The virtues of weeds



I’ve suffered my first mosquito bite of spring. A nasty little welt rising on my ankle as I planted new snow peas and weeded the spinach and wrested the nightshades from their firm rooting in my vegetable garden. Here it comes, I thought, one of the creaturely invasions that will try its hardest to ruin summer, the only deterrence to spending many long evenings in the balmy outdoors.

Weeds (Unsplash)

The nightshades are a plague, too; they’ve spent winter feasting on the richly composted soil, growing tough and ropy and tall as Jack’s beanstalk and thieving nutrients from the kale and tomatoes and broccoli. I discard them in a pile, their blooms startled, their root-balls refusing to let go of the soil in which they’ve embedded themselves like concrete.

Nearby, a ripe, perfect lemon lies beneath the lemon tree; I pick it up and turn it over and find it’s been pecked and tasted and sullied and rejected, no doubt by that other nuisance, cockatoos. The wild onion grass is driving me wild; its blades protrude from the flower beds and the lawn, teasing me with their deep, unseen roots and indestructible bulbs.

I can’t even bear to look at the asparagus fern which has risen from the dead in a corner of the garden, its rhizomes riddled with malignant polyps and spreading like a tumour beneath the soil’s surface.

The freesias, however, are a delight, for they flower in random places on their knife-edge leaves in yellows and whites and mauves, their beauty absolving them from their dubious classification as weeds. They delight the eye, therefore they are forgiven. But why not the nightshade and the onion weed, with their delicate flowers? What makes a weed a weed, anyway?

Apart from the ruinous environmental consequences of exotic plants and animals, when does their ubiquity become an invasion? Why do we value this plant (which, despite lashings of love and attention, often fails to thrive) more highly than that (which flourishes in direct disproportion to our abhorrence of it)? And how can we justify an abundance of tropical fish or tuna but decry a supposed infestation of sharks, welcome the cackle of the kookaburra while disdaining the noisy miners, delight in the mobs of kangaroos but condemn the so-called plagues of mice?


'Weeds, in other words, are hardy and resilient; they succeed where other plants fail.'


It’s a question I’ve often pondered. Scientifically speaking, weeds are plants that tend to produce lots of seed, can survive in the soil for long spells and are able to easily establish themselves in sometimes inhospitable conditions. Weeds, in other words, are hardy and resilient; they succeed where other plants fail. Ralph Waldo Emerson was correct when he said that a weed was ‘a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered’.

Mosquitoes, similarly, flourish under trying conditions, remaining viable during winter and arising in great gusts as wet, warm weather releases them from their dormancy. For every mozzie that is slapped to death one hundred more will hatch from eggs nourished by another human’s blood. Like cockroaches (that other reviled creature), they will surely prevail (mammalian blood supply notwithstanding) even when humans have done themselves out of a planet.

That’s a demise we appear to be hastening, for the world is roaring its final lament: firestorms raging, wetlands crisping, oceans circulating with more plastic than water. The greatest threat, after all, comes not from those fauna and flora we seek to classify, to control and to circumscribe, but from humans. Without us, the weeds would flourish in the regions that evolved them, the sharks would feed unmolested, and the mosquitoes would pollinate flowers just as they’ve always done. .



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. 

Main image: Weeds (Unsplash)

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, garden, gardening, weeds, environment, climate change



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Existing comments

Thank you for your whimsical reflection on weeds which echoes my ambivalence towards them. At times, I become aware of human weeds, including myself, who are not yet known for their full beauty and place in the scheme of things.

Alex Nelson | 17 September 2020  

Nightshades are toxic and, to a lesser extent, so are onion weeds. Morning glory is a nightshade relative. These weeds need to be eradicated.

Anna | 17 September 2020  

In March this year, just as that very unwelcome visitor, COVID-19 arrived and forced us into lockdown another, for some, unwelcome visitor arrived in my backyard. It was the so called weed, the Easter cassia. It didn’t arrive with a great flourish, just slowly at first, a hint of yellow here and there until finally, great banks of gold surrounded me. This beautiful weed speaks to me of hope, joy and resurrection and this year it spoke very loudly. Lockdown became a time of contemplation, reading, music and above all, hope. I, and my Easter cassia, thrived.

Ann Hoare | 17 September 2020  

I have always thought that the most appropriate definition for “weed” is simply an ectopic plant. If you like it, it is not a weed.

Peter Downie | 17 September 2020  

Thank you for this great reflection on weeds. Must confess I don't see the beauty in the weeds which hit me in the eye each time I look out the back door. They have overtaken the garden beds, the pot plants and the lawn. I wonder if I will ever have time or energy to clean them up. Maybe I need to clean the clutter out of my mind and focus on what is important in life and then the weeds will disappear.

Gabrielle Saide | 17 September 2020  

In high summer this field will be a desert, bone dry with dusty snatches of weed. But today it bubbles green, edged with heaving clover, and in the centre a spreading lake of dandelions, gold petals thrown wide, black eyes turned upwards, yearning for the sun, more splendid than Wordsworth’s daffodils, more regal than Raleigh’s cloth of gold. Sewn upon this golden cape are jewels of pink oxalis, and hanging bells of bridal white onion weed.. These things are weeds, we say, unwelcome in our gardens. Weeds are flowers out of place, we say; like homeless people in city streets we root them out, blind to their golden splendour.

McGonnigal | 18 September 2020  

I am not an accomplished gardener but in a forty-year career as a high school HPE teacher and coach of innumerable sporting teams, I used the metaphor of “weeds and flowers” for much of that time. The “flowers” in a team are usually the most visible star-of-the-show and often with good reason. They stand out and they often bring the “glory”. However, they can be high maintenance and sometimes fragile. A “weed” on the other hand is tough and gritty and resilient and you ‘can’t kill it with an axe’. A great team will always need the “flowers” especially when brilliance is required, but it also always needs “weeds” who never give in and never know when they’re beaten. You don’t have to be a star to play a key role in a team, and sometimes a team of weeds will outperform a team of flowers through sheer dogged determination.

Brian | 18 September 2020  

Hi Catherine, just read your article on some of the most misunderstood creations on this planet. After much gardening and doing some subjects in plantscience I wrote an essay on these indomitable plants. You may find it on my blogspot "The Darwin Chimes" (via Google). I hope you will take the time to read it and would love to hear from you. Be well, best wishes, Marcel

Marcel WERPS | 22 September 2020  

Brilliant writing ... thank you.

Michael | 22 September 2020  

Hi Catherine, I hope you received my earlier missive ? I meant to refer to my article/essay : "The Great Worth Of Mother Earth". This on my webpage "The Darwin Chimes" (via Google). I hope to hear from you, keep well, kind regards, Marcel

Marcel WERPS | 23 September 2020  

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