Nature Talks: Residents of a vacant lot

CHERYL KIMBALL July 25. 2014 7:12PM
Vetch grows as a vine and intertwines itself with whatever is in its path. (Cheryl Kimball)

A COUPLE of weeks ago, I had an appointment for some maintenance on my car. My mechanic is a very short walk from one of my favorite breakfast restaurants where I hang out for an hour or so while my car gets its oil changed and tires rotated. This particular July day was a few days into one of the couple of heat waves we have experienced in July this summer. By the time I walked back to the auto garage, it was already climbing to 80 degrees before eight o’clock in the morning. To avoid walking too much right on a busy state road I cut across a vacant lot to a side road into a second entrance to the garage.

The vacant lot once hosted a gas station and convenience store and is just as you would imagine — a deserted look with a couple concrete pads and pale dirt mixed with mica and cigarette butts and other trash tossed from car windows. But as I walked, despite the heat, I had to slow down and marvel at the number of flowering plants, what we might refer to as “weeds,” that had taken up residence in this otherwise unattractive, abandoned patch of land.

Vetch, probably “hairy vetch,” was one of the first plants I noticed. This distinctive plant grows as a vine and intertwines itself with whatever is in its path. I am constantly pulling a tangle from the daylilies growing right in front of our house. I once thought of this as poisonous to horses but at a Cooperative Extension program on field improvement I learned that not only is it not poisonous but horses tend to like it. Vetch is part of the pea family which makes it a legume, which means that it has long, long roots that take it way underground to find moisture sources not evident in places such as this parched vacant lot. Vetch is in fact used as a winter cover crop, according to the Penn State University Cooperative Extension website.

There were several other readily identifiable plants that I observed as I wandered around the dirt patch taking pictures with my phone, surely much to the puzzlement of drivers of the cars passing on the busy state road beside me. Queen Anne’s Lace was already flowering. I learned from a visit to the site of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that Queen Anne’s Lace is an ancestor of the modern garden carrot, that it has “small barbed seeds that stay viable in the soil for 1-2 years,” that it is not native to the U.S. and is considered an invasive in some areas threatening recovering grasslands and “abandoned fields” (whatever that means).

Goldenrod, a member of the aster family, was of course abundant. Red clover was growing in patches all over the lot. Another legume that clearly knows how to make use of its deep roots to thrive in this lunar-like environment, red clover is not only used in cattle grazing pastures (but with some suspicion about being suitable for horses) but is thought to have many medicinal purposes.

Just as I was coming to the end of the lot to the side road across from my mechanic’s, I saw a tall, sturdy mullein growing at the edge like a sentry guarding all the other flowering plants that had dared to brave an existence in a land short on resources. A quick online search of mullein will show that this plant has a long history of medicinal use. Considered a “weed” (described loosely by many as a plant considered “undesirable” but, like the old saying that perhaps is the source of the common yard sale about one person’s trash being another’s treasure, what is a weed to one person is a lovely plant to another), the mullein is often found in “waste places.” That certainly holds true in the vacant lot of which we speak, although I see them around our farm in the oddest spots, none of which I would refer to as a “waste place.”

The mullein has a lot of interesting characteristics. It is a biennial, living for two years, producing its lovely flowers only in the second year after which the plant dies. That is not before producing tens of thousands of seeds carried off by wind, birds and on the shoes of middle-aged women wandering through vacant lots taking pictures with a phone. And according to one website from the Fairfax County, Va., school system, these seeds can “survive almost any conditions and can last up to 100 years.”

Considered a “pioneer” plant, it is one of the first to appear after a fire or other disturbance (such as the razing of a gas station and convenience store). And, best of all about the mullein, birds love them. Insects like to shelter in their large soft leaves and intricate tall rosettes. Birds like those insects and the seeds and the soft leaves for nests. Sometime soon this vacant lot will once again be home to some sort of retail function for the convenience of us humans. But in the meantime, it was a great reminder that a “vacant lot” is perhaps not so vacant at all.


Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at

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