'Rebel Botanists' Use Sidewalk Chalk to Help People Connect With Nature

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Botanists say their sidewalk graffiti helps people pay more attention to the natural world around them. Sophie Leguil

When Sophie Leguil hits the streets near her home in London, she's armed with sidewalk chalk. The French ecologist and botanist is one of an army of "rebel botanists" working to identify the little-known and underappreciated wild plants that grow along the sidewalks and curbs of cities throughout Europe.

"The idea of the project is to change people's perception of urban plants, plants growing on pavements, on walls and in tree pits," Leguil tells MNN. "People call them 'weeds.' They get sprayed and removed. But all these plants are part of our urban nature, they help remove pollution, produce oxygen, and are useful to insects and birds."

The hope is that by calling attention to the flora with graffiti, more people will respect and appreciate them — and be less likely to spray them with pesticides. It's a movement that began several years ago in France.

In November 2019, botanist Boris Presseq of the Toulouse Museum of Natural History chalked names of wild plants on the streets of the French city. A video of his actions has had 7.3 million views.

"I wanted to raise awareness of the presence, knowledge and respect of these wild plants on sidewalks," Presseq told The Guardian. "People who had never taken the time to observe these plants now tell me their view has changed. Schools have contacted me since to work with students on nature in the city."

More than weeds

Sophie Leguil chalking the name of a plant on a sidewalk
received permission to chalk the sidewalks in Hackney, a borough of London. Sophie Leguil

When Leguil lived in France, she was involved in the Sauvages de ma rue (wild things of my street) campaign, to help change the way people viewed street plants. That was years before France banned the use of pesticides in public spaces in 2017.

When Leguil moved back to the U.K. last year, she wanted to launch a similar project, so she got out her sidewalk chalk and created the More Than Weeds campaign.

"Chalking is in theory illegal in the U.K.," Leguil points out. She got authorization from Hackney, a council in London, to chalk the streets. As the Guardian points out, "In the UK it is illegal to chalk anything — hopscotch, art or botanical names — on paths or highways without permission, even if it educates, celebrates and fosters interest and knowledge in nature."

But Leguil admits, "I have done some 'guerrilla' chalking too, without authorization."

Discovering nature during the pandemic

Mexican fleabane
French botanist points out Mexican fleabane on a sidewalk. Sophie Leguil

More people have been paying attention to nature during the coronavirus pandemic when lockdowns have limited what they can do and where they can do it.

"I think there is definitely a timing factor. With the lockdown, many people have been unable to go out, or have only been able to go out in their local streets, so people have started noticing the 'small things' a lot more — birds, small plants, bugs, trees," Leguil says. "I think the fact that people have been at home too has made them more likely to stop and take time to look at nature."

Now that Leguil's sidewalk labels have made their way online, many people have reached out about her chalk work.

"I've received largely positive responses," she says. "There are a lot of people saying they've been inspired to go out and look for plants. A couple of people complained saying that chalk is 'graffiti' (even though it washes away with rain) or that weeds are 'untidy.' I've had hundreds of emails from local politicians to artists, poets or local residents saying they want to try and convince their councils to stop spraying plants with weedkiller."

'Really simple, brilliant thing'

shepherd's purse sprouts near a curb
Shepherd's purse is identified near a curb. Sophie Leguil

Lequil is talking with leaders, hoping to work with them to protect these sidewalk plants.

"I am also talking with local authorities and politicians here in London, and offering them guidance (based on my experience in France) on how to manage these plants in a biodiversity-friendly way," she says. "For example, it may be necessary to remove plants in the middle of the pavement so that people don't trip on them, but plants growing along walls can be left alone."

She hopes the attention will snowball into something that draws even more notice for these tiny plants.

"I don't exactly know how the project is going to develop, but I have a few ideas," she says. "I'd love to help people understand the value of these plants through talks or guided walks. (I have been doing some 'virtual walks' via Zoom.) I am working on a guide to urban plants, and on resources that could be used by schools."

Several people have reached out to say they'd like to do similar things in Australia, Sweden, Germany, or the U.S.

Meanwhile, in the U.K., the rebel botanists are hard at work.

More than 127,000 people have liked a photo of chalked-up tree names by botanist Rachel Summers in the London suburb of Walthamstow:

"I love this so much," wrote @JSRafaelism on Twitter. "Really simple, brilliant thing to make people's lives a bit better and more interesting."