Racheli Wacks

A new Israeli initiative aims to protect urban wild plants

September 14, 2020

Have you recently come across some strange words written in chalk on the sidewalk? Most likely, this is not a children's game, but a new initiative aiming to raise awareness about the importance of wild plants in the urban environment – and it is gaining momentum.

One day, when Alex Ringer from Nesher, a city in the north of Israel, went out for his morning walk, a couple of neighbors stopped him and drew his attention to some words written in chalk on the ground, appearing to indicate the name of a plant growing next to the sidewalk.

“They asked me: ‘Alex, have you seen these markings before? Do you know who did that?’”, Ringer says.

Ringer told his neighbors that he was responsible for the writings and also that he is one of the dozens of nature lovers who currently tag wild plants throughout Israel and document their sightings in the Facebook group “More than Weeds.” Ringer set up the group to raise awareness about the importance of urban wild plants and wildlife and introduce residents to the colorful nature around them.

The 75-year-old Ringer may not be a botanist, but plants have always been a part of his life. “I studied biology in high school, and I was a master in identifying plants,” he says. “I enjoyed looking up all the details that make up the plant in a book called ‘The Identification Book for the Plants of the Land of Israel’. That was long before all the apps, websites, WhatsApp, and Facebook groups for plant identification.”

Ringer sees great importance in preserving urban wild plants, often referred to as “weeds,” or “nuisances,” unwelcome in gardens and public spaces. “My backyard contains all the wild plants of the area, which I consider a continuation of nature,” he says. “Wild plants have a role to play in the city,” Ringer says. “Some nectar-producing plants are used by bees and other pollinating insects.” In fact, many wild plants provide larger amounts of pollen and nectar than a few fully-grown garden plants.

“There are also trees like buckthorn, whose fruits provide food for birds.” In winter, animals like insects and snails, which live inside the sidewalks and walls, can eat the plants’ roots, and when they thrive,  animals that feed on them, like birds and hedgehogs also benefit from the plants. On top of this, of course, you have the aesthetic value of the flowering plants in the city streets.”

Alex Ringer and dozens of nature lovers currently tag wild plants throughout Israel and document their sightings in the Facebook group “More than Weeds.” (Tribulus Terrestris)

Tagging plants across Europe

Ringer was inspired to create a wild plant labeling project in Israel when he read about similar initiatives in other countries. The idea first developed in France, where a state-imposed ban on the use of herbicides and pests in public areas prompted an increase in wildflower awareness. French botanist Boris Fresco started the movement when he decided to tag the plants on the streets of the city of Toulouse. A video of him labeling plants across the city has garnered over 7 million views.

From there, the phenomenon spread to other cities in Europe, most notably to London. A post uploaded on Twitter that included photos of chalk-marked plants in London received over 125,000 likes and was shared more than 20,000 times. The initiative is being promoted in London by Sophie Gil, a French botanist, and resident of the city. Gil has received special permission to label street plants, although it is prohibited by British law.

Ringer was inspired to create a wild plant labeling project in Israel when he read about similar initiatives in other countries

Nature in the city

Ringer shared an article about the global phenomenon in the Facebook group “Botany for Lovers of Wild Plants of Israel.” When his post received hundreds of likes, comments, and shares, he decided to import the initiative to Israel.

“I went out to the parking lot near my house, where a fig tree grew in a crack between the sidewalk and a stone wall,” Ringer says. “I discovered it many years ago. The tree grows and grows, and the municipality keeps coming back, pruning, tearing, and abusing it. This tree was given the first tag.” The picture of the tagged tree serves as the profile picture for the Facebook group he created. Ringer also approached Gil and agreed to name the group after the  London initiative, “More than Weeds.”

Today, the group is publishing photographs of wild plants with their name written in chalk next to them on a daily basis. Apart from Ringer, several dozen people from all over Israel post pictures in the group.

Ringer hopes the initiative he is leading will contribute to raising public awareness of wild plants. In a poll conducted by a British polling company, only 6 percent of participants aged 16-24 were able to correctly identify a violet. Seventy percent of respondents in the same survey expressed a desire to know how to identify more wildflowers.

“We want to connect people to urban nature, and show them that cities also offer fascinating flora,” says Ringer.

“The goal is to enhance the knowledge of pedestrians, and to convey the message that these plants are not ‘weeds’, but plants that have value and importance.”  According to Ringer, knowing the plants will encourage residents to preserve them. “People will look at the photos and ask themselves, ‘How come I never noticed how beautiful that plant actually is?'” he says.

“We want to connect people to urban nature, and show them that cities also offer fascinating flora,” says Ringer. (Parietaria Judaica – or pellitory of the wall)

“There is no greater satisfaction than this”

What does the future hold for the “More than just Weeds” initiative? “First of all, I would like to increase the number of members and encourage more people to take part in the initiative,” Ringer says.

Later, Ringer is interested in giving tours, where participants will label wild plants themselves. He is currently looking for a botanist to assist him in the guided tours and contribute some professional knowledge.

“I would also like to contact local authorities to make them aware of the importance of preserving wild plants across the city. That is, if they have to prune or uproot a plant, they would know how to do it carefully, refraining from the use of environmentally harmful substances, and cause the least harm, ” says Ringer.

Ringer calls on the residents Israel wherever they may live, to go out and label wild plants in their neighborhoods, including those who don’t know the first thing about plants. “Go for a stroll down a street, equipped with your curiosity,” he says.

“Then, if you do not know the name – take a picture, and ask someone in a WhatsApp group that deals with the subject or in a Facebook group like ours,” he adds.

“You can also go to the website ‘Flora of Israel Online’ and look up any details about the plant you found, like which family it belongs to when it blooms and what fruit it bears. The next time you pass by the plant, you can write the name next to it, take a photo, and upload it to the group. I think there is no greater satisfaction than that, “he concludes.

This ZAVIT article was also published in The Jerusalem Post on 09/13/2020.