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.