Botanising the asphalt

The German philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin referred to the unwitting psychogeographical practices of the urban flâneur as that of ‘botanising the asphalt’: a way of experiencing the city as a repository of collective memory by means of a dérive. For Benjamin, the landscape in question was the Paris of his Arcades Project but what if we took this expression a little more literally and paid closer intention to both botany and tarmac? Do the weeds themselves have no tale to tell? After all, a country road with grass growing in the middle is a common rural trope that speaks of lonely byways and car-shunned back roads. Do the plants that find a foothold in the neglected marginalia of city streets not have as much to tell us as a cacophony of road signs or the ciphers of graffiti?

In UK cities, hollyhocks, buddleia, sycamores and ink cap mushrooms all manage to find footholds in the unlikeliest of places, in the latter case even breaking through the asphalt like a Sci-fi horror, as if tarmac and gravel were its life blood. Some weeds – often alien interlopers – flourish best in the improbable niches of foot-worn pavements and industrial brickwork. They remind us with nose-thumbing disdain that we are disposable as a species and in the event of a hastily pressed nuclear button, a manmade climate crisis or inevitable decline brought about by unflinching hubris, it is they that will thrive and not us.

The photos above were taken in Norwich and London, UK and Abisko, Sweden.

About East of Elveden

Hidden places, secret histories and unsung geography from the east of England and beyond
This entry was posted in Human Geography, wildlife and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Botanising the asphalt

  1. Superb post, Laurence. The wild world all around us – the mossy dust sheet and pipe-trunk tree are marvellous!

  2. Nan A Canter says:

    Will read after all this hurricane stuff dies down.

    Sent from my iPad

  3. Sure thing, Nan – I appreciate that you currently have very different priorities over there in NYC. Hope you’re all safe and thriving.

  4. Great post Laurence. Have also been becoming increasingly attuned to noticing all of the footholds that the plant world can gain in the most unlikely of places. Some great photo examples here!

  5. dobraszczyk says:

    Wonderful photos! I’m pretty sure I heard that someone was doing a research project on urban weeds…can’t recall the details.

  6. Martin says:

    love these photos, the one of the car in particular

  7. Doy says:

    Good post en photos 🙂

  8. How frightening and fascinating. Am am not afraid of nature, of course, but the clash with the hard objects of human life looks kind of strange..

  9. Hello,
    We are currently working on some projects similar to this one, and possibly an application that would allow people to take pictures of their walk/objects and interact with the experiences of others on their guided walk as well. Would you be interested in doing a guest post for Envelope Atlanta about your experience that you had finding these plants, what materials you needed on your walk, etc? our email address is and our site freshly moved to

    • I am happy that you reblog this as a guest post on your blog. If you wish I could add a brief commentary to it – I know a little about botany and that helps. Otherwise, it’s a matter of observation and noticing things out of context.

  10. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments on this post.

  11. Simon Horton says:

    Great post Laurence – I’ve noticed buddleia seems to be a great coloniser along railways tracks, sidings and derelict buidlings in the UK

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