Weeds Might Save the World

Words by
Lorissa Rinehart
| November 5, 2018

Toxic waste sites may not seem like the best places to find solutions to climate change. But according to artists and naturalists Ellie Irons and Anne Percoco, that’s exactly where we should be looking. Since 2015, this collaborative duo has been collecting seeds from plants growing in brownfields and superfund sites, abandoned lots and sidewalk cracks. Their goal? To build the Next Epoch Seed Library (NESL), a collection of the toughest plants the world has ever known. But even more amazing than their ability to grow under the harshest conditions is the capacity of these plants to restore these damaged landscapes.

Seed sample tray housed in NESL’s central library structure, used in popup libraries and exhibitions.

Their most obvious benefit is of course photosynthesizing carbon dioxide – the number one contributor to global warming – into oxygen. Since urban areas are the largest producer of this greenhouse gas, plants that are able to grow in the concrete jungle and turn CO2 into O2 on site, are all the more valuable. In light of the recent United Nations’ report warning of near future catastrophic consequences from global warming, these are exactly the kinds of plants we’ll need. But they do much more than just clean the air – as if that wasn’t enough already.

Irons calls these weedy species first responders since they often appear spontaneously in environmentally compromised areas, “helping heal the soil and land where humans have left a dire, environmentally unjust situation behind.” For instance, Asiatic dayflower is especially adept at sucking harmful toxins out of soil. The Princess Tree’s large, fuzzy leaves are great for heat island reversal since they provide lots of shade while simultaneously releasing cooling moisture. Mugwort’s super strong roots reduce storm runoff by breaking up compacted soil and allowing water to trickle into the ground rather than flood into the streets. Finally, found in underused spaces like abandoned lots, urban meadows made up of a diversity of these plants provide a refuge for birds and insects that are important pollinators.

Perhaps most importantly, many of these plants have the potential to provide a stable food source since they grow throughout temperate zones and thrive just as easily in a lawn as in a sidewalk crack.”

As Percoco points out, “these wild relatives are much more adaptable than their controlled counterparts” and as it turns out, these ruderal plants are often more nutritious than their domesticated cousins.

Wild lettuce, for example, contains much higher levels of vitamin C than iceberg and dandelion greens have more iron than even spinach.”

Lambsquarter, a leafy green that tastes bit like baby chard, has one of the highest levels of vitamin A found in nature while common purslane, a peppery succulent, is one of the richest sources of Omega 3 fatty acids. The list goes on and as urban farming becomes an increasingly important part of food security, the edible species within NESL may very well become vital to maintaining a well-balanced diet in the climatically uncertain future.

Selection of NESL plants and seed packets that inhabit land on both sides of the Atlantic, for the Biennial for Unloved Lifeforms, 2017.
Ellie Irons and Anne Percoco in NESL’s Winter Headquarters at Wave Hill for the Winter Workspace Residency Program, January 2017.

To date, NESL contains 122 distinct species. But it’s not just Irons and Percoco’s personal seed saving efforts that are to thank for the library’s biodiversity. Instead, the pair have opened the collection process up to the public who are invited to contribute their own local weedy species. Over 100 people have submitted seeds so far either at NESL’s public events or on their own through the mail, representing a full 15% of the library’s plants.

By inviting outside collaboration while maintaining their own rigorous seed saving practice, Irons and Percoco are hoping that library will function somewhere in between the models of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault that warehouses agricultural seeds in perpetuity and that of smaller, community libraries that share seeds on a seasonal basis. In essence, NESL functions as a resource in both the immediate and long-term.

But more than just seed saving, NESL aims to change the conversation around these plants that often derided as weeds are ripped out, mowed down, or sprayed with herbicides the moment they pop-up where they’re not expected.”

Using the library and its plants as material, Irons and Percoco create works that invite viewers to reconsider their opinions of our underappreciated and often ignored chlorophyllic cohabitants.

For their exhibition at William Paterson University, Irons and Percoco created an interactive sculpture for the seed library that allowed viewers to browse its species, as one would a regular library. Even more, visitors were encouraged to check its seeds out, plant them, and return the seeds of the plants that grew.

Taking the process of recontextualizing these plants one step further, Irons and Percoco created Seed Viability and Propagation Garden from over a dozen NESL species for the Landholdings exhibition at the Index Gallery in Newark, New Jersey. Presented like any other work of three dimensional art within a gallery setting, their installation placed an immediate value on these plants, inviting visitors to view them from an aesthetic point of view rather than just looking at them as a nuisance.

This societal shift in perception is vital since as Percoco notes, “predictions for climate change have become ever direr and imminent and we, as a species, can no longer prevent it, so we need to adapt and learn strategies for greater resilience.”

The plants contained within NESL are vital “companion species who have what it takes to see us through this sea change.”

In the near future, Iron and Percoco are hoping to create even more tools to weather the proverbial storm. In the immediate, the pair are broadening their educational tools both in terms of in person workshops and online how-tos on using NESL’s seeds to benefit users’ local environments and lives. But they’re also thinking long term with plans to design a large-scale public sculpture that will double as a deep time seed vault preserving NESL for generations to come.

Either way, Irons and Percoco’s collaborative New Epoch Seed Library makes it clear that the plants we erroneously think of as weeds are actually incredibly valuable allies in fighting climate change both in the present and future.

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Ellie collecting Evening Primrose seeds at Hunter’s Point South, a rewilded former industrial area along the East River in Queens, NY, August 2016. The site is now in the process of being developed into housing towers and a formal park. Image by Dan Phiffer.

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