Environmentalists weigh in on ‘flower bombing,’ and how to do it wisely

The ‘guerrila gardening’ may appeal as a way to save the planet, but it can be illegal and an environmental risk.

(Marcie Young Cancio | Amplify Utah) Native to Utah, the hearty common sunflower — like this field at Parley’s Historic Nature Park — thrive in both mountainous and high-traffic urban areas.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

A hashtag that includes emojis of a seedling, flower and bee has amassed more than 50 million views on TikTok.

The tag is a nod to the trend known as “flower bombing,” a form of guerilla gardening where native wildflower seeds are planted in unoccupied public spaces. The purpose is to promote biodiversity, re-establish native plants and disrupt urbanism.

“When you are young, full of ideals and just want to make a difference – the idea of tossing a little [flower] bomb that will take on a life of its own, I think, is appealing,” said Keith Homer, a Utah-based landscaper and high school teacher.

A decrease in roadless areas results in less biodiversity, as flora and fauna lose their habitats to road development. This then leads to pollution and human interactions, such as vehicle collisions with animals due to increased traffic.

Homer said he has done his own share of guerilla gardening, recalling one occasion when he planted extra tulips in his neighbor’s backyard under the cover of night. “[My neighbor’s] wife went on and on about the miracle of these tulips popping up, and she was crying because she thought it was a miracle,” he said.

While flower bombing can help beautify urban spaces, it’s illegal to garden on a property you don’t own. It can also pose an environmental risk.

Brittany Blackham, an environmental and sustainability student at the University of Utah, said anyone considering flower bombing should think first about the possible effects, good and bad.

“I have some automatic hesitations,” she said. “Just thinking we can go in and do whatever we want has created a lot of problems in terms of climate change, unsustainable practices and abusing resources.”

Once something has altered an ecosystem, Blackham said, it’s challenging to remove the seeds, which can be detrimental to the environment if plants sprouted from those seeds become invasive and threaten native species.

Homer said one of the dangers of invasive species is not knowing how it could affect people and animals. For example, myrtle spurge, a succulent that sprouts yellow and white flowers, is an invasive species that the Salt Lake County Health Department considers a noxious weed.

“I’ve gotten it on my skin … and it just starts to itch and you get a big rash,” he said, noting that some people can suffer swelling, blisters, eye irritation and temporary blindness from touching myrtle spurge. “That’s one the people have propagated in the past because it looks cool.”

Before planting any flowers, Blackham suggested first doing research to ensure those flowers are native and non-invasive. She recommends resources like the National Invasive Species Center, Utah Pollinator Habitat Program and Utah State University’s yard and garden web page.

“Support it with education,” Blackham said.

Thoughtful and informed flower bombing, Homer said, can create eye-catching flora and improve biodiversity — so long as those engaging in the practice are aware of the potential long-term consequences.

“If you can make someone stop in their tracks or do a double take when they’re [walking] by, your design has changed someone’s life,” he said. “You have affected the universe in a way.”

Paige Ney wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.