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 that was put out 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. What makes one plant “good” and another one “bad”?

Weeds, of course, are not bad. They’re just plants. Many of them look pretty because 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). My mother likes to grow tansy, a yellow-flowering perennial herb, in her garden, even though it’s considered a weed in many contexts—and is one of the plants included in Common Weeds—probably because of its tendency to take over.

Honeysuckle, the first entry in the book, 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, honeysuckle 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 like it. It’s a wild-looking, lush vine and it smells heavenly. 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. In traditional Chinese medicine, parts of the honeysuckle plant are used to treat headaches and colds.

Thinking about the value of weeds reminds me of “Pigeon Manifesto,” a 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. She says, “I am suspicious of people who say they hate pigeons. I think, Who else do you hate?” The thing about weeds is, they grow where most other things can’t. In shallow, poor soil; in wasteground; in parking lots; between cracks in the sidewalk. They grow wherever they can, and they thrive. There’s a metaphor in that for sure.