Native plants heal us if we let them.
Plants are the basis of all life on land. Without plants, there would be no animals. In modern scientific / capitalist society, though, we only value plants that can make money, those we can sell, eat, wear, or enjoy looking at.
Plants that interfere with commercial food, fiber, or flower crops are called “weeds,” or “pests.” Kind of like poor humans are called “derelicts” or “criminals” for trying to survive.
According to the holistic agriculture site Regeneration International, civilization’s war on weeds “has led to some of the most destructive practices in agriculture.” Industrial agriculture involves killing everything that can’t be sold, degrading the soil in the process. Then one pours petrochemical fertilizers on the ground to make the desired crop grow.
This destruction of land’s long term health, and reliance on fossil fuels to make up the loss, grows out of our failure to understand that life is a web, and the plants we call weeds are crucial parts of it. By learning to work with weeds instead of against them, we can help resolve our ecological crisis and live in a more beautiful world.
What are weeds exactly?
Weeds are wild plants. They don’t ask human permission to start growing wherever there’s room. Unlike most food crops and garden flowers, which are imported or bred in labs, weeds are usually indigenous plants. They are often ‘pioneer species’ that come to barren land and prepare it for all other plants and animals. They keep bare ground from drying out and blowing away; their roots break up hard ground, aerate it and bring buried nutrients up into the soil.
According to this article in APNews, when weeds die naturally, their roots and leaves decompose into humus, enriching the soil. While they live, weeds feed insects, birds, amphibians, and small mammals.
Because most weeds are indigenous, native insects and animals will have evolved to eat them and use them for protection. These are beautiful ecosystems developed over millions of years to keep providing food for each other. Those are the systems we blithely destroy with industrial chemical farming aimed at maximizing production of a single crop.
There are also non-native weeds called invasive species. According to the Smithsonian Institution, “Many of these invasive plants are escapees from gardens and landscapes where they were originally planted.” You can buy them at nurseries and garden stores, but if they escape your garden, they can devastate ecosystems for miles around. Well-known invasive species include Purple Loosestrife from Europe, Japanese honeysuckle from East Asia, kudzu, from Japan and many others. These invasives aren’t the weeds I’m talking about.
Good weeds are the ones that grew up in the neighborhood. Native weeds are of course different in every continent, and you can research which plants in your neighborhood are natives at sites listed in the resource section.
Weeds can be short leafy plants like dandelions and nettles. They can be bushes or thorny shrubs or even small trees. If they’re not under human control, they’re called weeds.
Reasons to kill weeds
The main anti-weed argument, now too widely accepted to be challenged, was put by the Portland Time Record like this: “Weeds are robbers. They rob nearby plants of water and nutrients. If large enough, they rob sunlight as they shade garden plants. Some weeds secrete chemicals into the soil that inhibit growth of nearby plants.”
While weeds can indeed harm our favored plants, many wild plants, such as lambsquarter, are considered weeds here but are grown as crops elsewhere in the world. On a trip to an Asian stall at a Farmers’ Market or grocery, you will see piles of weeds being sold as food. So, weeds can harm plants we like, but they can also do a lot of good. Just as with animals and people we don’t like, we could learn to live and work with them rather than shut them down and cancel them.
An article in Regeneration International started out, “A neighbor once asked me, “When are you going to spray out all your weeds?” I replied, “Never, because we do not have any weeds. They are all cover crops that give us multiple benefits, such as increasing soil fertility, better water infiltration, and pest and disease control.”
Indigenous farmers like A-dae Romero-Briones, the Director of Programs in Agriculture and Food Systems for the First Nations Development Institute say that in her people’s system, land, water, all the creatures and people must work together for everyone’s health. It’s one big collective.
When land is broken into small parcels and sold to individuals to “own,” agriculture and food access become products to buy with money. Weeds may feed billions of creatures and enrich the soil, but if they cut into your cash crops, they have to go.
Working with weeds
So-called weeds often assist more desired plants.The trick is to learn what plants work together and to grow them in ways that benefit crops and animal life.
In her book We Are The ARK, Mary Reynolds describes the pretty gardens humans make as “green still-lifes,” like painting with plants, rather than cooperating with plants to enrich all life.
Lawns are worse. University of Wisconsin biologist Hannah Lembcke writes, “A mono-culture lawn is basically a desert to most animals — there’s no food, no cover, it’s just a dead zone, whereas an overgrown lawn full of weeds is going to attract far more insects in a much greater diversity.” Green grass lawns might be good places to play croquet, but when you’re not playing, they are anti — life.
Instead, learn about native plants, such as grasses, wildflowers, herbs and weeds. Plant them where appropriate and watch life return to your land.
Where to start
Reynolds suggests that if all we have is a window box or a small garden plot, the best thing we could do is plant it with native weeds. Seek out organic native seeds, she says. You can find their names in books, at botanical societies or a local university. There may be native plant stores or native plant societies in your community. If you have more space, you can do more diverse planting as she describes in her book.
There will be a learning curve, but it seems a lot of people are climbing that curve, so you will have help.
Resources for Learning about weeds
A nice list of “pest control plants” is here. The list includes lavender, garlic, basil and dill. Apparently, a lot of herbs protect other plants.
Walker, John: Weeds, an Organic, Earth-friendly approach to their Identification, Use, and Control Earth-friendly books 2016
Reynolds, Mary We are The ARK,Workman Press 2022
Kimmerer, Robin Wall Braiding Sweetgrass, Milkweed Editions 2013
Wall, Kate. Working with Weeds Self-published 2022
Leu, Andre Growing Life: Regenerating Farming and Ranching. Acres USA 2021
Web sites for Native plants
Find natives in your part of North America at this National Wildlife Fund site.
One of many pages from Europe — Traffic.org
In South America, a less –specific but still valuable list is at this Encyclopedia Britannica page.
A list from the India Dept. of Forestry seems pretty thorough. India has tremendous biodiversity and neoliberal capitalism is trying hard to turn it into a monoculture.
Other lists can be easily found on the Web.
Remember to keep plants in their homes. Be careful not to spread non-native species around. Above all, remember that all living things, rooted and unrooted, with however many legs, are our cousins and have vital roles in the web of life. Don’t kill them.
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