Spring 2003

The Bad Seed

Weeds and the persistence of vegetable memory

Frieda Knobloch

Weeds are closely tied to human history in every era. Most of the plants now considered weeds in the US are living records, particularly of colonial contact of the last 500 years. Your back yard, if you have a back yard, is very likely a kind of vegetable memory of European pastures: long-domesticated grasses and clover, with weeds characteristic of the pasture (including dandelions), and of the trampled path you’d take to reach that pasture (including broadleaved plantain), none of which were here before 1492. Europeans brought a retinue of plants with them, but not just the useful ones; they brought wild oats with the wheat, Canada thistles with the red clover. More recently, Mennonite immigrants from the Volga River valley brought leafy spurge in their crop seeds to Dakota Territory in the 1870s, but failed to bring the insect that­ kept spurge in check back home.

Albrecht Dürer, The Great Piece of Turf, 1503.

Like the cultural landscape, the weedy landscape is shaped by waves of immigrants from all over the world, a bit of Asia here with the kudzu and water hyacinth, a bit of northern Europe there with the least-hop clover. Turkey is probably better represented in the plant world than the social world in the many acres of railroad rights-of-way covered with spotted knapweed that came in with Turkish alfalfa intended for the dry prairies over a century ago.

Every form of food production or ornamental gardening that involves digging up the ground has its complement of weeds. This is simply a fact of the ecology of so-called disturbed areas. A volcano blows up, an earthquake rends the ground, a fire scorches acres of forest, a glacier grinds its way downcountry, and as these forces chew up territory they leave the ground particularly suited to plants that don’t grow under more stable conditions. Their seeds are already there, dormant, and likely to remain viable for a very long time. Some blow in on the wind, or are carried by water to disturbed stream banks. Fireweed, as you might guess from its name, is a specialist in burned-over areas. A look at Yellowstone after the terrific fires in 1988 still reveals the stabilizing blanket of fireweed, its bright fuchsia blooms rising amid the downed timber and the new pines. Lambsquarters is a more widespread first-response to disturbance, likely among the first things to come up green in a spring garden, long before the beans or tomatoes. Its seeds lie dormant by the thousands, ready to make another go of it every time you dig a patch up. Weedy annual grasses do the same thing, opportunists on a bare acre, and will disappear if more permanent sod-forming species can be persuaded to grow instead.

This is where our cultivated crops came from in the first place, from the wild, mainly annual species that thrived in disturbed ground. You might say crop cultivation is a more or less controlled natural disaster. We are the glacier, if you will, or the fire, hoping to encourage a handful of desired invader plants to flourish in our fields and gardens, while a whole motley assemblage of other plants is guaranteed to show up as well. We remove them, and the more energetically we remove them, the more likely they are to evolve to mimic our crops. Wild oats develop very much like tame oats, except they give their seeds early to the ground rather than to us. Weeds and crops and people are bound together by the plants’ remote common origin, and by this cycle of intentional and unintentional selection.

Weed inspectors all over the country, charged with enforcing state weed control laws, operate with a sense of urgency facing the permanent reality of plants that should not be where they are. What makes their task more complicated is that most weeds are established through people’s own actions—planting weed-infested seed, allowing garden plants to escape, importing weeds along with more desirable commodities, spreading weeds in mud carried from one place to another. The federal government oversees its human immigrants through the INS; for plants, there’s the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, identifying new arrivals, worrying over eradication, or as a last resort, containment. Occasionally the newcomers are “naturalized,” as people might be, but in the case of plants, naturalization means the battle has been lost. It means a plant might as well have been here all along, it’s so widespread, its presence permanent, like downy brome in western ranges, like dandelions in your yard.

That said, many weeds are in fact potentially useful. They were used, many for centuries. Take a look at any herbal remedy book and you’ll see remnants of knowledge about using (even cultivating) plants that other kinds of books call weeds. Dandelions—from the French dent de lion, named for their toothy leaves—are rich in vitamins and minerals. As relatives of lettuce, you want to eat the leaves before the plants flower or they become bitter. They were used to treat eye problems, and remain an effective diuretic—captured in another French name for the plant, pissenlit. Dandelions were among the first European immigrants to what became the US, probably transported both accidentally and intentionally, in garden seed, as plants, or as seeds in ship ballast dumped ashore when a boat landed. Purslane is another common weedy arrival, this one preferring dry waste places. It, too, was cultivated for centuries as a salad herb, though it’s long since been abandoned as the sharp tasty green it might be. It was also a component of medicines for mouth and throat ailments. More often nowadays, it sprawls out from the cracks of sidewalks, its fat succulent leaves irrepressible by drought. No visible means of support, one might say. It was certainly brought on purpose to European colonies centuries ago, and was among the first to escape.

But many plants would have come unintentionally, starting their journeys in the New World from ballast dumps and straw packing material. Straw is the discarded remains of wheat, oat or barley plants after the grain has been harvested; no one would choose to pack crockery in hay (good grass, clover, or alfalfa) that could still be fed to animals if they had straw at hand instead, and packaging was a perfectly respectable use of otherwise useless invaders of grain fields, like downy brome and wild oats. Weeds also arrived in the hides of animals and in their dung. Animals, like the weeds they carried, could escape to begin feral careers as potential nuisances, as pigs and horses did, whatever their value in the farmyard.

It’s this capacity to get away, to grow nearly anywhere, to not necessarily be useful, that doomed weeds as enemies of human enterprise, and they’ve been doomed this way as long as Old World agricultural societies shepherded their grains, their forage crops, and their farm animals against weedy abandonment and predators. Societies without a large complement of domesticated animals appear to have a different relationship with all plants, including weeds. These societies, including many in North America, traditionally practiced smaller-scale agriculture, and hunting or fishing rather than animal husbandry supplemented the plant abundance of cultivated gardens and gathered roots, seeds, and greens. Not likely to allow corn fields to be overgrown with weeds, Native American farmers nevertheless show a certain tolerance for what white neighbors would consider weeds, including a particular species of sunflower (Helianthus exilis) in the Southwest that is welcomed in their fields as sacred. Most descendents of Old World domesticated crop and animal agricultural traditions simply do not cultivate the sacred in this way.

As part of the legacy of Old World domestication, weeds come with a Biblical judgment, part of the original judgment of Adam, appropriate for the culture responsible for both the story of Eden and long participation in the cultivation of grains, pigs, goats, cattle, and fowl. Their culture and cultivation would by necessity have familiarized the ancient Hebrews (along with all their neighbors) with weeds as the expected and unwanted companions of their hardest work in the fields. To some extent, this ancient judgment—that weeds are not merely unwanted but bad—survives uninterrupted to this day. People have surprisingly strong words for weeds, and even the Biblical story remained appropriate in a weed identification textbook as recently as 1914.

Sara Stein wrote in My Weeds that after years of gardening and weeding on her three acres, and taking the time to learn about the scores of plants she evicted, “I saw weeds in a different way. I don’t mean that I like them now, except insofar as humans may, in being held hostage, come to see their captor as beloved enemies.” Edwin Spencer wrote in Just Weeds (1940) that “Of all the forms of nature, unless it be insects, nothing is so sure to come into one’s life as weeds.” Like the poor, they are with us always. And they are in some way out of place—for us; “in the nice eye of nature [any weed] is very much in place. In the struggle for existence a bad weed is a prince. It has the traits of a Bonaparte or a Hitler. Give it an inch and it will take a mile, all because nature has endowed it with supervitality as well as with a few characters that make it useless to man and beast.” Not, perhaps, useless to Nature, but then Nature is a profligate farmer. Botanist Ada Georgia wrote early in the 20th century that “Nature is a great farmer. Continually she sows and reaps, making all the forms of nature her tools and helpers… a harvest of some kind is absolutely sure. And to the people who must wrest a living from the soil, not only for themselves but for all mankind, it must seem that Nature’s favorites are the hardy, aggressive, and often useless and harmful plants which they have named weeds.” If the lilies toil not nor spin, the same cannot be said of the human farmer, who has to keep a watchful eye on Nature; “only by the sternest determination and the most unrelaxing vigilance can her fellow-worker subdue the earth to his will and so fulfill the destiny foreshadowed in that primal blessing, so sadly disguised and misnamed, when the first man was told, ‘Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring it forth thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field.’ A stern decree.”

It’s not the plants themselves that are weedy. The ways we cultivate and think about landscapes and cultivation—as divine punishment and reward, for example—guarantee that some of our plant cohabitors will always be seen as weeds. There are no biological qualities that define a weed, only cultural ones. Any plant that reproduces in great quantity, and that can withstand a wide range of climates and forms of cultivation and herbicide application, could possibly be a valuable crop. Value in a tradition is the key to weediness and non-weediness: Can something we know eat it? Are we likely to harvest it in some quantity for some familiar purpose? Is there a market for it? One enterprising weed inspector in Minnesota made a little extra cash selling (organic) dandelion greens and burdock root to the local food co-ops. But generally weeds don’t sell. They are exactly what can’t be bought and sold, what’s taking up space and refuses to leave, or die.

It’s easy to see how people could sometimes end up rooting for the weeds. What they value lies in some opposition to the status quo, an ordering of nature and society or even the sacred landscape that leaves too much out. Sculptor Tony Matelli in part celebrated this side of weeds recently in his installations of weedy plant groups in gallery floors in a show titled “Abandon,” which also acknowledged weeds as a sign of some failure. The two go together. Abandonment will always carry with it both the promise of new forms of attention and care, and the recognition of a failure of some kind, something “let go,” a judgment.

I started noticing weeds in Montana, after an unfortunate argument resulted in spreading gopher poison over a garden I’d planted. I was left with a quarter acre of bean shoots and young potatoes, and a question county extension agents couldn’t answer: is strychnine absorbed in vegetables, either roots or stems and leaves? I determinedly let the place go to weeds, and left soon after. This was a visceral reaction, abandoning a social and agricultural order I understood I was unequipped to live in. I would have preferred to keep the garden. Weeds—as weeds—are not beautiful, just a return to disorder whose potential is both vast and untested. Weeds are the fulcrum of a change, from one order to another, whether you can complete the change successfully or not.

Leon Carney tried, and his restored prairie was different from my abandoned garden. Carney had worked for years on his Minnesota property to restore prairie ecology there, planting trees and shrubs as well as prairie grasses and other plants, in what was otherwise an agricultural landscape in the late 1980s. What Carney had in mind was a different order of nature, one the county weed inspector balked at. Prairie restoration in progress, messy as it is, is hardly an arbitrary alternative, nothing like abandonment really. But Carney’s prairie looked too much like weeds to the county weed inspector (Canada thistle, specifically), and cost him the price of an aerial spraying courtesy of the county which also cost him hundreds of trees and thousands of prairie plants he’d reintroduced. He had let an agricultural landscape go, and left himself vulnerable to the judgment of rural people as a bad neighbor, a bad farmer certainly. He had in fact abandoned an agricultural landscape, but in favor of another kind of purposeful cultivation, even though it brought unwanted attention and censure from county officials.

Sometimes, just the promise of change is enough. Weeds can remind people of the tantalizing possibilities of abandonment, what might come after, what life might be like. A man named Daniel used to come by the bookstore where I volunteered, railing about the microwave tower over the central distribution warehouse for organic produce in Minneapolis. Tinfoil lined his baseball cap. He shared my enthusiasm for weeds. In a long manuscript variously titled “Weeds, The Key to Peace” and “Trees of Prophesy, Weeds of Nutrition—a Future of Promise by Giving Ourselves Permission,” Daniel—aka Gazpacho—spelled out in his inimitable way the basic qualities of weeds. “I always felt like a weed,” he wrote, “told my kind were not needed and set upon by the goons of industry.” For him, weeds were both resource and inspiration. “[W]e should have heeded the lowly weed.” “Take a weed to lunch and ask it to be added to your salad,” he wrote. “[T]hose ubiquitous weeds somehow endure a million attacks by man-made manure. […] Only something that has endured this long, can keep us going any longer.”

Ubiquitous, hardy, resistant to control, weeds made sense as signs for this man’s life and the people he knew. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze and sociologist Felix Guattari dressed the notion up a bit to describe the liberating potential of living and thinking like a “rhizome,” but they shared Daniel’s outlook. Relegated to the compost heap of all that’s unproductive, multiform, and exuberantly creative, weeds can represent the promise of other landscapes, politics and lives. There’s no question that weeds are a problem, in the broadest sense: they grow where people do not want them, and by their very nature embody the nature of any problem—something gone wrong, overgrown, become impure.

The valuable potential of weeds is immense. In the most mundane sense, these are by and large plants that could be eaten, grazed, decocted for medicinal value, though unquestionably most of us have forgotten what these uses might have been. But there’s much more. They remind us of our failures, and they can inspire awe. They might be us.

About purple crossflower growing near the High Line Canal in the outskirts of Denver, Robert Michael Pyle wrote that it loves the “shaggy edges of the town and countryside,” the “secondhand lands that others have finished with.” It flourishes on little rain, springing up from the most abused land—ball fields, but also, significantly, foreclosed and abandoned farms. Its purple blooms signal the coming summer but also a place where “someone once had hopes.” It smells like “cheap perfume and cat pee.” With an evocation like this, crossflower isn’t just a little mustard plant anymore. And it’s not just a “plant out of place.” Its place, in fact, is to mark an unhappy history of human failures, human hopes, human dilemmas.

Kudzu is a preeminent star of this kind of drama, a lush Asian vine imported into the South in the 1870s and planted energetically in the 1930s to stabilize eroding hillsides, subsequently stabilizing some seven million acres of land, as well as houses, barns, parked vehicles, and even (as Rick Bragg reminded us in the New York Times a while ago) small children if they’re not careful. Bragg included other weeds in his memoir All Over but the Shoutin’, though they don’t have the charisma of kudzu; the scrappy plants growing near the Alabama stills, the ragweed and Johnson grass his mother pulled from their garden, the pokeweed in his meals as a kid‚ these are the cast extras of weedy life. But turned loose on kudzu in the Times, Bragg can wring admiration from a reader for its vigorous growth, loaded over the South and finding its way even to New York City where (he wrote) its mystique was lost on Yankees, a sprawling extravagant vigor like Bragg’s own prose.

To merely find weeds visually interesting, even “beautiful,” or to rub them on our minor wounds or learn how to eat them again (like fancy chefs do from time to time) is to miss a point, like saying a fire-breathing dragon can make a good welding torch. Whatever use a plant may have, a weed has an epic quality, taking on something of the significance of Biblical tares polluting the wheat, the thistles Adam and Eve hacked through on their way out of Eden. Any plant might be domesticated, but not a weed—not weediness itself. That’s permanent, a kind of backhanded gift of Old World agriculture. That’s where Daniel’s stubborn politics come from, the disorderly lens through which Carney pulled prairie out of farmland, the place Pyle looks to for the connections between broken promises and broken landscapes, where Bragg coyly salutes a rowdy southern identity, or where I looked at the end of one life for the beginning of another. As long as we have weeds, there will be characters to assault our best efforts and provide the seeds for new efforts always.­

“1982 Leafy Spurge Symposium Proceedings,” Bozeman, Montana State University, 1982.
Rick Bragg, “In the War on Kudzu, A Scientific Strategy,” The New York Times, 7 September 1997.
Rick Bragg, All Over But the Shoutin’ (New York: Vintage, 1998).
Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
William Darlington, American Weeds and Useful Plants, Being a Second and Illustrated Edition of Agricultural Botany: An Enumeration and Description of Useful Plants and Weeds, Which Merit the Notice, or Require the Attention of American Agriculturalists, 2nd ed., revised and enlarged [1859] (New York: Orange Judd, 1883).
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
Ada Georgia, Manual of Weeds [1914] (New York: Macmillan, 1930).
Walter Conrad Muenscher, Weeds, 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1955).
Gary Paul Nabhan, Enduring Seeds: Native American Agriculture and Wild Plant Conservation (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989).
Robert Michael Pyle, The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993).
Edwin Rollin Spencer, All About Weeds [1957] (New York: Dover, 1974). Originally titled Just Weeds [1940].
Sara Stein, My Weeds: A Gardener’s Botany (New York: Harper & Row, 1988). James A. Young et al., “Cheatgrass,” Rangelands, no. 9 (1987).

Frieda Knobloch teaches American studies and environmental studies at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. She is the author of The Culture of Wilderness: Agriculture as Colonization in the American West (1996), and has just completed a manuscript about plants and a few people who have looked for and identified them in Wyoming, Small Worlds: A Natural History of Work in Place.

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