Welcome to the wonderful world of weedy plants!
Weeds are superevolutionary products of human civilizations and activities - without humans there would be no weeds, just wild plants.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Weeds: The Public Census

Guest post by Tina Thawani, a student in the 2014 Byrne seminar on weedy plants

            A couple weeks ago I had to “Combat Plant Blindness” by showing someone a weed, identifying it, and telling them a bit about weeds in general.  I ran down a hill on Livingston campus and tugged on a plant that looked a bit like Queen Anne’s Lace.  I brought it back to my friend Rachel who was staring at me as if I was crazy, and explained that it was considered a weed.  She took one look at it and exclaimed, “Really? I didn’t know weeds could be so pretty.”  I then went on to explain to her the basis of the seminar: weeds, and the false image society has of them.
            Intrigued, the next day I decided to ask my roommate and a couple other people in my hall how they felt about weeds, as a miniature survey.  After hearing their initial reaction, I explained to them the real story behind weeds, then asked them again.
            I first asked Nikki, an accounting major from across the hall.   “So what do you know about weedy plants?”
            Nikki stifled a groan.  “Ugh, they’re so annoying.  I have to weed them out myself at our garden at home and it’s a lot of work to manage. Why?”
            “Well,” I started, “The term weeds is actually a subjective term, characterized almost exclusively by the fact that we humans don’t want that plant in our lawns and fields of view.  They tend to grow in abundance, and since they grow in places they weren’t planted, it’s actually an indication that they are evolutionarily more fit for the environment they occupy.  Many plants we call weeds, in other countries are considered useful and are even appreciated; for example, a weed called chicory can be used as a coffee substitute, and it is in many countries.  A weed called Queen Anne’s Lace is actually in the same species as carrots.  A weed called fennel can make nice after-meal mints, and mulberry, a woody weed, can be used to make paper and medicinal tea.  Sometimes, plants aren’t invasive, which means that they spread everywhere quickly, in their native countries, but when they’re brought to a different country through human interference, they react differently with the climate and habitat. Basically, most weeds happen solely because of us.” 
            “That’s cool,” Nikki said, nodding.  “That kinda opened up my definition of what weeds were, I never really saw it like that… but it doesn’t change the fact that I have to go through all this work.  I wish more people cared less about their gardens being perfect so that we could fully understand the role and possible benefits of weeds in our garden.  If the weeds weren’t so invasive, though, I don’t think they’d be so bad.”

            Next, I asked my roommate, Sarah, a biology major.  “What do you think of weeds?”           “Umm… weeds…they always get in the way of gardening and outdoorsy stuff like that right?” she said.  After giving him the same spiel I gave Nikki, her viewpoint had changed.
            “You’re right! They’re evolutionarily better, and I believe in evolution.  They’re annoying, but hey, they’re plants, and they have the same right as other plants.”

Lastly, I asked a guy who was playing pool with his friend in the first floor lounge.  “What do you think of weedy plants?” I asked. 
            “I think it should be legalized.  It’s better for the economy.” he said, as he twirled his pool stick. 
            “No, I mean, the other type.  Not marijuana,” I said with a sigh. 
            “Oh! Oh. Those.  Sorry. Uh… weeds… well, they’re stupid and annoying.  My dad has someone come in and weed the garden every month or so, cuz they grow so fast!”
            After he heard my speech, I asked him again - “So, what do you think of weeds now?”
            “Wow, I didn’t even know there was more than one type of weed.  Wait, so if they’re useful and diverse, why do we insist on planting our own flowers and removing the one that can grow there easily?  Ugh, Americans.”

            One thing I’ve confirmed from this experiment is that nobody really initially has a positive view, or even a neutral view, on weeds.  Yet, once they learn more about them, people are more sympathetic towards them.  I believe if people took my seminar on weeds, they too, would have a completely different viewpoint on weeds than they did before.  Like in most aspects of life, education is the cure-all.          

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