The triffid’s day has come: designing with invasive plants

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“I have a recipe for Japanese knotweed crumble — the young shoots are a bit like rhubarb,” says Paul Beckett, co-founder of environmental consultancy Phlorum. As an expert in managing this infamous plant, he has witnessed organisations ranging from restaurants to energy producers trying to make creative use of it. He has a cautionary word, though: “If you’re going to play with invasive species, you need to be very careful.”

It’s a timely warning, as experiments with such species have recently proliferated. Organisms referred to as “invasive” are those that were introduced to an ecosystem then spread out of control, squeezing out native species and causing environmental or economic damage.

Japanese knotweed, which hails from East Asia but has dispersed around the world, is among the most prominent and is notoriously tricky to remove — in the UK it is a criminal offence to let Japanese knotweed spread in the wild, and allowing it to escape from your territory could land you in legal trouble.

Despite these challenges, several designers are now looking afresh at invasive species, using these demonised plants to produce furniture, paper, textiles and building materials.

In the Netherlands, Atelier Schaft, founded by designer Erik van Schaften, has created three types of wall panel from giant hogweed, a fast-spreading plant with toxic sap introduced in Europe from the western Caucasus as an ornamental plant. Its textured bark is hand-cut to produce a veneer; the byproduct of this process is bound with starch to make a foam; and the hard knots of the plant are ground and used to create a cardboard.

Wall panels made from giant hogweed by Atelier Schaft

Giant hogweed
Giant hogweed produces a toxic sap © Getty Images/iStockphoto

Also based in the Netherlands, Polina Baikina’s Studio laVina has made a range of household objects — vessels, stools, a rug and a light sculpture — from a composite material that incorporates stinging nettles. “Traditionally in Russia it was used to make clothes, fishing nets, sailing ropes, medicine, food and house insulation,” she says. “Craftsmen extracted the fibres inside the stalks to create a thread or textile and paper, in a similar way to linen production.”

Japanese knotweed — which costs the UK economy more than £40m every year — has captured the imagination of London-based Brigitte Kock and Irene Roca Moracia, who have used it to make tiles, and Marina Belintani, who has explored its potential in everything from bioplastics to natural dyes. The Slovenian practice Trajna has made paper out of it — part of a wider effort by the City of Ljubljana, as well as the city’s Pulp and Paper Institute, to create a “business opportunity” and devise a circular approach to invasive species.

Having previously harvested the weed during annual community events, Trajna is growing its ambitions. “We’ve inhabited an abandoned construction pit that is full of invasive species, where we have set up production spaces to experiment,” says its co-founder Gaja Mežnarić Osole, who will present the Collection of Travelling Plants, a graphic display that sheds light on the history of alien species, at the city’s Bio27 design biennial in May.

Marina Belintani has used Japanese knotweed in natural dyes and bioplastics
Marina Belintani has used Japanese knotweed in natural dyes and bioplastics

These designers have a simple proposition: in society’s quest to find renewable raw materials, why not make use of sources that are abundant and unwanted, thereby also incentivising their removal? Their efforts fit into a counter-narrative outlined by the likes of the permaculture designer Tao Orion, whose 2015 book Beyond the War on Invasive Species describes the growth of the mechanical, chemical approach to managing weeds, arguing instead for a more pragmatic, incremental approach.

After all, the term “invasive”, she says, is subjective. Many plants that are now considered invasive were transported deliberately during the Victorian era and, later, to tackle environmental inconveniences. The rapidly growing vine kudzu, for example, was promoted in North America in the 1920s and 1930s as a way of controlling soil erosion.

After the second world war, the tone changed with the publication of books such as zoologist Charles S Elton’s The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants (1958), which outlined the risks of recklessly transplanting unsuitable species into new environments. Van Schaften of Atelier Schaft notes that the shift was reflected in popular culture.

The Day of the Triffids played with cold war fears by using alien plants as invaders,” he says of the 1962 film adaptation of John Wyndham’s 1951 novel.

Tiles made from Japanese knotweed by Brigitte Kock and Irene Roca Moracia
Tiles made from Japanese knotweed by Brigitte Kock and Irene Roca Moracia © Paul Cochrane

The designers argue that many species — which have migrated around the world as a result of globalisation, colonisation and climate change, which creates new opportunities for plants to thrive — are not likely to vanish soon. They highlight the opportunity to use self-renewing materials that would otherwise be wasted, while acknowledging that their efforts are unlikely to facilitate large-scale eradication.

Some people, like artist Alaa Abu Asad, have used their work to question the sometimes xenophobic attitude to non-native species, which precludes the possibility of a more symbiotic relationship.

In the UK — where Japanese knotweed is such a potent topic that since the late 2000s banks have been cautious about lending mortgages on properties where it exists — a change of tone is in the offing. By the end of January, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors is set to publish the final update to its 2012 paper that will dial down the tone on the dangers to the property sector, while still emphasising the risks.

“Knotweed doesn’t actually pose any physical risks to houses, and the perception of it is not appropriate to the problems it causes — it can be managed,” says the author Philip Santo.

The Slovenian practice Trajna conducts production experiments in an abandoned construction pit full of invasive species
The Slovenian practice Trajna conducts production experiments in an abandoned construction pit full of invasive species © Amadeja Smrekar

Phlorum’s Beckett, who has published legal advice about Japanese knotweed and acts as an expert witness in cases that involve it, says the risks to property are exaggerated in the minds of the public. “It doesn’t cause the level of damage and subsidence that’s often attributed to it — a lot of plants and trees cause harm to buildings, and knotweed isn’t particularly special.”

But he is wary about encouraging the utilisation of such plants. “You shouldn’t develop an industry around an invasive species unless it really is the bee’s knees at what it does and, if you do, you’d need to invest massively in making sure that it’s controlled.”

Many other experts are sceptical too, pointing to the difficulties of preventing the spread of these plants and the implications of bestowing value on a species for which the goal remains eradication. Arne Witt, an invasive species expert at non-profit group CABI in Nairobi, Kenya, mentions acacia mearnsii: it has affected biodiversity and resources in southern Africa, but the large tannin and woodchip export industry that has developed around it is difficult to shut down.

“There is a big push to utilise invasive alien species, especially in low- and middle-income countries, but in our experience it’s a bad idea,” he says. “Why would people want to kill a resource they are making money from?”

Table made of Japanese knotweed by Samy Rio
Table made of Japanese knotweed by Samy Rio

The Invasive Plants Club — set up by design laboratory Atelier Luma in Arles, France — is among those grappling with these questions, working closely with botanists and local communities on species subject to seasonal removal in the surrounding Camargue region.

So far, it has made adhesives and ropes out of agave, textile dyes out of plants such as curly dock and false indigo-bush, and a bench and table out of Japanese knotweed. The latter were designed by Samy Rio, who describes them as “amazingly light and strong”.

Japanese knotweed isn’t subject to as strict controls under EU law as in the UK: there are restrictions on the movement of “invasive alien species of union concern”, but Japanese knotweed is not on that list — largely because it is so prolific already.

The rules say: “The commercial use of already established invasive alien species may be temporarily allowed as part of the management measures aimed at their eradication, population control or containment, under strict justification and provided that all appropriate controls are in place to avoid any further spread.”

In keeping with these guidelines, Rio and his team were cautious in their approach. “The workshop was as close to the harvesting site as possible, so we didn’t have to move the Japanese knotweed far,” Rio says. “A circular economy is therefore built in and, because we don’t have the same quantity at different times of year, so is seasonality.”

‘Homegrown’ (2020), an installation at the Knoxville Museum of Art, imagines architectural applications for plant species
‘Homegrown’ (2020), an installation at the Knoxville Museum of Art, imagines architectural applications for plant species

Instead of systematically destroying species for their “supposed dangerousness and non-endemic nature”, Rio believes we should consider them as a potential raw material, but emphasises that this must remain a local, craft-based system, rather than a mass-manufacturing industry that might encourage people to nurture undesirable organisms. He is developing modular, open-source designs and protocols for use that can be distributed to other locations and that rely on run-of-the-mill tools.

Similarly expansive thinking underpins the work of US-based practice After Architecture, which in 2020 created an installation at the Knoxville Museum of Art incorporating non-native plants such as kudzu and bamboo, as well as working with University of Tennessee students on a structure that uses fallen branches of Bradford pear trees, scanned, sorted and placed using digital tools.

“We are interested in how materials can be implemented in construction without going through standardisation or conventional methods,” says co-founder Katie MacDonald. Being able to use materials that are irregular or structurally unpredictable — as foraged species often are — opens up possibilities for making without heavy processing.

There are precedents for rolling out the utilisation of invasive species through design: the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (Atree), a non-profit organisation in India, has cultivated a craft economy around lantana camara, a flowering shrub native to the American tropics that is displacing local plants and hitting people whose livelihoods depend on the existing ecology.

Indian women make crafts from lantana camara, a flowering shrub native to the American tropics that is displacing local plants
Indian women make crafts from lantana camara, a flowering shrub native to the American tropics that is displacing local plants

Lantana camara
Lantana camara © GAP Photos/Jonathan Buckley

“Almost 40 per cent of Indian forests are now covered in lantana camara,” says Sandeep Hanchanale, who led the project. The organisation has provided training to more than 650 local furniture makers to use lantana instead of bamboo, who in turn can train others.

Demand has grown via orders from local enterprises, and the artisan-owned Lantana Craft Centre says its members derive nearly 80 per cent of their cash income from the material. Rather than shipping orders around the country, the plan is to develop a network of similar “micro ecosystems”.

Atree is working with designers to develop other uses, as well as engineering solutions — such as creating lantana particle board — and an infrastructure that can be adapted for other materials if lantana grows more scarce. The latter is intended to discourage dependence as the plant is replaced by other species.

Not everyone agrees that these efforts have been successful and the utilisation of invasive species remains contentious. Despite their best intentions, no designer can guarantee that a responsibly conducted experiment won’t escalate to a destructive scale.

But there are broader lessons here about our limited capacity to control the environment and the need to live with nature as we find it, not how we wish it to be. These examples also challenge the assumption that all production needs to be scaled up to the max, proposing instead a more locally centred manufacturing culture that uses what’s available in a given time and place.

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Source: Financial Times


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