What’s bizarre isn’t that I killed the unstoppable, dreaded demon vine of the South - which can supposedly grow a foot in 12 hours, blankets some 2 million acres of forest land and has been officially outlawed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — rather that I tried to grow it on purpose.
And it died.
This was back when I was a novice (and obviously very poor) gardener. I was curious about the whole mythology of kudzu, having seen the green abyss and often wondered what great treasures lurked beneath its great strangling mounds. So I decided to grow some. One afternoon while taking my baby
out for a ride in her stroller, I stopped in an abandoned lot pulled up a few strands and skulked off like I’d snipped prize roses from my neighbor’s garden. I stuck it in a pot with some good garden soil and waited for the monster to emerge … and I waited and waited and waited. When nothing happened, I started watering.
After about two weeks, those little snippets were as black and brittle as burnt pine straw. “Ain’t so tough,” I thought, lording over the pot, which didn’t have a hole for drainage and thus left the kudzu standing in about 8-inches of water. “Ain’t so tough at all.”
While few will ever come to the aid of kudzu, weeds aren’t all evil, according to Richard Mabey, author of Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants.
Rather, weeds are tough, self-sufficient, prolific, mobile, adaptable, dress-up otherwise desolate lands and heck, some are even downright pretty.
“Weeds — even many intrusive aliens — give something back,” Mabey writes. “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 the wall — means
that they insinuate the idea of wild nature into places otherwise quite shorn of it.
“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 wilderness.”
It’s hard not to admire weeds ... as long as they aren’t in our yard.
I mean who hasn’t stood over a tiny dandelion in amazement as it grew healthy and strong from the crack in the cement. It might be 100 degrees with the sun searing down on that delicate flower that hasn’t had a drop of water in weeks, yet shows no sign of wilting. They refuse to die. Dandelions were actually brought to the United States from Europe to provide food for honeybees. Now they can be found across the planet. Dandelions are still used to make an herbal beer in England and Canada and are a rich source of potassium.
Mabey, who is the editor of The Oxford Book of Nature Writing and is England’s most respected nature writer, goes to great lengths to explain anecdotally how — from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling, from biblical times to modern urban sprawl — weeds have decorated not only the world’s landscape but have taken root in our culture. Weeds is a love letter, a sympathetic meditation on man’s fickle nature — acknowledging a plant’s medicinal value in one century while condemning the same plant as a menace in another.
Mabey is both exhaustive and exhausting in his research of the history of numerous “weeds” and the scientists, sages, apothecaries and magicians who discovered and categorized them. While his stories are engrossing and as enchanting as the English gardens from which so many have been banished, the book is better as a thought-exercise, something to be perused for free at a local bookstore and contemplated over a skinny latte rather than actually purchased.
But for the serious gardener, it’s worth considering. Weeds might even make a few gardeners pause a moment before pulling the Round-Up trigger and killing a seemingly defenseless weed … but only for a moment.
A flower by any other name
So what is a weed? It’s a plant in the wrong place. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, it’s “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
That, of course, is a generous outlook. But what a weed is today could’ve just as easily been considered a miracle cure in days past.
Mabey, for example, mentions ground-elder, which was first introduced in Britain by the Romans to relieve gout, doubling as a pot-herb. But 2,000 years and several medical revelations later, it’s become “the most obstinate and detested weed in the nation’s flowerbed.” The ubiquitous kudzu vine — “America’s worst demon” - has no less an innocent cultivation.
The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia contained a Japanese garden full of native plants, including kudzu. The exhibit was popular and American gardeners soon began planting kudzu as an ornamental. In the 1920s a Florida nursery realized that cattle were grazing on kudzu and began selling it to farmers. Some 10 years later the Soil Conservation Service began planting the vine to help control Dust Bowl erosion. Within a few years, kudzu was running wild. And yet there is something mysteriously majestic about this remorseless invader.
“A kudzued landscape is eerily beautiful, if you don’t stop to think about what it has buried,” Mabey writes. “It has a primordial aura, as if an ancient city had been overwhelmed by the jungle. The trees looking as if they have been petrified by green lava or a monochrome corral, or are the seaweed-enfolded relics of a wrecked ship.”
Mabey isn’t the first to tout the value of these loathsome plants. Weeds have always had their apologists seeking to find some explanation for their existence. There was the 18th century school of “Psysico-Theology,” which sought evidence and sound arguments for God’s existence through the study of the natural world (something of a modern precursor to Intelligent Design), that believed weeds served two uses: “First, as demonstrations of God’s canniness as a botanical engineer,” Mabey writes, “second, as salutary scourges of human arrogance.”
I can’t go that far, but I can say that weeds — for me at least - served as an excellent form of behavioral therapy. In fact, weeds helped save my marriage.
There was a time when I couldn’t stand the thought of visitors coming to my house. I would get so anxious and stressed out that I would go into a cleaning panic. Sure it sounds fun (“wish my husband had that problem” some of you might say) but trust me, it’s not. My wife would be afraid to tell me a friend was coming over or that she wanted to have Christmas at our house for fear of how I’d react. My now-teenager couldn’t have a sleepover because I’d freak out. It took about a year, but I got help for what, as laymen’s know it, is obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Among the many triggers and exercises my therapist recommended, one was gardening (not to mention sanity-saving medication). Theory being, there’s no such thing as a perfect garden, a “finished” garden. I was going to have to accept the fact that Mother Nature would always be conspiring against me, whether it was dead plants, insects, yellow leaves or weeds. I had to learn to live with those imperfections.
Though I battled those buggers with all my might, weeds continued to crop up in my garden to the point where, rather than literally raging against their audacity, I’d shrug my shoulders and give the devil his due before getting back to work — lesson being that there were some things beyond my control.
As I’m sure Mabey would testify, life’s like a garden — weeds and flowers, like obstacles and blessings, bloom in equal measure.
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com
• Across the United States, lawns occupy some 50,000 square miles, approximately the area of the state of Idaho, and householders spend more than $30 billion a year on maintaining them. More chemical weedkillers and fertilizer is sprayed on lawns per acre than on any other crop in the country.
• Striga is a pretty but parasitic snapdragon, whose blossoms in its native Kenya are tossed across the paths of visiting nobles. In 1956, it found its way to the eastern United States where it has since reduced hundreds of thousands of acres of corn to stubble.
• Japanese knotweed was introduced to Britain in Victorian times, as an elegant shrub for the woodland garden. In less than a century, it’s become regarded as the most dangerously invasive plant in the country.
• J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, understands children’s fascination with bizarre plants, and Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Academy has an exotic and disgusting — if fictional — weed flora. Bubotuber is a thick, black, slug-like plant, capable of squirming and covered with pus-filled swellings, which cause boils on the skin. Devil’s snare winds its tendrils round any hapless creature that gets too close. Yet it can be neutralized by a charm contrived from a bluebell, which is real, a “good” plant, a wild flower, not a weed.
• Between 1964 and 1971, the United States sprayed 12 million tons of Agent Orange on Vietnam, and it laid bare entire rainforests so that the Vietcong had nowhere to hide.
Four decades later, the forest still hasn’t recovered. In its place is a tough grass called cogon, known locally as “American weed.” Cogon has recently infiltrated the United States in the packaging of imported Asian houseplants and is now advancing across the South.
• Like something out of a science-fiction movie, hogweed contains photo-sensitive chemicals that are activated in sunlight and can cause burns on children who are known to hack down their hollow stems to use as telescopes or blowguns.
• During World War II, a giant puffball was found under an oak tree in Kent, a southeast county in England. It was at first suspected of being a new kind of bomb. Later nicknamed “Hitler’s Secret Weapon,” it was put on display in an effort to raise money for the war effort.
• In New York City’s Central Park, there is a garden devoted to growing all the plants mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. It was inaugurated in 1916 on the 300th anniversary of the poet’s death.
• The worst that pious medieval did to weeds was to shout bad names at them. There are at least 20 species with vernacular tags (now mostly obsolete) that identify them as spawns of Satan: Mayweed was Devil’s daisy. Corn buttercup was Devil’s claw, Devil-on-all-sides, Devil’s coachwheel and Devil’s currycomb (mostly in reference to the shape of its seeds). Deadly nightshade was Devil’s rhubarb and Devil’s berries. Mullen was Devil’s blanket. Ground ivy was Devil’s candlestick. Dodder was Devil’s thread. Dandelion was Devil’s milk pail. Corn poppy was Devil’s tongue.