What is a weed?

Continuing on with my reading about weeds and what they are or how they can be described, is proving to be both interesting from my perspective, but also how people react when they see you reading a book on ‘weeds’. The basic description of what a weed is has many different view points;

According to the Oxford online dictionary: A weed is “a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants”.

This statement leaves a lot of room for interpretation, as stating that a weed is a plant growing where it is not wanted, means that even innocent ‘garden plants’ left to seed will pop up in places you may not have wanted to plant them. So does this make them a weed?

It certainly makes them an opportunist, one that broke the code of acceptable behaviour according to the desires of the gardeners. or a weed is; Thompson suggests that “a plant that grows, especially profusely, where it is not wanted” (pg 10 Thompson) This is a much tighter statement, than the one from the Online Oxford dictionary, leaving less room for ambiguity. Here even a garden plant left to seed and popping up in places the gardener did not want becomes something undesirable, an escapee beyond its allocated borders.

Or a weed is; “Weeds are only weeds from our egotistical human point of view”, (Pfeiffer pg 11) even though they grow in places we have forgotten or is surplus to our requirements. The more I read about these plants, to more it is clear that these chancers & opportunist are really plants that follow in our foot steps. Many of these plants do not survive in the true wild parts. They take root where we have been or walked the earth and disturbed the soil. They follow in our footsteps, so what they really represent is our failures to utilize all those spaces we have taken from the wild to make our own. They exploit those moments where humans have temporarily lost interest in a space. Real weeds are not shy, nor harmless.

Weeds have an inherent take over tactic in-built in their survival. They spread fast, either above or below ground. Above ground they produce lots of seeds from many flowers. This proliferation is certainly a key to their survival and spread. Then their ability to germinate in places that appears to have no valuable soil in it, is what makes them so successful. This is possibly what creates our dislike for them, as we often can not grow anything in those places, creating this hatred for something that can do it without needing us.

As Richard Mabey states so well “none of these outlawed species have changed their identities in graduating as weeds, just their addresses” (pg 5, Mabey). Weeds are happy to shift and move along behind us, they are not fussy of the address and could not care whether they are on the main road or a quiet cul-de-sac. Or a weed is; “A plant whose virtues have never been discovered’ according to Ralph Waldo Emerson (an American poet of the mid 19th century)

Many plants that are weeds in today’s society were at some stage used and valuable, but as time has gone on, we have forgotten those virtues. Simply because the need to forage for food (in most parts of the world) is reduced - Our food is now mostly obtained in packets and our medicine prescribed by a doctor. The virtues of these plants have simply gone out of fashion or through their spread have slipped into the wrong culture.

To sum it up I have to go back to Mabey as he describes it very well; “The weed community shouldn’t be judged by the behaviour of its most aggressive members. Weeds - even many intrusive aliens - give something back.They green over the dereliction we have created. They move in to replace more sensitive plants that we have endangered. Their willingness to grow in the most hostile environments - a bombed city, a crack in a wall - means they insinuate the idea of wild nature into places otherwise quite shorn of it. They are in a sense, paradoxical. Although they follow and are dependent on human activities, their cussedness and refusal to play by our rules makes them subversive, and the very essence of wildness” (pg 20, Mabey) Weeds green bits that are broken & ignored by us. Provide alternative food sources for animals & people (if we needed to again) and “What we ignore, more perilously, is the fact that many of these weeds maybe holding the bruised parts of the planet from falling apart” (pg 20 &21. Mabey).

A weed is something we may not want or like, but one that is forever in our shadow no matter how hard we try to ignore them. hawthorn & berberis prints.elise   'they follow in our footsteps' Elle Anderson (berberis & hawthorn berries)  

Books from which these were taken:

Thompson, Ken. ( 2009) The book of weeds - how to deal with plants that behave badly. London, Great Brittain. Dorling Kindersley Ltd.

Pfeiffer, Ehrenfried. (2012) Weeds & What they tell us. Edinburgh.

Floris Books Edmonds, William (2013) weeds weeding (& Darwin) The gardener’s guide. London, Great Brittain. Francis Lincoln Ltd.

Mabey, Richard.(2010) Weeds - In defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants. London, Great Britain. Profile Books Ltd.  



Posted by Elle Anderson

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