A Weed is a Weed is a Weed? Good and Evil in the Garden

By Madronna Holden

Updated 3.4.12

New link for Polish beekeepers winning ban on  corn genetically engineered to produce Bt (see below)

At the 2.5 acre Grass Roots Garden, cultivated to feed the hungry in Lane County, Oregon, there is “weed walk” led by an Oregon State University Master Gardener on the first Saturday of each month.  The weed walk emphasizes the edibility of many weeds, which have a higher nutrient value than what we intentionally plant.

The presence of certain weeds also supports the growth of classic garden plants in contributing to the fertility of the soil. Dandelions, for instance, have long tap roots that bring up minerals and other nutrients from deep in the soil and make these available to garden plants.  For this reason, the dandelion, every part of which is edible, is one plant never pulled out of the personal garden of the head of the local Master Gardener program.

Wise gardeners who don’t want the dandelion to spread simply snip off the blooming flowers. They might add these sweet delicacies to fresh salads and leave others to bloom for the sake of honey bees and goldfinches who feed on them.

Of course, you shouldn’t eat these from an area that has been sprayed—and neither should the honey bees or goldfinches. But these are often unseen collateral damage in the mindset of good and evil in the garden: good being those plants under our control, and evil being those plants that audaciously grow on their own.

This is an historically rooted part of the Western worldview, as indicated by the journals of the early fur traders in the Pacific Northwest, who wrote that they planted their gardens not primarily to harvest the produce, but to teach “control over nature” to local indigenous peoples.  Herbicide commercials play off this worldview, depicting the “weed” as a sly and dangerous presence out to undermine our control of our yards and gardens.

Nowhere in these ads do we find the information in a recent study done by University of Pittsburgh researchers who found Round Up applied according to label instructions caused nearby amphibians to change their shape.  Ironically, Round Up, which also creates several other health and environmental harms, including likely human birth defects,  is one of the least toxic herbicides currently in use– less toxic than some of the products the US allows to be sold that are outlawed in European countries.

Atrazine, for instance, currently banned in Europe, has powerful hormonal effects.  It is directly linked to breast cancer and causes “chemical castration” in a number of species.  Atrazine  is, however, the number one herbicide currently used in the US–the number one contaminant of drinking water in agricultural areas.  An important film documents this in a discussion between a mother and scientist, which indicates data  that such chemicals will effect our grandchildren’s grandchildren.

The ads for herbicides also don’t mention that human labor is an effective way to banish unwanted plants—and though this course is more expensive than herbicides in the short run if we count the expense of labor, it is most effective in the long run in actually eradicating certain problem plants. Herbicide use is, by contrast, an economic woe for farmers who must continue to increase their herbicide use as more plants grown resistant to these chemicals.

Manual control also avoids serious environmental and health problems with the very things that make herbicides most effective—their “systemic” qualities (being taken up into all parts of the plant) and “persistent” qualities (which keep them from breaking down).  And even as we apply  stronger herbicides with more systemic and persistent qualities, we cannot keep ahead of the Mother Nature’s adaptability, which is creating herbicide-resistant “super weeds” in response.

A recent essay in Onearth, published by the natural Resources Defense Council, suggested we might take a “conciliatory” approach to even invasive weed control. That is, since there are weeds that are simply not going away, we might learn to live with them. This essay documents how quickly insects adapted to feed on a particular invasive species in its new habitat.

I love native plants and nurture many of them in my own yard, but I also find the declared “war” on all invasives ironic when waged by those who are themselves European transplants on the American continent. In a local natural area, a friend and I recently came upon a volunteer placing herbicides on the dandelions that grew (if only sparsely) in an open meadow next to a river.

Though I know the management is trying to restore the local ecosystem here, they might take into account that this tact not only places persistent and systematic poisons in water systems, but has potential effects on important root crops like native camas that also share this meadow.  According to Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman, herbicides used by the BLM and the National Forest Service have caused native harvesters of camas to become seriously ill from ingesting this former food staple.

One thing overlooked in the war on weeds is that they are often vital in providing humans with food. Take the case of modern rice grains imported to Asia during the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s.  These grains are more productive than their diverse counterparts (there were over a hundred rice varieties grown in traditional fields) only if one counts the yield of that one particular plant per acre.

But as Vandana Shiva points out, these single crops are less productive when measured against the total output of all crops in traditional fields.   Indeed, the greens that once grew between the rice rows– now considered weeds– provided essential vitamin A and other nutrient to the local diet.  Currently, vitamin A deficiency is a serious health threat among populations growing rice as weed free crops.

Weeds also historically fed the hungry during hard times in the US, since they are free, nutritious and readily available. Many poor families survived on such weeds during the Depression. My father cannot eat greens to this day without being reminded of the extreme deprivation of those days.

The good news is that his mother was able to gather enough weeds to keep her family from starving. As related to me by another man who lived through the Depression, those who massed in the California gold fields with their hungry children, hoping to pan enough gold for a loaf of bread, were not so lucky.

The weeds were reliable, but the gold wasn’t.

It is sheer folly to poison plants (along with ourselves and the environment) that are faithfully there for us in the worst of times and supplement our diets and fertilize the land in the best of times.

Instead we might redefine “weeds” as those plants that detract from balanced, diverse, and vital ecosystems —such as the genetically engineered corn that Polish beekeepers won a recent legal ban against, since its  Bt saturated pollen poisoned bees.

It is time we learned enough about our world to cease making enemies of our friends.

Please feel to pass on the information in this essay in whatever way you see fit.

33 Responses

  1. This is a wonderful article! A couple of years ago I decided to research what was edible in my own yard and was amazed. Not only were the plants (weeds) nutritious but many had health benefits. Besides the Dandelions many uses it would be wise for all of us to become acquainted with the weeds in the yard. Milk Thistle is highly effective for liver conditions. Purslane, a persistent weed that grows in sidewalk cracks, taste like spinach and is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. It is also widely cooked in other countries. I love Wood Sorrel buds, which taste like lemon. Dollar Weed is an obnoxious weed, here in Florida, but is definitely salad worthy. Queen Ann’s Lace taste like popcorn when you pan fry the flower and it also has contraceptive uses. Then there is Saw Palmetto, which we know helps prostate issues, and even our state tree the Sabal Palm gives us hearts of palm. Cattails can be eaten like corn on the cob and Goldenrod also has many beneficial uses.
    Like so much of our readings have stated the indigenous people knew the benefits of every plant around them. And like the indigenous people when we become acquainted with the weeds and mindful of their intelligence, realizing what they offer, they quickly become family.

    • Thanks for sharing this list of edibles, Debora! I would caution readers to make sure of their identification before they try any of these–and to try a little to see how they react to each at first. Of course, that is also true of foods like fava beans, which are great, except that some folks with Mediterranean heritage are allergic to them.
      I had not known you would want to cook and eat the flower of Queen Anne’s Lace: you can eat the root, which is small and white and somewhat tough. This plant, also termed “wild carrot”, is the ancestor of our domestic carrot and its smell is a dead giveaway. In fact, seeded out garden carrots will revert to a Queen Anne’s Lace-like plant after a few generations.
      If it does not smell like carrot, don’t touch it, much less eat it– for you might be looking at poisonous hemlock instead, which is also distinguished by the purple dots dimpling its stems (it smells a bit moldy, nothing at all like a carrot). Hemlock was introduced to the US from Europe by gardeners, though I can’t image why you might want this in your garden!
      It would be great if everyone learned to identify the properties of ten naturalized plants that appeared in their yards or gardens– or a nearby park.

    • I think it is wonderful that so many of the plants that aesthetic gardeners consider nuisance and an eyesore, are edible and beneficial. Unfortunately, those of us with severe weed allergies must be very careful when trying to add these types of things to our diet. My family is severly allergic to most weeds and there have been a few times when both my mother and I have suffered terrible reactions because we tried something with a weed ingredient.

      • I have a few responses here: sometimes “weed” reactions are actually reactions to chemicals sprayed on weeds, which are far too common.
        Also, people sometimes include the wrong part of a “weed”– which can be the case with our veggies, too. Tomato leaves and potato sprouts, for instance, are toxic–and carrot tops can inhibit our skin’s protective functions. Recently, someone proudly brought a soup to which she had added carrot greens–thinking the greens must be healthy.
        I would also recommend that if you find yourself or your family allergic to a particular plant, you might do well to avoid all plants in that botanical family. I would never urge anyone to eat greens from the ragweed family, for instance, since so many are allergic to ragweed!

    • It is funny that most of the items you listed are sold at specialty stores or as a supliment for a hefty price. If only it was common knowledge that most of it can be easily found for free in our own yards. This was a very informative article, inspiring me to learn more about the weeds in my area. I found it especially interesting about the dandelion’s root system being useful to pull up nutrients in a garden.

      • Great, Jessica. Seems like we could do a third thing with these weeds rather than declare all out war on them in gardens and pay a hefty price for them in specialty stores– which is, as is your own goal, learn something about them!

  2. Isn’t hemlock, besides garlic, used to ward off evil? Maybe, that is how it ended up here …. during the Salem witch trials?? In high school biology we fried the flower of Queen Ann’s Lace in butter. I do not know what else it could be besides Queen Ann’s Lace, it’s blooming now. However, I agree …. be cautious.

    • I think you may be thinking of “deadly” nightshade (which is mildly poisonous but also has medicinal properties). Nightshade was a plant widely used by women healers in the Middle Ages. Hemlock actually has an umbel flower and growth habit like Queen Anne’s Lace– though perhaps it is as not common in Florida as it is in the Pacific Northwest. Hemlock is what poisoned Socrates.
      Nightshade would never be mistaken for Queen Anne’s Lace or Hemlock.

    • And of course, no sooner did I respond to you than I found a description of hemlock’s connection with witches in British folklore. I learn something every day.

  3. Really? I was only guessing at that …. somehow that just made sense, when you said it was brought here!
    Have you seen this site? http://www.herbvideos.com/ewpind.htm
    I looked up Poke weed, a plant that native Floridians know is poisonous; it will grow in the strangest places. My mother collects it every so often and cooks it. It is better than spinach 🙂

    • I should add that nothing I found indicates hemlock was used as a “protection against evil”– and I also know that considerable stereotyping of women healers too place during the period when up to 9 million women were murdered as accused “witches”. So allying witches with hemlock might be yet another way they were accused of dangerous actions, since hemlock is so toxic. And I looked at a couple of maps that indicate that Florida (where you are) is one of the few areas in the country in which poisonous hemlock is not naturalized. A member of the local native plant society here in Eugene stated that hemlock was introduced to local gardens because people thought it was attractive.
      The link you give has some very interesting information, though I would not take it as absolute: for instance, it states that skunk cabbage is poisonous, but then when you read about it on the site, it mentions that native people ate it– never specifying how both are true, which in fact they are. Skunk cabbage was traditionally boiled several times and the water thrown out before it was eaten in the Pacific Northwest.
      I favor the ‘Plants for a future” database myself, though the link you offer is gives incentive for further investigation.
      I am confused by your statement on Poke weed– it is known to be poisonous by native peoples and yet often cooked and eaten?
      This is a potentially dangerous response to a plant that contains two toxic chemicals throughout. Perhaps it is safe when eaten at young stages– or when boiled if the water is drawn off and discarded (as with skunk weed and others). It is also true that one can eat a bit of plants that contain toxins over time and not realize it– as in the case of some comfreys– which is one of the reasons why it is dangerous. One may not realize the toxin is building up in one’s system. Certain comfreys cause liver damage (not all, since there is genetic variety with respect to their toxic chemicals).
      Although your mother found a way to make it take “better than spinach”, consuming pokeweed is not something I would recommend here.
      Another thing I want to emphasize is that consuming weeds in one’s garden is one thing; consuming native plants (which may well be endangered) is another– something I would not wish to do.
      A key issue here is one of knowing what you are doing. Just because something appears in a supermarket does not make it “safe”– or ethically grown and harvested! (See the Do Not Buy list here and the post on telling the stories of consumer products).
      Thanks for your discussion on this topic.

      • I called my mother on how she prepared Poke. The leaves are removed from the main stem and boiled and rinsed several times. We do know it is toxic if not prepared and cooked right. I use to see Poke in a can in the grocery stores here in Florida. See link for a picture of canned Poke.
        http://www.wildpantry.com/wildgreens.htm

  4. This is a great essay, which I will print out for my husband to read. Though we never use chemicals on our garden or yards, he insisted on using them on the driveway weeds, until he decided he could torch them once a year and that worked just as well. I don’t know if that’s any better in the grand scheme of things, but I consider it a baby step in the right direction.
    There are actually several people who will appreciate this essay, that are not inclined to do a lot of weeding. Around our yards, we pick the dandelion leaves and flowers for the bunny, and find that the chickens usually feast on them in the flower beds.

    • From what I know torching is better than spraying poisons. It is great that there are no chemicals in your garden.
      Thanks for the kind feedback and once again, for helping to spread information. As to the dandelions, gerat for your bunny and chicken– perhaps they could teach humans a thing or two about taste.

      • I have no chemicals in my yard either and though I do cut the yard, I sometimes let it go nuts just to see what I have missed by cutting it. It is really awesome, because I see little trees eventually shooting up above the tall grasses and colors of yellow, white and purple from the dandelions, spiderwort and clover. I actually see the beginnings of a forest. Living next to wetlands is also a blessing.

    • Our family has enjoyed planting seeds in our garden for the past couple of years. We enjoy watching the ladybugs as they scurry along doing their best to enhance this part of the yard. I appreciate the insects and bugs that contribute to a healthier environment without chemicals. Because of these bugs, I do not spray.

      • Even the smallest of creatures have something to teach us? What a lovely family event it must be just to observe these little creatures going about their work. I know it gives me a feeling of well-being to watch the many insects busy among my flowers on a sunny day.

  5. How dare those Dandelions grow in my yard without my permission. We really have created a good vs. evil attitude towards plants and bugs that live in our yard. We act as though we know whats best for our piece of heaven on earth. In our effort to control mother nature, it seems that we find ourselves in a constant environmental battle. Our attitudes need to change as nature seems to always find a way to out smart the latest chemicals on the market. You would think we would have learned our lesson about controlling nature by now as it has always been there to support us.

    The discussion about consuming Dandelions is also interesting to me. I recently viewed a cooking show where Dandelion leaves were used as the main ingredient in a salad. I never knew this about the plant which makes me wonder about the other “weeds” that we cast off.

    • Your opening statement certainly indicates the bizarre nature of our attack on the natural world (which is also the very world that sustains our lives).
      I would love to see more weeds make their way onto cooking show features, Chris! You can now buy (French!) dandelions in many gourmet veggie stories– I guess the “French” label makes them worth paying for– or you can out and pick a few.
      As you aptly point out, natural systems constantly defeat us when we try to control natural processes– how much more effective we have been historical when we work hand in hand with those processes.
      Thanks for your comment!

    • I like that you point out that Mother Nature is always able to outsmart the newest chemicals on the market. After She is the one who created them, I’m sure She knows her way around what ever we can throw at her.
      The consumption of plants we normally don’t think about eating is an interesting topic, about a month ago I stayed at a hotel on the coast near the Klamath River where the chef made us sturgeon with a sauce made out of stinging needle.

      • Stinging nettles are one of the most nutritious vegetables one can consume, and many indigenous peoples in the Northwest consumed them, as well as using their fibrous stems for netting materials. Once the nettle is rolled and crushed, dried or cooked the hairs on the plant no longer sting. I know those who eat raw nettle by rolling the leaf in a particular way, though I wouldn’t try it!
        Nettle (largely a wetland plant) also like fertile soil: on the San Juan Islands native peoples planted their first potatoes in areas where nettle grew, using this marker of soil fertility.
        I would not by any means term this plant a weed.

  6. The timing of this blog is kind of comical because my new job is actually an invasive species coordinator for my local soil and water district where the primary focus is on terrestrial weeds. It’s great to be able to mechanically control weeds and when possible this is my preferred and recommended method, but sometimes chemical control of invasives is needed to protect native ecosystems. Most people would argue that a little hard work and perseverance is all that needed when it comes to most weeds, but the amount of work and perseverance is not always economically viable for the acting agency. This weekend I led about 8-10 volunteers in an effort to rid their neighborhood of spurge laurel, this is what I considered a good turnout. Many times when I host well advertised neighborhood weed pulls the turnout is very disheartening. Yet when I put on a backpack full of herbicide there is plenty of effort used verbally to tell me how I’m poisoning the environment. Believe it or not the majority of people who are licensed herbicide applicators are very knowledgeable about ecology and do there best to limit the introduction of chemicals to the environment. Herbicides are a tool, and people need to understand that sometimes they are the only tool (barring total excavation) available to keep native ecosystems from becoming a monoculture.

    • Thanks for your comment, Aaron. I would certainly take a licensed applicator over a homeowner who has signed for “Crossbow” over the counter at his local garden store.
      In the case I spoke of, I do not think that sporadic dandelions (perhaps a couple dozen in dozens of acres) were going to “take over” the native ecosystem, nor do I think it wise to apply chemicals of any kind adjacent to a river on a wetland. I am also concerned about the escalating nature of chemical application that I have seen when it is used as a “solution” to ecosystem preservation: as weeds become adapted (and humans become adapted to the convenience), I have seen more and more herbicides applied wherever this tact is taken. There is also the fact that we need to account for damage to native plants and systems in these applications.
      I know volunteers can be hard to come by for these kinds of work!
      In fact, I would not discount total excavation (or grubbing out roots– as in the case of Himalayan blackberries), which is sometimes more effective than continual herbicide application– goats can help with this, though I know that is not a simplistic solution, since they can also damage native plants and soil. No one can direct them to eat only one thing!
      I know that invasive species often put administrators between a rock and a hard place, but I am especially concerned with the increasing strength, persistence, and systematic nature of herbicides being applied in management contexts–and there is a reason why many of the herbicides we now apply are prohibited in the EU. I would think the new evidence that Round Up is “extremely lethal” to amphibians (and to human fetuses, I might add, in the case of some Argentine agricultural workers) would be very concerning. Here is a link outlining recent University of Pittsburgh research (“The Impact of Insecticides and Herbicides on the Biodiversity and Productivity of Aquatic Communities,” published in the journal Ecological Applications): http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/22159.php
      And then what? Do we take Monsanto’s tact in response to super weed resistance to Round Up and try to bring back Agent Orange, with its horrors?
      A central benefit of mechanical control, whether by animal, human or machine is that it does not create weed adaptation– not to mention, it keeps toxins out of our ecosystems.
      The other thing I think we need is patience. English Ivy and blackberry are both easier to control than formerly assumed: when you cut the stem at certain points in the plants and in their growth cycle. It is just that you have to do this more than once for blackberries. In the case of ivy, you only have to do it once, but it takes awhile for the ivy that has climbed trees to die back (sometimes a year or two) after you have cut its stem.
      The alternative, of course, is that we somehow learn to live with (or limit the areas of growth) of particular invasive plants. In the midst of climate change, this is problematic, since native plants may no longer have an adaptive edge in ecosystems as our climate shifts. Then we will really be fighting an uphill battle to maintain native ecosystems– however we define those. I add this last because a natural ecosystem in the Northwest climaxes to old growth evergreen forest, but native burning led to oak savannah habitat which does not exist without human management– but existed here for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. So which is the native habitat?
      I know the City of Eugene has cut some old doug fir to allow oak habitat to come back in a portion of Hendricks Park here– but I don’t see this as a clear call.

    • And as I am sure you also know, shade is an alternative to excavation in terms of some sun-loving invasives. I banished a considerable plot of English ivy by covering it with black plastic for a few months (not pretty– and plastic has its own problems, but it can be reused. There is even recycled plastic one can use–and then it can be recycled when it gets too many rips). Other invasives can be banished by tree shade: planting fig trees banished the bindweed under it entirely in my yard. Now native shade loving plants grow there instead. And invasive (as opposed to native) blackberries will not reseed under a forest canopy.
      One other important note to our readers: any herbicides sprayed on blackberries when the bloom is on is disastrous for both honeybees and native pollinators who have come to use blackberries as a prime nectar source. Indeed, any herbicide that has systemic and persistent properties is dangerous to pollinators at any time. And though blackberries and dandelions are perhaps the best known pollinator crops to consider in this regard, pollinators also favor blooming English ivy.
      Thanks to all of you who are working to reduce herbicide use and find alternatives.

  7. It wasn’t until my early twenties that it even occurred to me that weeds are not necessarily evil. I’d always taken for granted that because many people I spoke to wanted to rid themselves of weeds that they must be detrimental. This is funny to me only because I know better when it comes to many things, but with plants I knew nearly nothing. So, I always took what I was told at face value. This is a big problem in our worldviews. Ignorance is perpetuated so easily given the media and other agendas. It wasn’t until I was presented with some useful applications of weeds that my naivete occurred to me. I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly tried any food that is considered a weed although after reading a few posts, I am eager to try!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Latifa. It is not only a naive but dangerous thing in terms of personal health and the environment that we not only designate so many things as “weeds”– but attack them with herbicides.
      I am heartened by the fact that so many are re-considering such categories– if not by the blitz of herbicide displays and ads everywhere this spring.

  8. I relate to this article because of an opportunity I had while studying exotic and invasive plants. We focused our time on Russian olive trees, learning that the non-native is an intense vegetative propagator–capable of taking over riparian zones and native tree stands. The long tap roots allow the species to consume twice as much water as native plants, thus, lowering the water table. Interestingly, the trees perform “allelopathy” to chemically change soils and promote the Russian olive’s success. Volunteers with the Exotic Species Elimination Project (E.S.E.P.) work in natural areas to remove this plant that was originally introduced as an ornamental by city planners from Colorado State University and the U.S. Forest Service. My favorite activity was developing a prototype, business plan, and presentation for my own alternative use for the wood. This type of local initiative may serve as part of the solution to other extreme cases wherein humans have promoted a non-natural plant scheme. All in all, the experience allowed me to see the forest differently, reminding me of man’s role as caretaker for plant communities.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience in this arena, John. Our challenge as caretaker (or perhaps as healer of what we have caused?) will become even more challenging as we face climate change. Native plants’ adaptation to their sites may not give them an edge as climate becomes more unstable.
      I find it interesting that Russian olives are still sold in many nurseries- including one specializing to catering to the organic/permaculture market.

  9. This article reminds me of our garden last year. We had a compost pile that did not work well in the heat of Texas because it would not stay moist and it attracted flies. So I put what little compost we produced into a small garden. The garden began to grow a vine plant that we knew we had not planted as well as a tomato plant. We had so much fun as the plant grew, figuring out what the mystery fruit would be. It turns out that we had discarded gourds in our compost pile from halloween which had then grown in the garden. We were so proud of “our” harvest and displayed the gourds proudly. Our “mystery” garden actually produced twice as much as our intentional garden that year. Sometimes it can be so much fun to just see what nature brings to the garden.

    • Thanks for sharing this delightful experience, Jessica. One of my own favorite things to do as spring approaches is to go on walks to see what is emerging–and it is especially fun when my own yard is filled with surprises in addition to old friends. Squirrels and birds, not to mention, wind, do a lot of planting!

  10. I have nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award at http://growingchristianwoman.wordpress.com/2012/07/26/one-lovely-blog-award/.

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