Driving down dusty switchback roads in the Okanagan Valley, B.C. last summer, I was struck by the glow of poppies growing on the steep, rocky slopes. As I made my way into the lakeside town of Peachland and stepped out of my car, I was again struck by the sight of poppies. Surprisingly, I didn’t find them in planters or garden beds, but, instead, teaming from the cracks in asphalt in the parking lots and alleyways. Filling the dull grey space with life, the wildflowers connected the town with the surrounding rugged landscape.
Such opportunistic plants that grow in nooks and crannies are known as spontaneous vegetation. Some may call them weeds, but public perception is changing. Recent studies have shown an increasing appreciation for a ‘wilder’ aesthetic in built spaces. Specifically, research in France has shown that pavement areas with spontaneous vegetation are preferred over highly managed pavement without vegetation. They are perceived as less kept, but more beautiful and less boring.
Poppies growing in Okanagan Valley, B.C. IMAGE/ Ryan De Jong
Sure, not all plants are as attractive as poppies, and some can even be problematic. But, as a whole, spontaneous vegetation can offer valuable services in urban environments. According to that same French study, when management and herbicide use are limited, grey spaces such as pavements are naturally species-rich, increasing biodiversity. These small pockets of life provide ecological connection for pollinators and wildlife between larger green spaces. Additionally, these plants provide incremental doses of nature in everyday urban life, improving the mental health and sense of well-being of communities. Not to mention, there is something subtly inspiring about seeing a plant grow from a small crack in pavement.
Poppies growing through cracks in the concrete. IMAGE/ Ryan De Jong
In an increasingly urbanized world, these small moments add up. We need more parks and green spaces, but the small spaces in between matter too. Just let it grow.
BIO/ Ryan De Jong is a Master of Landscape Architecture student at the University of Guelph and grew up working on his family’s nursery near Vancouver, B.C.