Welcome to my zone 9a habitat garden near Houston, Texas.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Weeds: The plants we love to hate

Richard Mabey loves weeds.  He admires their tenacity, exuberance, and ingenuity, their ability to lodge themselves in the most unlikely places (Ever seen a dandelion growing in a crack in the sidewalk pavement?) and to thrive there. Weeds are survivors and if we can get past our prejudices, Mabey thinks we might just learn a lot from them.

To help us in the process of that learning, he has written a book,  Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants.  Since Mabey is billed as "Britain's foremost nature writer," maybe we should listen to him.

The book is a comprehensive survey of the biological and cultural history of weeds in art, folklore, literature, and medicine.  As Mabey points out, when land is stripped and shattered by natural or man-made disasters, the first colonizers to return are weeds.  They stabilize the soil and curb water loss.  They also provide shelter for other plants, as well as food and shelter for animals.  Mabey says that after the end of World War II, a survey was done of bomb craters in London and 126 different plant species were found growing in them, stabilizing the damaged soil and preventing the runoff of water.

Of course, throughout history, weeds have served as food, fuel, medicine, dyes, and building materials for humans, and, also, for a variety of other animals including insects, birds, and mammals.  Weed seeds have been spread around the world by human activity and many weeds have evolved to mimic the size, shape, height, and coloring of plants favored by humans for food, thus enhancing their chances of avoiding the hoe or the scythe or the gardener's fingers.

No matter how much gardeners and farmers may gnash their teeth and wring their hands over the presence of  weeds in their plots, the plain truth is that weeds are indomitable.  They are here to stay, and perhaps we would do well to adjust our perspective of them.  They may be considered invaders in our petunia bed, but they are, in fact, a part of the heritage and legacy of a place, and surely they deserve some respect for that.

And if you are still unimpressed, here is a philosophical take that Mabey has on his subject:  Pulling weeds from the earth builds human character!  Even in their removal and death, they possess the Zen-like ability to slow us down, give us time to meditate, and, in short, to improve human nature.  The next time I'm struggling to remove those damnable pepper vines that grow everywhere in my yard, I'll try to remember that I'm being "improved" by the process.

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