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. 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. Plants that sting would stimulate the circulation.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Snakebite? The antidote was viper’s bugloss, with its seed shaped like a reptile’s head. Insomnia? The best cure was skullcap, shaped like a human skull. Sore eyes? Use eyebright, its little purplish-white flower with the yellow center suggesting the human eye. A bad cough? Pick lungwort, with its spotted leaves that resemble the lung.

The cures were legend and legion. So too were the uses in the kitchen. Even a thistle could be prized. John Evelyn, in 1699, offered this recipe for milk thistle: The young stalks about May being peeled and soaked in water to extract the bitterness, boiled or raw is a very wholesome sallet eaten with oyl, salt and pepper. Boil them in water with a little salt till they are very soft and so let them dry to drain. They are eaten with fresh butter melted not too thin and this a delicate and wholesome dish.

Perhaps, in these days of soaring food prices, we shall witness a return to nature’s green bounty. And there are already a few wise men who prefer wild greens and wild vegetables and wild fruits to the prepackaged and ofttimes bland produce of today’s sterile supermarkets. Certainly the supply is unlimited.

Meanwhile, a weed is a weed only in the state of one’s mind. As in the case of the Iowa legislators who, in a moment of parochial fun, declared the official state flower of neighboring Kansas—the native sunflower—a noxious weed, to be eradicated at all costs.