and description. Errors may nonetheless occur; queries and corrections are always welcome.
When in doubt or when it will matter, please consult the actual authorities.
About the author
Michael David Cook is a landscape architect, heritage consultant and occasional public artist. He resides in Melbourne, Australia. Contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org