In Praise Of Weeds

PrintPrintEmailEmail If you are one of the millions who, each autumn, must endure a siege of hay fever, then you will accept the wisdom of noxious-weed laws which—for the sake of public health— decree fines and even jail for property owners who let vacant lots go rank. But if you are a sneezing naturalist, you quickly point out to the man with the scythe that it is not the lovely and conspicuous goldenrods—whose pollen is too heavy to be blown on the wind—that are to blame.

One can also agree with the farmer who finds his labors of the soil hindered by pernicious plants. One can even sympathize with the homeowner who demands a perfectly manicured lawn of only the finest grasses. And some weeds are simply coarse, intrinsically ugly, though not without value to wildlife as food and cover, or in the kettle, or in the apothecary jar, or in the vase.

But it is by the wayside that naturalists, botanists, and conservationists finally must part with the antiweed forces.

For it is the road commissioners—with their mowers and with their weed killers, their herbicides of questionable safety—that have made motoring in America poorer for their efforts.

The roadside that the engineer envisions is a roadside free of trees, free of brush, free of weeds, with the grass—which survives the somewhat selective poisons—closely cropped. What the motorist gets in return is an ugly brownout for yards on either side of the roadway. What the motorist is deprived of—even on little-travelled rural lanes—is the pleasure, the glory, of summer’s wildflower spectacular: the masses of purples, reds, oranges, golds, blues, and lacy whites, from June through October. Even the rarest, most beautiful wild orchids can fall victim to the indiscriminate blade or spray truck.

Not all of officialdom is antiweed. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources strongly supports legislation to designate “natural beauty roads,” where spraying or mowing of the roadside vegetation would be prohibited. South Dakota’s roadsides are not mowed until the state’s prized ring-necked pheasants have finished nesting.

Near Dayton, Ohio, the Aullwood Audubon Center thought it too had an agreement with the county not to defoliate its roadsides, with their profusion of wayside flowers—rare prairie species in their midst—that hundreds of youngsters and their parents paused to admire on their visits. When, quite routinely, the sprayers left a scorched earth in place of that wild garden, the nature center retaliated with a series of signs in the best Burma Shave tradition:

We Asked the County Not to Spray But They Didn’t Care And Killed the Roadside Vegetation What Did It Accomplish? Besides Wasting Your Money? And Making Our Roadside Ugly? Where Has All the Poison Gone?

Soon thereafter county officials agreed to provide green-and-white signs to landowners who did not want their roadsides defoliated. The first day there were 487 requests. Not content, the Audubonists then forced the state to cancel plans to spray all median strips on its interstate highways. A total of fifty thousand more acres were saved from herbicides.

When and how and why did they come here, these wonderful wayside weeds? And from where?

Perhaps no more than a third of the plants commonly chastised as weeds are native to North America. Most originated in Europe and Eurasia. Many came on the Mayflower . Settlers brought their favorite potherbs and medicinals, and familiar flowers to brighten their yards. And forage for their animals. Plants that promptly spread into the clearings where virgin forest once stood—and found an ecological niche free of any competition from native plants.

The most fertile source of weeds was the ballast of ships—the tons of dirt dumped overboard once a light-sailing vessel reached port. And seventy thousand weed seeds were counted in a mere two pints of clover seeds shipped here from England in 1860.

Historic weeds.

When the Pilgrims sailed for the New World, botany and medicine were one and the same science. And it was a worthless plant indeed that did not have its place in the family herbal, whether its virtues were real or imagined. Many a plant is named for its original use in medicine, while many a traditional use was suggested by a plant’s features—where it grows, its color, its shape, its smell, its taste. Plants with red flowers would purify the blood. Plants with yellow flowers would cure jaundice. Plants with a bad smell would treat ulcers. Plants that grow in wet places would ease rheumatism.