2017-06-18 / Community

From the Urban Wilderness

Weeds to some, nature's gifts to others
By RACHEL LOVEJOY
Columnist

What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet, Long live the weeds and the wildness yet. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins

While at a local garden center the other day, I came across a poster affixed to an inside wall displaying the various weeds that beset even the best-tended lawn or well-mulched garden row. There in full color were the old standby's--dandelions and crabgrass--among a host of others. Then there were those plants that I've never considered weeds, such as white clover, ground ivy, and wild violet, to name but a few. 

I stopped to think about it for a minute and remembered the slogan "One person's trash is another's treasure," and quickly realized that the same criterium can be applied to plants as well, particularly those that grow wild without anyone's help. Despite the fact that I've owned two properties in my life, creating and maintaining a lawn was never a top priority of mine. The first home I owned did indeed have what might have been considered a lawn, a sloping expanse of greenery that, upon close inspection, was composed of many other plants that did not fall into the "Grasses" category. Still, when I took a lawnmower to it all, the reward for my efforts was, well, a vast expanse of trimmed plants that, working together, easily passed for a lawn, at least from a distance. 

The truth is that I just didn't have the heart to arbitrarily dismiss some of those plants as undesirables. The more I looked down at them, the more I felt that they, too, deserved consideration, if only for their determination to survive against some incredible odds. Things weren't much different with the second property I owned and lived on, the only difference being was that what little lawn space I had there was surrounded on three sides by stands of oak trees whose annual acorn drop cancelled out any attempt to maintain even the tiniest patch of pure grass.

There was no question of admitting defeat there, as I'd never even decided to wage that war. Nature and her upper hand were far too indomitable a strength to be reckoned with. So I simply shared the few bits of "lawn" that I had with her and called it good. If nothing else, it made for much less yard work once I had eliminated the word "weeds" from my vocabulary.

Fundamentally and practically speaking, a weed is a plant that grows where someone doesn't want it to. Taken in that context, that covers a lot of different types of plants, from wild strawberries to clover. Yet, I remember thrilling to the sight a few years back of those first deeply red berries in early summer and hand-feeding the succulent clover leaves to the rabbits I owned. Once again, what were weeds to some were to me just two more manifestations of nature's bounty. So I guess it all boils down to the fact that "a weed is a weed (only) in the eye of the beholder." 

Before humans took charge of this spinning sphere we call Earth, there was no such thing as a weed, because no creature had yet given names to any plants. And until the advent of rolling lawns worthy of a spot in Better Homes and Gardens, no one cared where the dandelions grew. In fact, the tender new leaves of those plants, harvested before the blossoms formed and opened, were actually a source of food and continue to be, considering the fact that large bunches of them appear at this time of year in supermarket and farm stand vegetable bins.

But a dandelion in the middle of someone's well-manicured lawn? Anathema! How dare Nature to desecrate a sacred piece of the landscape in that way? Does she not see the work involved in maintaining an otherwise pristine ocean of cooperative grass plants whose whole purpose in life is to present a picture of perfection to passers-by and potential real estate brokers? 

Where I live now, I share a small lawn with my neighbor. And right now, it's dotted with blue violets that are apparently the result of one large plant growing near the foundation that took the liberty —shame on it! — of casting its seeds to the wind. The next time the landscaping people come through with their big mowers, there will go the violets. But enough of their root structures will remain in the soil to assure their survival for years to come, as I seriously doubt that said landscaping people will go to the trouble of pulling all the plants out by hand. 

There's been a lot of talk in the last few decades about plants that are considered invasive. According to the National Wildlife Federation's website, such species, from plants to animals and insects, are brought to this country in ways that might never occur to us. Ships can unknowingly transport invasive aquatic plant species via their ballast water, and certain types of wood-boring insects can hitch a ride in lumber that travels from one country to another. Exotic ornamental plants, while beautiful to look at, have been known to spread into wild places where they don't appeal enough as food sources to any type of animals to be controlled.

There is nothing I can say to diehard lawn enthusiasts that could inspire them to look more kindly upon the weeds of this world. Nor would my personal affection for all things natural be appreciated by anyone whose party boat propeller gets hung up in milfoil or some other pesky aquatic plant. Because I accept that nature will always win the "weed" battle, the word simply no longer exists in my own vocabulary. I'll even go so far as to say that I actually feel secretly triumphant when I come across an otherwise flawless grass carpet and spot a tiny clump of bluets clinging fast to life on its tiny claim. 

The patch of green that passes for a lawn right outside my door here is presently dotted with hundreds of small white wild strawberry blossoms. While nature's idea of a garden might be vastly different from ours, who am I to disapprove when she does all the work and all that's left for me to do is enjoy it?

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