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The Way of the Weed


What we call a weed is in fact merely a plant growing where we do not want it.  ~E.J. Salisbury, The Living Garden, 1935

The name George Ballas  may not ring any immediate bells, but for homeowners with a yard of any size, chances are they might be familiar with Mr. Ballas’ signature invention, the Weed Eater, more colloquially known as the “weed whacker.”

Mr. Ballas, who died this past weekend at the age of 85, found his inspiration for the weed eater in the whirling nylon bristles of a car wash.  The consummate inventor, he poked a tin can full of holes, threaded the holes with fishing line,  attached  his contraption to an edger and – voila! – the Weed Eater was born.  No one else was impressed with the idea at the time, so he created his own company and built it into a $40 million enterprise, which gives you some idea of the regard in which we hold weeds , which is inversely proportional to the regard in which we hold our lawns.

While working on the Florida Allergy Handbook, I learned that we’re sod-a-holics,  devoting 40 million American acres of land to lawns. (C. Milesi, et al. “Mapping and modeling the biogeochemical cycling of turf grasses in the United States”. Environmental Management 36(3) (2005): 426-438. ) That’s more land that we use to grow grain crops.  And we water all that sod at the rate of nearly 240 gallons of precious water per person per day.  In Florida alone, turfgrass occupies over 4 million acres, the majority of that land in residential lawns, on which we spend $5 billion a year (J.J Haydu, L.N. Satterthwaite and J.L. Cisar. “An Economic and Agronomic Profile of Florida’s Sod Industry in 2003.” Sod Industry. UF/IFAS Extension, 2003), much of it in trying to discourage insects and weeds.

Pineland Water Willow (?)

While my feelings about insects are variable, I happen to rather like many so-called weeds. They tend to have many of the characteristics I value most in the  people whom I most admire:  tenacity, hardiness, adaptability, resilience and unpretentiousness.  True, some are noxious and some destructive,  but many are quite attractive and beneficial. With names like Barbara’s buttons, and blazing star, beach sunflower and fox glove, they  bring forth lovely flowers of pink and violet, crimson and sunny yellow, on tough little stalks and rough stems , on sprawling bramble or impenetrable bush.  Some have culinary properties,  some have medicinal qualities, and all are rough and tumble. No meticulously cultivated, frail double bloom divas these!

And some are just plain mysterious.

For the past couple or three years, a plant has volunteered itself in exactly the same spot, at the base of a trio of pygmy palms  by our front door.  I’ve always watched the plant a while, trying to identify it and ultimately yanked it when it didn’t seem to present either flower or fruit.  This year,  feeling sympathetic to its determined and almost clockwork predictability bursting forth at the feet of the little palms, I decided to let it grow undisturbed to see what developed.

For about six weeks, the nondescript plant unwound itself with the vigor of Jack’s beanstalk. Tender green leaves unfurled daily and the plant propelled itself upward and outward at what seemed the rate of a good half inch or more a day.  Insects loved it. Although I never actually saw anything beyond the occasional tiny caterpillar on the plant, the early leaves were  literally munched to shreds.  Undeterred, the plant grew skyward.

By the time it reached about five feet in height, tiny bracts of minute white flowers appeared and it seemed to lose its appeal as an insect buffet.  I watched for a few more days, but the bracts didn’t grow significantly. The plant appeared to have reached some degree of maturity, but it didn’t seem to have any particularly distinguishing features beyond the little flowers and a faded pink blush on its lower leaves and along its thickened lower stem.

Some cursory searching in my Wildflowers and Weeds guide and cross referencing with UF/IFAS suggested the plant was a pokeweed, a  somewhat unremarkable name for a nondescript looking plant, but one which turns out to have quite a natural history.

The plant isn’t considered noxious,  or invasive, but it does have some obnoxious qualities. All parts of the plant contain saponins, a soap like molecule;  oxalates,an organic acid,  and phytolacine, an alkaloid, all three of which can be toxic, particularly to hogs who may root up the plant, but also to humans who fail to prepare their “poke salad” properly (the plant has to be boiled at least twice, with the water being changed out before consumption).

Conversely, the plant also has medicinal qualities and was used as a heart stimulant and narcotic by Native Americans, and shows promise in the treatment of HIV. The seeds are also a favorite of birds and wildlife,apparently.

This is evidently the same type of plant that has been recurring for years in the same spot at my church, since the plant seems to grow more robust each year, from an increasingly large tap root.  Our church pokeweed grows to the size and woodiness of a small tree every year, before becoming an eyesore of chewed up leaves, wrecked red stems and hard black berries.

Since that’s not quite the look I’m after by my front window, I decided to pull the pokeweed out of my garden once more, but this time with a little more reverence and appreciation, and with the full knowledge that it’s not in the least deterred, especially since I didn’t come close to removing the massive taproot ensconced deep under the pygmy palms.  The reason Ballas made such a fortune with his weed whacker is precisely because weeds can’t really be whacked, because they are  so determinably intractable, so vigorously undiscourageable.  I’m quite certain I’ll see my pokeweed again next year.

In the meantime, we who bow before the slightest pressure and buckle beneath the feather weight of ordinary adversity would do well to take a lesson or two from the weeds.

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