The Poetic Power of Subversive Seeds

To grasp a city’s diversity and organic richness with all senses is an expertise that Maurice Maggi has cultivated for decades. Walking through urban landscapes, he turns his attention to places like the pavement, fallow land, and scrub along the way only to find the best and overlooked ingredients for his poetic interventions.

Photos by Juliette Chrétien, AT Verlag
Words by Anna Rosa Krau and Dörte de Jesus

To grasp a city’s diversity and organic richness with all senses is an expertise that Maurice Maggi has cultivated for decades. Walking through urban landscapes, he turns his attention to places like the pavement, fallow land, and scrub along the way only to find the best and overlooked ingredients for his poetic interventions. Weeds become a three-course meal, seeds turn into flower-graffiti, and through these small creative alterations, he gently changes the perspective of the passer-by. Maurice Maggi is an outspoken expert on urban foraging and has perfected civil disobedience with grace and beauty, transforming it into a form of art.

Maurice, you have a lively past. You were born in Zurich in 1955, grew up in Rome and Switzerland, lived as a squatter, worked as a landscape gardener, environmental activist and cook, called New York your home for many years, and in recent years you wrote three cookbooks. What do you see as your calling, what gives you meaning in life?

I became familiar with the role of an outsider early on in life. Returning home as a Swiss citizen who grew up abroad, being part of a large Catholic family in Zwinglian Zurich, as someone left-handed and dyslexic, diabetic and bisexual, I was never socially compatible and I always found myself up against the rules. So I became a fighter for the weak. The avant-garde and subculture shaped my purpose in life. I believe that innovation is born in lively places and creativity also arises without money.

You started your floral graffiti in Zurich back in the 1980’s. Can you tell us about the aim of your actions and the reactions you received?

I have been sowing pioneer plants in public spaces since 1984. I blow them up with blooming flowers, starting from the cracks. Through my actions, I want to highlight the unnecessary sealing of the ground, and flowers are my poster children. They delight our eyes, touch our hearts, serve as nectar feeders, habitat for the fauna, and contribute to the microclimate. I consider my actions as street art. After all these years, my travels through Zurich, Basel, Munich, Berlin, Hamburg, and New York have become traceable through colourful flowers. In grey cities, floral anarchy turns into poetry.

What do you sow and how do you choose your plant seeds?

Hollyhocks have become my trademark. I also sow native wildflowers, especially those that are edible or healing. I use around 40 different types, among them St. John’s wort, English plantain, chicory, marigolds, poppies, oat root, and bluebells.

Can you advise us on guerrilla sowing?

Loose soil is important, and you might want to loosen it with a hoe. Most seeds require light for germination and do not need to be covered. I then leave it to nature – seeds feel when the conditions are right to germinate. In cities, you have to watch out for the keen eyes of the pigeons, they spot every seed.

When is the best time of the year for sowing?

Late summer is a very good time, it’s when it happens in nature. Poppy seeds, in particular, love to spend the winter in the ground. Apart from that, I carry seed bags with me from March to October.

With your floral graffiti, you credit nature with a certain norm-breaking energy. What can we, as a society, learn from the natural world?

Pioneer plants exemplify the role of subculture in society, they break open norms and subtly create change. There are always places that can be repopulated, we know this development from large cities. Depraved areas are revived by bohemians and pioneers and suddenly they turn into trendy places. Then they become unaffordable and the creative pioneers get displaced again. This also happens in nature. A perpetual motion machine of innovation – something is created out of nothing, it becomes commercialised, and something new is being created. Pioneers surprise and inspire the mainstream, come into fashion, and are then subjected to the capitalist market laws.

You call flowers your “sociopolitical companions”. Why do you think your floral graffiti is so successful at conveying your message and creating change?

Pioneer plants are a type of vegetation that can populate wastelands. They prepare the ground for other plants that need richer soils, and then move on to populate new lands. In barren places, plants are more noticeable because they take you up by surprise. The flower as a medium for my message has found great acceptance and appeals to most people. At first, flowers delight the viewer and then the questions follow. With “Imagine”, John Lennon wrapped his protest into a beautiful song and thus reached us listeners via the heart. It all depends on the packaging, the first impression counts. I act in the same way with my seeds.

What do you see as the political dimension of your work? How do you want to change city life and the mindset of city planners and residents?

In the 36 years of my work, I have managed to reach people through their eyes and hearts. The unfamiliar stands out in surprising places, strikes a chord, gives food for thought. This is what makes good art. The media interest in my work shows me that something can be achieved out of nothing. The cities’ residents have been moved by my interventions but, unfortunately, the town planners and the government of Zurich not yet. The credo of “low maintenance is key” still applies in 2020. For six years, the tourism board of Zurich has been promoting a wild, urban Zurich worldwide with a video commercial about my work. The official Zurich is yet to catch up.

Why is public urban space so important for the well-being of a society and where do you see its healing potential?

As 80% of humanity will live in cities by 2040, we need to move closer together. In the warm seasons, public spaces will turn into living rooms, fitness centres, meeting points, and promenades. We humans are herd animals who love intimacy and exchange. Populated places have a magnetic effect on most of us. Intensive farming with herbicides, fungicides and artificial fertilisers eliminates species-rich vegetation and many insects in the countryside. Cities offer asylum for biodiversity. Urban honey is verifiably less toxic and more species-rich than country honey, for example.

In the age of climate crisis and mass biodiversity loss, what is your vision of the city of the future?

We have to protect our climate, our flora and fauna. Not through isolation in zoos or botanical gardens but by safeguarding spaces for survival everywhere. In concrete terms this means: opening up all unnecessary seals for vegetation, planting greenery on facades and roofs, providing nesting sites, using and promoting native plant species, letting rainwater seep away into well drains. Wild hedges could replace concrete walls, pergolas over sidewalks could shade our paths and provide habitats.

Automotive mobility is the downfall of our society – I’d like to invite us to return to life on foot. New York, Vienna, and Paris are cities that consciously promote pedestrians. Let’s leave behind the agglomeration of shopping centres and welcome back local corner shops, promote local recreation and travel, use all resources respectfully, listen to the climate youth movement and implement their wishes. Less can be more.

You are a determined pedestrian – how does this change or sharpen your perception of time and space?

Our senses are in sync with the speed of our natural locomotion. By foot, I see everything that crawls and flies, grows and blooms. I find it fascinating to discover the big in the small. As a sensual person, I act with All my senses.

In addition to your work as a gardener, you are also a cook. You’ve published three cookbooks that look at the sustainable use of food poetically and artistically. In “Edible City”, you encourage cooking with wild plants from urban areas. How did you get involved with cooking with wild plants?

Many of my seeds that I use are healing and edible, which led me to the cookbook “Edible City”. In modern gastronomy, guests like to be surprised and to discover something new. I recycle old wisdom and compose my recipes from it. In former times, edible wild plants were used as an emergency supply until the first cultivated ones started growing. Buds, wild fruits, and herbs are rich in vitamins as well as filling – this knowledge alleviated famines in the past.

Today, through breeding, the appearance, quantity, and portability of plants has become of highest importance, and the flavour and character of plants have suffered from this greatly. Worldwide, the new wild chefs have become aware of this and started to reshape the modern cuisine. I like to call it “the meal of the short distances” – this cuisine is downright regional and seasonal. With large producers, these are empty buzzwords, but in the wild plant cuisine, natural authenticity reigns.

What is the advantage of wild plants and your tips for harvesting in the city?

Wild plants are freely available, they awaken our mindfulness, encourage us to walk in nature, and enrich our culinary senses. When collecting plants, I make sure that I always leave something standing – to ensure survival. I avoid collecting plants near bars, football stadiums, and places where dogs roam (because of the uric acid), and tend to search on streets with low traffic, in parks, cemeteries, and school buildings. Common sense helps.

How can we learn about botany and distinguish edible from poisonous plants?

It’s easy to learn. Today, there are many plant detection apps on offer. Just start harvesting plants and ask experts to reassure you whether you’ve recognised them correctly. In workshops, I am always amazed at how quickly and accurately children can recognise and find plants.

To what extent do environmental toxins such as car exhausts and air pollution affect the quality of wild herbs in urban areas?

I would say less so than in conventional agriculture. There are fewer environmental pollutants in cities; this has been proven in the quality of urban honey. Air pollution from exhaust emissions has become similarly bad across the country. Conventional apples are sprayed with chemicals up to ten times and are also grown close to traffic.

Spring is just around the corner. Could you share one of your favourite spring dishes from “The Edible City” with us?

As a summer child, I don’t count my years of life but the winters that I have survived. So in March, I celebrate this with the first homemade dandelion salad or coltsfoot scrambled eggs. Nettles are also one of early spring’s delicacies, they vitalise and purify the blood (see recipe below).

Are your books available in English?

Unfortunately, no publisher has been found yet despite having learned from my workshops that edible wild plants can be found worldwide. The wilder a city, the more diverse it is.

Thank you for the interview and your precious time, Maurice.

Recipe: Nettle soup with parmesan crisps (March–June)
Ingredients (for 1 portion):
1 onion, finely diced
20 g butter or sunflower oil
200–400 g nettles leaves and/or young shoots
1 medium-sized potato
50 ml vegetable stock or white wine
100 ml cream (or additional potato for vegans)
30 g parmesan, grated
salt and pepper
Fry the onions in the butter or oil on a low heat. Coarsely slice the nettle leaves, and add to the onions, then peel, dice, and add the potato. Pour in the wine or the vegetable stock, and let everything cook for 15 minutes. Purée the soup, add the cream (if you like), and season.
For the parmesan crisps, heat a pan on low heat. Scatter the parmesan cheese in separate portions into the base of the pan and gently fry the cheese into crunchy crisps. Serve with the soup.

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