Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Sunday, January 6, 2013

What is a Weed? Part 2: 'Weeds' by Richard Mabey

I would guess that most gardeners have heard a definition of a weed that goes something like: "a weed is a plant in the wrong place." Or Ralph Waldo Emerson's quote that a weed is "a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." And that is certainly the case, but Richard Mabey made me realize that the definition of weeds is much more (see my last Sunday essay on this book).  Plants go from being desired plants, to being a nuisance, to being a weed, and back to being desired again.  Weeds, using a favorite social work (my day job) term are a "social construction."  This means that the term weed is defined and created  by man, by the cultural, social, agricultural, medical, ornamental and artistic needs of human beings. A weed may simply be a plant that strays out of its proper biological or botanical home. But that means tulips are weeds here in Virginia.  So it must be more than this?  To quote Mabey: "The ornamental in one place becomes a malign invader in another.  What had been a crop or a medicine, centuries ago, falls from grace and metamorphoses into a forest outlaw. And just as readily the weed is domesticated into a food plant or a children's plaything or a cultural symbol....Of course, 'it all depends on what you mean by a weed'. The definition is the weed's cultural story." And a cultural story it is.

Some plants are labeled "weeds" because of their harmful effects on people (example: poison ivy), on the animals people depend on (example: 'cowsick,' a common name for datura, needs no further explanation) or the agricultural crop plants we needs (example: dodder sucks out the plants juices and weakens them). Some plants are labeled by people as unattractive, ugly or smelly. Some plants have uncomfortable resemblances to human anatomy (not that cute turnip that looks like it has a face, but that Voodoo lily that is shaped like a ...phallus). The operative word ina ll these descriptions is people: these plants are defined by us for our purposes: but of course they are, like most things. Mabey again: "they are plants which sabotage human plans."  So weed, like insect pest, is a social construction and has little to do with biology or nature, though most weeds seem to share some type of toughness in their DNA. One bottom line definition of weed?  One last Mabey quote "Weeds thrive in the company of humans."  They grow well whenever we disturb or destroy.  Cutting a forest for a field (or a garden) creates a haven for weeds.  Our penence is weeding.


  [pen-uh ns
a punishment undergone in token of penitence for sin.
a penitential discipline imposed by church authority.
a sacrament, as in the Roman Catholic Church, consisting in a confession of sin, made with sorrowand with the intention of amendment, followed by the forgiveness of the sin.
1250–1300; Middle English penaunce  < Anglo-French; Old French peneance  < Latin paenitentia penitence

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