June 4, 2008  
Weeds. Saviors or Scourges?

I know you're anxious to get the garden and the flowerbeds planted. Memorial Day is behind us and that's the usual signal to begin. Some from the old school will wait until after the full moon (June 18, this year). If you've already started this annual ritual, don't let the unwanted, unplanted visitors dampen your joy. Just pull them out, or ease them out, depending on how well anchored they might be.  

You know to what I'm referring: the wild plants, Mother Nature's most successful introductions, some of the fastest breeders on the planet, those that spread so far and wide that they take over spaces occupied by other species: weeds by any other name.  

It's early June and weeds are proliferating at their usual rapid rates. I first noticed the germination and rejuvenation in the early stages of our extra warm spell in April: weeds pushing through the leaves and duff as if nothing could stop them. First the coltsfoot is flowering and before I know it, I can't even tell you how many garlic mustard plants I've pulled in the last few weeks.  

Weeds! They're a lot like we are, but we have more restraint. Weeds reproduce by program, with the maximum output that nature allows. Weeds disperse into the surrounding region according to conditions and means of dispersal. Weeds are not discriminating and often prefer disturbed soils and what might appear to us as uninhabitable sites (perhaps they are on a mission?). Multiple habitats, no matter how stable in appearance, seem welcome to a wild plant seed or fragment of root, and resistance to eradication can be formidable.  

Weeds are, after all, not unlike us. They are opportunistic, adaptive, versatile, aggressive, prolific, willing to fight for terrain, and ready, willing, and able to travel to a better place. Even though plants can't pick up and physically move, their seeds and roots can and will travel long distances.  

But, I've only touched the tip of this iceberg (maybe I should call it a pyramid). In either case, when discussing weeds, there is so much hidden or unrevealed, and remaining to be discovered.  

Last year at this time I wrote about garlic mustard. It is still in flower as I write this. It continues to spread. There appears to be a divide between the direction in which evolution is moving with regard to weeds and their spread, and the good that they do in arresting soil erosion and loss. They also possess vast potential use to humans as food, research tools and medicines. We can almost be certain that the evolutionary trend will be to a reduction of the number of successful species, even though they may occupy larger and larger spaces.  

We humans purport to be the arbiters of wisdom and common sense. Weeds, on the other hand, silently go about the business of rescuing disturbed land, be the disturbance a result of man's careless actions or acts of nature such as fire, flood or catastrophic storms. Weeds are the healing pioneers, stabilizing the soil until their particular role is fulfilled and then paving the way for a next generation of species that will occupy the land and move it forward in the evolutionary process. Is it our arrogance that leads us to want to control weeds to such a degree?  

Granted, the process might be more planetary in scope than compatible with human sentimental plans and values. The old adage that weeds are plants growing in the wrong place is a truly human sentiment. They are growing in the right place at the right time for reasons that we overlook or fail to comprehend. Imagine how barren our planet might appear if the only plants growing were those we sentimental beings put into the earth?  

Yes, weeds might get in the way of our efforts to raise crops, flowers and lawns, but once their presence is understood, they can be appreciated in a new light. A good way to look at a weed is to assess whether its virtues can be balanced with its disadvantages. When the disadvantages outweigh the virtues, then it becomes an undesirable plant to be dealt with. It's competing with a plant we favor to succeed.  

A few examples might serve my point. The lowly dandelion thrives in soils low in calcium and organic matter. It has well documented value as an herb with food, beverage, and medicinal qualities. Since it competes so successfully against thin turf grass, some devotees would say get rid of the grass (which requires high inputs of lime, fertilizer, and pesticides) and let the dandelions take over.  

Another wild plant regarded as an unwanted weed, the wild daisy, seems to proliferate in lawns similarly deficient in calcium and lime. Scientific study reveals that the daisies collect and sequester lime in their tissues. When they die, the lime goes back to the soil. This process continues until, when the lime is sufficient to support the grass, the wild daisies are finally no longer present.  

The wild blackberry is a trailing perennial plant that provides a fruit that makes one of the most delicious jellies known to the world. It is valuable also because it rapidly colonizes overgrazed, abandoned, and eroded land and forms dense thickets that provide shelter to birds and other wildlife. Its roots and leaves can be used medicinally. This bramble spreads by seeds, root sprouts, rhizomes, and stems that arch and root at the tips where they touch the ground. The prickly thickets become impenetrable and thus a serious problem unless heavily and regularly managed. They will interfere with almost any crop we wish to grow and harvest.  

Let's face it. Weeds are here for some very good reasons, and they stay and do their job. Why else would it be that so few animals and insects prey on the vast majority of what we call weeds. If this were not so, they wouldn't survive. One job we are pretty clear about is that weeds are here to provide cover for our valuable soil, to disperse raindrops, anchor the soil with a web of roots, to hold onto and maintain our greatest natural resource that took perhaps thousands of years to build.  

Frequent harvesting will keep plants in the vegetative mode longer, but, sooner or later, they will insist on flowering. Flowers and seeds are flavorful, too, but a sure signal that the leafy bounty is coming to a close. Thoroughly washing and draining will allow you to dry plenty for future use.  

The hardy wild plants occupy our fertile soil in every form, annual, biennial and perennial. Nature confers them with whatever is necessary to protect them from being eaten by animals, be it thorns, bitter taste, or toxicity. They continue in their fashion to build and nourish the soil so the next evolutionary step can take place: the edible plants colonize and get established.  

Another role that many weeds play is that of companion plant aiding a neighboring plant with insect repellant protection, probing the soil deeply in times of drought and pulling up needed moisture to the surface for shallow rooted companions that might otherwise be injured or die.  

The wild plants can be seen as wildflowers, providing beauty, a lovely green blanket along roadsides; a habitat and food source for bees and butterflies; a source of fragrances, even camouflage for the bare rock, soil, and litter that accumulated along our roadsides.  

For every weed there is a reason. Lamb's quarters is a highly regarded edible wild plant. Often found in waste places, it indicates the soil is rich, fertile, and high in humus content. Other edible wild plants often found in waste places include curley or yellow dock and its close relatives, sheep and garden sorrel. These tend to be found in wet, acidic soils. Burdock is commonly found in soils high in iron and phosphate and low in calcium and manganese. In each and every case, if you want to lose the weed, you must correct the soil condition so it is balanced.  

All living things have a right to live. I guess, understood, is the idea that each has a vital role to fulfill, don't you think?  

Gardening is a way of showing that you believe in tomorrow..    - Author unknown.

From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on June 04, 2008

© 2008 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.