Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Wonderland of Weeds

"I’ve scraped my shovel through the fledging seeds 
and I’ve turned my gaze on you
I’ve turned my gaze on you
I’ve welcomed the darkest [Em] powers
That reduce life to  sand
Where the little plants of  hope and peace got  poisoned by my hand
Got poisoned by my hand
I climbed up Wake Up Hill
Saddened by the scene
Dark islands in the bay light still
The sea is gray and mean, the sea is gray and mean
Well the garden of my dreams
Is all filled up with weeds
And the little tears I don’t pull out will surely pull out me
Will surely pull out me"
Old Man Luedecke, Wake Up Hill 

Yellow Dock
Weeds inspire both scientific and emotional responses. The etymology of the word "weed"  seems neutral; it does not indicate the negativity associated with it, unlike Romace language equivalents, which translate as "bad grass", or the German "Unkraut" with its hint that weeds are deviants from the natural order.

From doing a translation of the word, I found these results:
Bald wird hier nicht mal Unkraut wachsen.
Soon enough not even thistles will grow here.
Damit kann die Verwendung der Unkraut- und Schädlingsbekämpfungsmittel reduziert und die ernährungsspezifischen Aspekte der Agrarprodukte können wirksamer gestaltet werden.
It can be used to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides and to make the nutritional and dietary aspects of food products more effective.

Weeds are a cultural category and are not, in the language of philosophers of science, a natural kind, a biological type. Scientific inquiry into plants in a given cultural context labels some plants as weeds, those which share remarkable abilities to survive and spread. We are all familiar with common weeds, such as dandelion, the bane of lawnlovers, and plantain, called "white man's foot" by indigenous North Americans because it appeared wherever the white settlers went. There are other weeds, which sound as if they belong in a fairy tale or a witches' cauldron, such as toadflax and viper's bugloss.

Danish scurvy grass seems like it should have stayed on cliff tops and sea walls but, unlike related species, it is genetically equipped to benefit from salt, used to salt the roads, and it moves inland. Natural selection has enabled weeds to prosper, "gate crashing civilization". Weeds have evolved to grow in unsettled earth and damaged landscapes-like ploughed fields and bombsites. Though they can appear to lack purpose, they do have an ecological role as soil stabilizers; they enhance stable plant systems. Agriculture would have been a passing trend without the help of the very weeds that farmers have ever since cursed. The role of weeds is one among several reasons to question the familiar, shallow stereotype of weeds as plants which are in the wrong place. Another is that a plant may be in the wrong place, like a daffodil in the raked sand of a Zen temple garden-for reasons other than its being a weed. John Ruskin corrected the familiar general definition when he described weeds as "plants with an innate dispositon to get into the wrong place".  Stereotypical examples of weeds include the Japanese knotweed and dandelion, which are not plants that people just happen to dislike or find inconvenient, as they really do have features which cause them to get into, stay in and take over the "wrong" place.

Weeds are typically invasive, highly adaptive, parasitic and adept at mimicking more benign plants.

Japanese knotweed was an ornamental plant in Victorian England. No matter what their innate biological makeup, weeds are a cultural category. The knotweed's current problem, is not so much that it grows in the wrong place than in the wrong culture, at the wrong time. Weeds have cultural profiles and ecological ones. Weeds play a role in religious tradition and myth, in medicine and magic, as cosmic or moral symbols, in literature and film, and in images of national identity. These are some of the associations and resonances of weeds. Weeds were associated with the devil, they were important in the Renaissance theory of signatures. In India, there was a practice of balsam-bashing, a species-specific weed management. For some novelists, close encounters with weeds are metaphors for modern anxietes.

There are obvious connections between weeds and human cultures. Weeds change the way we think about nature,  meaning that reflection on people's ambivalent attitudes towards weeds helps one to appreciate their wider ambivalence towards the natural world. Humanity's long love-hate relationship with weeds is thoroughly documented: on the one hand the farmers and gardeners for whom it is a delight to remove weeds, on the other a score of poets, who write in praise of them. It is not only poets who do so. During the London Blitz, the bombweed (rosebay willowherb), which sprung up on devastated sites, was greeted as a sign of hope, of life's regenerative power. The same tenacity that in one context makes it an enemy, turns a weed into an object of respect, even affection, in another. This dual perception of weeds is only one clear example of a general tendency to experience nature at one moment as an obstacle to human designs and endeavors, then at the next as a domain whose integrity and dynamism are to be honored.

Reflection on weeds entails abandoning the opposition of culture and nature, of the human and non-human realms, as "two orders of creation". The ecological and cultural profiles of weeds are intricately entwined. There are countless physical interactions between human activity, agriculture in particular, and the behavior of weeds. The conceptual point about weeds is that a change in taste prompts reclassification of a plant as a weed, which then impacts on the practice of gardeners. Experience of weeds is shaped by, and in turn shapes, human practices and attitudes. It not simply that an ornamental gets classified as a weed; people ignore the elegance and attractiveness of the plant. They take delight, not in observing it, but in clearing it. Conversely, our recently developed ecological awareness causes us to see patches of nettles and thistles in parks or gardens in uncultivated and previously unsightly places, as places to value, havens for threatened wildlife.


Let us renounce the idea of a divided creation: human culture cannot exist in isolation from the experience of nature. Indeed, our very cultural practices have evolved from experiences within nature. The "irrevocable link" of intricate entwinement between cultural practice and our experience of weeds is an essence of this integration, reflection on which leads to the conclusion of unity of people and nature. Weeds, properly observed, promote an appreciation that the world is a system of connections; division into human and non-human segments is false. The integral place of weeds in the world provides a case for the defense of weeds, including many "alien invaders" which balsam bashers and others want cleansed from our world, or at least, their backyards. Thoreau's Walden is really about how to cohabit respectfully with others, of all species. Other writers have also written on the subject of living in community with a natural world, free from the artifice of discriminating divisons.


The author of a book on Weeds, describes how, in their own humble way, weeds played a part in his recovery from depression; they gave the author a sense of community, a habit of cohabitation, with natural beings.

Weeds also provide much-needed nutrients and serve as medicine. Weeds have been used throughout history; the plants that we now consider weeds existed before gardens and agriculture and thus before the culturally-defined term 'weeds' came into usage. That was what was growing, and that is what our ancestors used, for shelter, making fabric for clothing, and as food and medicine. Weeds have helped agriculture through the ages through their soil restoration.

So, take heart gardeners, farmers, and plant lovers alike, there is some goodness in Weeds after all!

Creative Commons License
Singing Nettles Herbal Clinic by Amanda Dainow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at


No comments:

Post a Comment