WEEDS – THE BOTANY OF UNDESIRABILITY

capeweed

capeweed (arctotheca calendula)

According to  Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire there are plants that, just by chance, have turned out to be something we really want. Potatoes as food, apples for fruit and alcohol, marijuana for druggy highs.  Those plants that we like, we promote and encourage no matter how needy and pathetic they are.  We choose them over all others.  The attractiveness of tulips led to a bidding war that collapses an economy (in the 17th century, but still).  We move them from continent to continent, grow them under lights and in hothouses and despite all discouragement.

weed patchI was thinking about this as I hauled out weeds from the bottom of the garden.  It’s an area that I don’t get to often.  That means not since we were visiting in 2010.  I haven’t decided exactly what to do with it.  A pond was one idea.  I thought about a nice area of banksias.  It’s steep,  pretty rocky and the soil is shallow so the few things I’ve tried there as native groundcovers haven’t thrived.   In the meantime it’s one of the last bits of the garden to be brought in line with my desires.

Even the bits of the garden that get weeded regularly don’t seem to take the hint.  Milk thistles like to break off as I yank at them, and then reshoot.  Birds scatter blackberry seeds under every tree.  Couch grass and nutsedge link themselves underground into giant networks determined to defy me.  African lovegrass has rafted down the river and throws seeds into the lawn.

This neglected area in particular is full of all the things I don’t want.  Sticky weed, barley grass, wild oats,  blackberry, milk thistles and various other uninteresting but well-rooted grasses.   Many of them bring me out in a rash, and others are sharp and thorny (blackberry, I’m talking about you).

Despite the fact that I’ve weeded the rest of the garden relatively thoroughly, and encouraged the existing temporary groundcovers here like valerian and gazanias, this area remains full of the wrong stuff.

Michael Pollan encourages us to look at things from the plant’s point of view.

So, they clearly don’t want my good opinion, let alone any coaxing and coddling in a greenhouse.  Instead, they’re like the angry kid who starts doing everything to get attention.  Or to take over the world.

The plants are doing what they can to get past me.

oleanders covered in sticky weedThe rash-causing sticky weed uses the tactic of speed.  It grows incredibly fast in a few weeks, so that it can smother everything around it and reach to the light.  Even if you do pull it up, the lowest connections instead of being thicker like the trunk of a tree, get thinner and thinner toward the ground so that it’s likely to snap rather than be pulled up.  I guess it doesn’t need the support of any sort of trunk, because it leans on surrounding plants. It clings to everything so that any broken pieces can be carried around to a new home.

Then it quickly seeds and dies off, ready for next year’s sprint.

So it grows, lives and dies even though I do my best to prevent it.

Much of the garden was established years ago.  Fruit trees are still standing, sort of, from the 1950s.  Roses, oleanders and agapanthus from the 1980s and 90s.  My philosophy of what I choose for the garden (when I get to choose) is to have things that are

-native to the area

– bring birds or beneficial insects

– are edible or useful in some way

– and lately I’ve added – produce cut flowers because cutting flowers is nice, and

– things given to  me for free, because this is a big garden.

sticky weedUnfortunately, the exotic sticky weed (galium aparine) fits that list slightly better than the oleanders (planted by Dad as a hedge).  Sticky weed’s other name is “goosegrass” because geese find it delicious.  It can be eaten by humans, although it probably sticks all the way down your throat if you don’t boil it first.  The seeds can be dried and ground up into a coffee substitute.  You can sieve milk with it (why?) You can even stuff mattresses with goosegrass and it doesn’t slip apart to make thin patches like straw does.

Damn.

I still don’t want it.  I don’t have any geese.   I have a perfectly good mattress and would resist being made to stuff my own new one.  I have plenty of green things growing already in my vegie garden, some of them actually vegetables.  The coffee aspect is interesting, but I’m not sure I’m willing to risk the rash, not to mention the danger of allowing it to go to seed, in order to try it.

I do like that I’ve heard a new common name for it, that hasn’t make Wikipedia’s long list – ” velcro grass”.

If we have to have short-lived weeds,  I’d be happy with a more attractive one, like the California poppies that have been covering the hills and riverbank this spring.   I grew them in my garden in California, with some difficulty.   Needy and pathetic as my plants were, I coaxed them along.   Here they’re weeds.california poppies by the river

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2 comments

  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing! I was looking for info on sticky weed (after I got a rash from it- again-) and landed here. Informative and funny! Thanks again!

    Like

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