- Diane Seufert Tait
So, it's just a weed?
Spotted Joe-Pye-Weed One of these beauties has planted itself in my gardens:)
I want to talk about the word 'weed'. Last year during one of the classes I teach, a student asked me to identify a plant. It was growing near where we were collecting a different plant for medicine - making. I was able to answer her question. Then she asked me what it was used for. I said that as far as I knew, it wasn't a plant that was used in herbal medicine. That's when she said, "So, it's just a weed!"
After decades of building a close relationship with the plant world, I found myself reacting to that statement as if someone had made a racist remark about a very close friend.
It cut deep. First of all, what does that word mean?
According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, a weed is "a wild plant growing where it is not wanted". The plants that are called weeds are simply plants that are growing in a place inconvenient for us. They are not inferior plants to those that we choose to keep in our garden or environment, just not what we want. Technically, as nature goes, they aren't even growing in the wrong place; just in a place where we don't want them.
As more is learned every year about the many aspects of ecosystems, we can understand that nothing happening in nature is random. Every single plant, tree, rock formation, soil composition, weather pattern, amount of sunlight, predators and prey, birds, insects and reptiles, all interact with one another in ways we cannot fully understand.
I have gardens. I choose what I would like to grow in those gardens because I make herbal remedies and I like to grow some of my food. Often those 'unwanted' plants sneak in and make themselves at home. Over the years I have been shown that to let a few of those interlopers stay benefits some of their 'wanted' neighbors. The uninvited guests often attract new, unique pollinators that also like some of the other plants in the garden. Maybe those unwanted plants hold a bit more moisture in the soil, helping everyone else during droughts. And maybe, they are really interesting and beautiful or good to eat, like Purslane and Chickweed.
I think it's time that we never use the word 'weed' to describe a plant. Gardens are small ecosystems that we create. Some gardens are so bereft of character and interest that I would rather walk through a grown-over patch of urban landscape and observe what Mother Nature does on her own. My granddaughter and I are endlessly fascinated with those tough little plants who find a way to have a life growing in the cracks of cement and pavement. Did you know that Dandelions, aside from being one of the best liver-supporting herbs on the planet, are a significant, much needed source of pollen and nectar for honey bees in the early Spring?
I'm grateful that we as a species have figured out how to grow the plants we need and want, but I think it's time we start to look at each species of plant, maybe even each plant, as special. Just as we are having conversations about racism and privilege in our world human societies, we need to begin to honor all other beings-those green, mammal, fish, bacteria, insect, bird, reptile and parasitic - as being unique, of value, and certainly "not just weeds"!
One other point - yes, there are some plants that are called 'invasive species'. Again, it is not because of their fierceness, or evil that they are doing such damage in some landscapes.
It's because they are not a native species. It is us as humans moving around the planet, who unintentionally or ignorantly on purpose, introduce them into an ecosystem where they can grow and spread, uninhibited by other species or climates that would normally keep them in check. They crowd out our native species and can ruin acres of pastureland or woodland understory. I'm talking about something like Dog-Strangling Vine (Cynanchum rossicum). There are many more invasive plants, but once again, the plants are just doing their thing. In our human ignorance we cause these catastrophes.
Talking about the Dog-Strangling-Vine, I have noticed some things that make it more difficult for that species to thrive. Goldenrod seems to either crowd it out or make it impossible to germinate where it grows. Cynanchum also does not do well in very dry conditions such as a drought. They never get to the flowering stage. And, they don't do too well when you dig them out with the whole root attached:) It is work intensive, but effective when done consistently over several years. Understand, though, that when you do dig or pull out these plants, they must not be put in compost! Seeds will survive and start another problem where the compost is used.
This spring and summer, as things start to push out of the earth and grow, be as observant as you can of all the plants. Notice where certain plants like to grow. In the sun? In the shade? Somewhere dry or somewhere wet? Only up North at the cottage?
Always around your tomato plants, or alongside a certain tree? Little by little you will start to appreciate our ancestors, the plants, who live here with us. I always apologize for having to pull plants out of my gardens. Sometimes I have to stop for the day because I feel like I've done enough damage for a while. I'm pretty sure it's always when I keep going past that point that 'they' finally trick me into pulling out one of the plants I do want. ;)