A short definition of weeds

Last weekend, I weeded my garden and thought deeply about weeds. The New York Times seems to have done the same – thought about weeds, I mean. They did not weed my garden. I suppose that’s because they wanted to let the weeds remain, for they think it will solve global warming. Weeds also bring about world peace, as the Washington Post will report next week.

Anyone reading the NYT article would come away impressed with these saviors of mankind, future Nobel Peace prize winners and so on. But what exactly are weeds? The NYT forgot to mention. So how would we recognize a weed if we see one waving brightly at us?

While I was gardening last week, I developed my own rules to identify weeds. Each rule comes with a corollary, there are lots of exceptions to the rules, and it’s quite possible that reading the rules multiple times still does not tell you what exactly they really mean. In other words, it is exactly like English grammar.

But since you have mastered grammar by now, what are a few weeds? Oh, by the way, all those who come to this post while searching for marijuana, you can stop reading now and go back. I am not sure I can recognize that particular weed anyway, even if it comes up to me and introduces itself.

No, we are talking about the common, garden variety here. Here is my definition of weeds:

Rule 1. If it is indestructible, it’s a weed: I have always wondered why dandelions are considered weeds. They have bright, cheery yellow flowers that attract butterflies and bees, they even have antioxidant and medicinal properties, and dandelion wine reminds me of Ray Bradbury. So why are they weeds? Er, because they grow too easily, and they grow everywhere.

Corollary – If it is really hard to grow, it is not a weed: If it wilts at the first rain, if its leaves are perennially full of holes and if it consumes fertilizer like a hungry demon, then it’s a prized flower. Or a prized bract, if we are talking cannas. Or a prized leaf, if it’s a fern or a hosta… you get the point.

Rule 2. If you don’t like where it grows, it’s a weed: Grass is not a weed. You love grass. You spend hundreds of dollars fertilizing it, killing other grass “weeds’, mowing it and trimming it. You want grass to flourish in your lawn. But when it grows lush green in your flower beds, you ruthlessly pull it out and dig up every last root.

Corollary – if you want it to grow there, it is not a weed: At the end of our backyard lawn ia a large pond. In the summer, this edge is filled with tall grasses and native plants. Notice, I am not calling them weeds. I don’t attempt to remove them either, and not because I know that it is futile. The grasses serve a useful purpose – they absorb some of the fertilizer run-off from the lawn, so the pond does not get algae. So the grasses are not weeds!

Rule 3. Native plants you don’t like are weeds: I suspect that a lot of the grasses and some of the tree saplings are native plants The three trees that have appeared from nowhere and are growing rapidly by the side of the pond are all native trees, and quite good shade trees too, but I don’t like them because they will, one day, obstruct my view of the pond.

Corollary: Non-native plants you like are not weeds: The Asiatic lilies I just planted are not native, although I am hoping they will spread like a weed. Nor are the hibiscus, or the lilacs that are thriving.

Rule 4. If you paid good money for it, it’s not a weed: Obviously, any plant I bought cannot be a weed, right, even if it is really driving out the native plants and doing some harm to the ecology. My lawn, for instance, drinks up fertilizers three times a year, demands weedicides, hand holding and gazillions of gallons of water. Any sane person, you would think, would pull it out and plant a row of tomatoes instead.

Corollary: If it grew on its own, but you like it, it’s not a weed: I found a beautiful plant in one of my flower beds last month. The leaves looked a little like parsley, and somehow I found myself liking this plant. I let it grow, and now it is about 6 inches tall and even has a few buds. I suspect it is wild geranium – a wildflower that every gardening website classifies as a weed. But I like it, so I shall just call it a wildflower 😉

There is one last rule that I follow about weeds. If I see a sapling and I do not know what it is, I pull it up. I suspect this rule is the reason why not a single crocus bulb sprouted this spring. That is also why I would not recommend using this rule. Unless, of course, you think crocus should really be considered a weed.


9 thoughts on “A short definition of weeds

  1. Totally sympathize with you on the”If I see a sapling and I do not know what it is, I pull it up.”
    I’m running into a severe inability to tell the difference between weeds and desired plants on a recently weed-whacked and mulched area in our yard- it could be some of my daffodil/hyacinth/iris/daylily bulbs or dahlias, or it could be fleabane and kudzu. I will have to wait till the flowers are out to determine whether to pull them out.
    Judging from the way my Canada thistles are outstripping my teenager’s height, I ought to enter them in a competition for the ‘Best Growing Weeds on the Planet’, If only someone would oblige and announce one.

  2. One man’s weed is another man’s prize plant!
    I like your definitions:)
    Truly, plants are what you pay to get, weeds what you pay to get rid of.
    Robert Fulghum is a kindred soul- ‘weeds are in the eyes of the beholder’.
    (from All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten)

  3. I agree with you about the attractiveness of dandelions.
    Some other things are unjustly condemned or rooted out merely for being “common”.

  4. Corrolory: The minute you find use for a “weed”.. it becomes difficult to grow…
    I remember the cacti type weed that used to grow along the road from Bangalore to Mysore… it disappeared after someone found that the fibers were strong and were useful… attempts to “cultivate” it failed.

  5. Sujatha: That was funny! I am impressed you know the names of so many weeds, though. As it is, I have just started to learn the names of my perennials. I can now say words like “Achillea” and “Agastache” without looking stupid. But kudzu, no, I have not yet graduated to knowing what kudzu is, or even how to pronounce it.

    manuscrypts: I knew you guys would immediately go on the wrong track 😛

    Dipali: That’s so true about the “plants are what you pay..” quote. And you’re right, weeds are in the eyes of the beholder, like beauty. A lot of weeds are quite beautiful, and if I didn’t know they were “weeds”, I’d happily grow flower beds full of them..

    Candadai: You are right, the biggest sin of dandelions (and a lot of other things in life) is that they are too “common”. It’s like how mongrels are much more loyal and healthy than many pedigree dogs..

    Vijay: That’s very interesting. Do you think weeds only grow when they grow on their own? So our cultivated plants are finicky precisely because we pamper them? That’s certainly a possibility in the case of the pedigree dogs I mentioned earlier. Growing wild probably encourages only the fittest weeds to survive, I guess.

  6. @Lekhni: Good comparison.. Pedigree dogs vs the “Kanthri” ones…
    Do you remember Bangalore had a lot of Parthenium weeds at one time?.. they grew everywhere…. somewhere along the way people started using it in construction (to provide an additional temporary layer while roofing)… Dont see that many now…

  7. Now that I’m in my second year of using a raised bed to grow vegetables, I think strategically-placed raised beds should be the new lawns – what with rising food prices.

  8. Vijay: I wish someone would offer to take my weeds away too 🙂 Someone should start a weed exchange program on the Net. I can give them my dandelions and get zinnias instead 😉

    Amit: If only…I do feel nostalgic about gardens in my childhood, when we would grow cabbages and plaintains, and all kinds of fruits (custard apple, mango and so on) in our own garden.

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