On weeds

I'm fairly ignorant about weeds. In fact, I've been known to carefully transplant a volunteer to a flower bed and dote on it before finding out that it's classified as such. Suddenly, instead of taking pride in nurturing, I feel like someone who's harbored a criminal.

But who has made this classification, and why?

In school, when reading the "classics," I often wondered just who had decided these particular books were so great that they would stand the test of time. In the same way, I wonder about weeds and why some plants are worth spraying gallons of herbicide on or ripping from the soil, while others should be carefully fertilized and coddled along.

When a plant becomes too successful at reproducing and moving into a new area, it's no longer welcome. In the act of dominance, it has become the enemy, to be eradicated. And we don't feel badly about it - there will always be more.

Several non-native plants have made their way into Alaska and are thriving. The Alaska Committee for Noxious and Invasive Plant Management has a strategic plan to raise awareness of more than 20 species that threaten Alaskan plants. Every June, volunteers dig out hundreds of pounds of dandelions in Denali National Park in order to protect the native plant species there, which animals in the park rely on as food sources.

There as in the home garden, weeding out the "bad guys" carries a great measure of satisfaction. We've now protected other plants so they won't be overrun by the dandelions, the chickweed, the clover. But if you were left with the last dandelion on earth, would you happily extinguish it forever, or lovingly nurture it along?

Nowhere does this distinction seem more arbitrary than in the tiny kingdom of my own backyard. In my ambivalence about weeds, I've discovered (too late maybe), that invasives have made decisions for me. My back yard, like the yard of MissoulaChick's neighbor, is a crop of dandelions. The front is a haven for clover.

Last year, on my side embankment where I don't venture too often, my neighbors found a lovely orange flower. They admired it, and even wondered about taking cuttings. A few weeks went by and the plant multiplied. Then someone discovered it on the "invasive plant" list. Now I've got a bit of work to do - not because I dislike it, but because I know my neighbors have put lots of time and effort into their own yards, and are a bit less ambivalent about weeds than I.

As I dig it out this spring, I'll feel good about helping protect their flower beds and the native plants of Alaska, but I'll also wonder about whether it's right to kill orange hawkweed just because its ability to survive has given it the "weed" label. I'll also be wondering about native peoples and the historical invasions that have so changed native cultures all over this country. Can native and non-native species, plant and human, ever co-exist successfully?

After all, there are beautiful flowers among us all.



Joshua McNichols said...

This was a great post.

Kat said...

I have always been told, "a weed is anything growing somewhere you don't want it to."

I understand why you would want to eradicate a plant that is overly invasive. But as for the rest -- I like most of the plants in my yard, regardless of their value. My weed-ridden lawn is much more interesting than the green turf from my childhood. Not to mention, I feel more comfortable letting my daughter play in an area that is pesticide free.

Stephanie said...

I enjoyed this post...and I agree with you. Who makes the rules, whether they surround classic novels or local, thriving organisms? I think there are some things we should be allowed to make our own rules on!