Vigorous and intrusive

Image from “Flowers, Earth’s silent voices. Sketched and painted by S. G. [and accompanied with select verses]” by Sophina Gordon, British Library.

I’ve been paging through a secondhand book I found some time ago called Common Weeds. It’s actually a coloring book, and it was published by Dover in 1976, the year I was born. One of the things I find interesting about the book is that it helps to define what makes a weed a weed, which is something that really puzzled me as a kid. Why is one plant “good” and another one “bad”?

Weeds, of course, are not bad. They’re just plants. Many of them look pretty when they flower, some are edible, and lots of them have medicinal uses. E. F. Bleiler, the editor of Common Weeds, writes that a weed is usually defined as a “vigorous, intrusive wild plant that becomes a nuisance.” He doesn’t say anything about their being ugly or not useful. A person could certainly decide to cultivate any of the plants we consider weeds (though I can’t easily think of a good reason to put, say, poison ivy in your garden).

For instance, my mother likes to grow tansy, a yellow-flowering perennial, in her garden, even though it’s often considered a weed—and in fact is one of the plants included in Common Weeds—probably because of its tendency to take over. It’s also considered an herb and has been used medicinally for generations, though I feel obliged to point out that it can be very harmful, even deadly, if ingested in large amounts. There are many different ways of looking at a plant. 

Honeysuckle, the first entry in Common Weeds, is another good example. Any gardener will tell you that honeysuckle can be a problem because it grows like crazy and chokes other plants out. In my small yard, the vine takes over the back fence and grows up and around an old tree on the property behind us. We hack it back occasionally to keep it from overtaking everything else that grows back there, but actually, we love it. It’s wild-looking and lush, and it smells like heady heaven. When I was a kid I’d pluck the white flowers, put them in my mouth as I pulled the stamen through, and told myself the sweet taste was real honey. My dad showed me how to do that, with the eye-twinkling attitude adults use to tell kids something magical; I knew he didn’t believe that flower-honey was the fairies’ favorite drink, but he was giving me permission to believe it, and I think I understood that if I did then maybe he could again too, just a little.

Thinking about the value and the meaning of weeds reminds me of “Pigeon Manifesto,” a prose poem by Michelle Tea that I have long loved. It’s about her admiration for the scuzzy city birds, the kinship she feels for them and her distrust of the people who declare that they hate them. To end the piece, she writes, “The pigeon was once a dove, and then we built our filthy empire up around it, came to hate it for simply thriving in the midst our decay, came to hate it for not dying.” This is the thing about weeds, too: They grow where most other plants can’t. In shallow, poor soil; in wasteground and parking lots; between cracks in the sidewalk. They’re not wanted so they grow in places where they’re not supposed to be, thrive in hostile environments, and make themselves impossible to overlook, whether you think they’re pretty or not. Lots of people find those qualities hard to love, but not me. 

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