Weeds: They're more useful than you think. (PHOTOS)

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 12 2011 6:31 AM

Consider the Weed

In defense of botanical trespassers.

Click to launch module.

The first weeds were created 10,000 years ago, when the first fields were cultivated, and the concept of the botanical trespasser—the "plant in the wrong place"—was invented. Seven thousand years later, Middle Eastern farmers, still disgruntled at having lost their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, wrote a creation myth in which agriculture and its accompanying weeds are a celestial punishment for their cleverness. Genesis' god condemns errant humans to till the soil "in the sweat of they face ... cursed is the ground for thy sake ... thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee."

Today the thorns and thistles are still there and more is spent trying to exterminate weeds in farms and gardens than on any other aspect of cultivation. Their appearance sparks reflexes, not reasoning. They are regarded as inexplicable and impertinent intruders, quite unconnected with the way we live our lives. But the fact is that we are responsible for weeds. Every single nuisance, from the purslane and witchweed in the cornfields to the thown-out aquarium exotics now smothering the native flora of the Everglades, is a consequence of our thoughtless and sometimes deliberate disruption of natural systems, ploughing, spraying, moving species way beyond their natural homes.

Advertisement

We tend to ignore that weeds are beneficial. They are nature's pioneers, abhorring the vacuum of barren earth, sometimes functioning as a kind of ecological immune system: organisms which move in to repair damaged tissue, in this case earth stripped of its natural vegetation. Certain weeds are more directly useful for humans. The wheat on which western civilization is predicated began as a weed grass: wild emmer.St John's wort (klamathweed) is now a recognized and widely used anti-depressant.

We couldn't survive as modern humans if we ceased to control weeds. It's impractical to let them grow unimpeded. But, every once in a while, perhaps we should take a break from weed-whacking and examine our relationship with these clever and resilient plants, if only to admire their will to live and to multiply.

View a slide show by Richard Mabey on weeds that expands on this introduction.

Richard Mabey is an English writer with some 40 titles of literary nonfiction behind him, chiefly on human relationships with nature. Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants is his latest.

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Yes, Black Families Tend to Spank More. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Good for Black Kids.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

Politics

The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies Against ISIS but Aren’t Ready to Admit It Yet

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 16 2014 5:47 PM Tale of Two Fergusons We knew blacks and whites saw Michael Brown’s killing differently. A new poll shows the gulf that divides them is greater than anyone guessed.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 5:07 PM One Comedy Group Has the Perfect Idea for Ken Burns’ Next Project
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.