In Praise Of Weeds

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This is a celebration of weeds. A bouquet of unappreciated, misunderstood, and hence unwanted flora. Aliens, mostly, though many came to these shores with the first colonists and have long since qualified for American citizenship.

 

This is a celebration of weeds. A bouquet of unappreciated, misunderstood, and hence unwanted flora. Aliens, mostly, though many came to these shores with the first colonists and have long since qualified for American citizenship.

Weeds. Pests. Worthless. Tenacious. Noxious. Pernicious. Kill them. Hoe them. Yank them. Mow them. Spray them. And pay heed to The Yearbook of Agriculture 1962: Weeds cause losses of millions of dollars to American agriculture, because they reduce yields of crops and prevent the efficient use of land. Some people are allergic to the pollen of some weeds. Poison ivy causes discomfort to many persons. Weeds harbor insects and disease-producing organisms that attack crop plants. They steal water and nutrients from valuable plants. They increase costs of labor and equipment and reduce land values. Thorny weeds discourage hand harvesting. Weeds clog harvesting equipment and prevent recovery of full harvest. Weeds clog up irrigation and drainage canals. Weeds interfere with swimming, boating, and fishing. They are costly to control in rights-of-way and lawns.

Terrible weeds.

Wonderful weeds. Beautiful. Bountiful. Fascinating. Historic. Succulent. Healthful. Helpful. Enjoy them. Study them. Pick them. Savor them. Cultivate them. Cherish them.

Unfortunately, no bureaucrat in the vast Washington halls of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has ever sung the praises of weeds. Perhaps the closest thing is a forgotten little book of two decades ago, Weeds: Guardians of the Soil , by Joseph A. Cocannouer, professor of conservation and botany at the University of Oklahoma. Weeds, he said in their defense, bring essential minerals from the subsoil to the depleted topsoil. Weeds restore eroded land. Weeds, rotated with commercial crops, greatly improve fertility. Weeds make good companion plants, enabling surface-feeders to obtain water during dry spells. Weeds are indicators of specific soil deficiencies. And weeds make good eating—for both man and beast.

That last virtue has not gone unnoticed by botanists, naturalists, physicians, and herbalists from Dioscorides of the first century to John Gérard of the sixteenth to Euell Gibbons of the twentieth.

But first: What is a weed?

The usual answer: a plant out of place.

Or, as defined in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language , “A plant considered undesirable, unattractive, or troublesome; especially, one growing where it is not wanted in cultivated ground.”

Given that broad meaning, and the right set of circumstances, it might be difficult for any plant not to qualify as a weed at least some of the time. Perhaps the weed philosophy was explained best by John M. Fogg, Jr., professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania, in his handbook of Weeds of Lawn and Garden , published by the University of Pennsylvania Press: The sentiments with which the farmer, interested in forage or grain, will view timothy, alfalfa, clover, or oats will differ radically from those entertained toward them by persons whose lawns, gardens, and truck patches they invade. Conversely, ox-eye daisy and blackeyed Susan, which are regarded with affection by many, will be branded by the farmer as unmitigated nuisances. Dandelion, lamb’s-quarters, and pokeweed are highly valued for the ‘greens’ they provide, but their appearance in lawn or garden is cause for lamentation. Bouncing Bet and butter-and-eggs may elicit admiration when growing in colorful masses along railroad or highway, but no self-respecting gardener wants them on his premises. Even certain plants which have been intentionally introduced into the garden, because of their beauty or some other desirable quality, have manifested a disposition to get out of hand and have worn out their welcome … Combined with their genius for growing ‘where they are not wanted,’ most plants which are characterized as weeds possess to an unusual degree a joint capacity for vigorous growth and survival under adverse conditions. One need only examine a garden during a drought to be aware of this fact: corn has wilted, beans are gasping for water, the familiar ornamentals wear a bedraggled look, but purslane, carpetweed, dock, and the rest of the weedy tribe appear to be thriving … The criteria which lead to certain plants being classed as weeds are derived from a knowledge of their occurrence and behavior rather than because of their lack of beauty. Indeed, many species universally outlawed as weeds are extremely attractive and, were it not for their inherent tendency to dominate any situation into which they are projected, might rank high in popular favor.

Beautiful weeds?

It is admittedly difficult—though not impossible—to say something nice about poison ivy, with its toxic oil, or ragweed, with its insufferable pollen.