In praise of weeds

A weed is an unwanted plant, a plant growing in competition with cultivated plants.

A weed is generally hated, considered superfluous, if not harmful. The harm, of course, comes from the assumption that the herb is taking from the plants one wants there simply by existing, that it is valueless or even troublesome, if only because getting rid of them makes work and is not consistent with our imagined garden or lawn. In fact, many herbs improve conditions for other plants around them. We just don’t check.

Emerson said: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.”

Clearly there is nothing different about a weed except our perception of the plants. The problem is not in the weeds, but our minds.  Perhaps if we call it wort or weod as in the Old English source of the word, we wouldn’t think of them so harshly.

When I began studying and learning to identify medicinal and edible wild plants, fields and forests and roadsides became a vast resource to me. It’s our minds that need changing, not our the content of our yards. (unless you have eliminated the clover and dandelions and burdock and thistles and nettles from your yard- in that case, your yard should probably change.)  While not what we were planning or hoping to grow, weeds are often hardier and more useful than what we try to grow.

Herbalists say that if a new plant appears in your yard, it’s because you need it, and I’ve found this to be true. I don’t recognize a new plant, I look it up, and usually discover it helps a problem that someone in the house has. Even “normal” people talk to plants, because they grow better when we do.  Herbalists thank our herbs when we harvest them. Animists, like me, will ask a plant if it wants to help the patient, and sometimes one plant does and another plant doesn’t, even if they are the same species, and growing next to each other. Plants have consciousness and want to help us. I sometimes worry that they are like the Shmoos in Li’l Abner, too good to be true. We just need to know them better.

Eyeore said: “Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”

We need to learn more! Although they often do seem to want to help us, I also wonder if perhaps even herbalists and botanists may still be ignorant about plants place in the world. (Just look at all the amazing things we are discovering about mushrooms/mycelium!) There may be so much more than we know about them which explains why they are willing to sacrifice their bodies for our benefit. They may be more evolved than us, who knows? When we talk about “Saving the world” we really mean “saving humans”. Perhaps when mushrooms save the world, it won’t include us anymore. If we can’t understand that we are not the world, not even the most important thing in the world, we may have failed as a species.

An analogy from weeds:

At this point in political history, I can’t help thinking about how so many people seem to see other people as weeds. They want to get rid of them because they don’t recognize their value; they are simply unaware of anything except that those other people are not what they planned and expected to see in their world, so they want to “weed them out”. Kill them, or at least remove them from where they live. They don’t realize that if they did this, it would destroy the complex system that makes everything work. They seem to think that if they get rid of or hide things that bother them, they will feel better. They don’t see how impossible it is that if they get rid of the “weed-people”,  all the thing those people they despise do will be done automatically, (if we get rid of our “untouchable” caste, and suddenly we won’t need to defecate any more). It’s far too easy to simply decide to eradicate something that you don’t like, and assume that your life will be better, rather than trying to figure out why it’s there, and what it is that bothers you about it. The glyphosate crisis has illustrated the foolishness of that theory pretty well.

Plants have always been allies of humans, and it’s only when we decide that we prefer one plant over another, defining them as weeds, that we create an unbalanced ecosystem that will not support us. Go out to your doorstep and see what weeds you have there- bring them in and do an internet search and find out what the world is telling you that you need. You may be surprised to discover that weeds love you, and are trying to help.

Paul Harvey said “When there’s too much of it a flower becomes a weed.”


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