Emissary from the Kingdom of Weeds

“One is tempted to say that the most human plants, after all, are the weeds.” — John Burroughs

At the front door of our townhouse, the patterned bricks we had placed there years ago come right up to the wood siding and the concrete underpinnings. Rather than leave an empty gap at the wall, we put sand in there, figuring that it would drain well enough not to cause a problem.

We have a window-box nearby, my wife’s pride and joy, with the flowers we planted there exuberant in their growth.

But this year, we have a weed flowering right at our front door in the gap between the bricks and the wall. I think it’s a weed, if a lovely one, or maybe some stray domesticated plant gone feral. I like it so much, we’ve just left it there, this odd and pleasing growth at our door.


But it made me think about weeds and what they mean.

“A flowering weed;
Hearing its name,
I looked anew at it.”
— Teiji

In a way, the idea of “weeds” exposes our mental worlds, our unthinking assumptions of division and judgement. It is a human construct forced on the world for our convenience. It’s all about us of course, our natural predisposition.

But seeing that allows one to step back and to consider the world for a moment, even if only the universe of plants, in an imaginative way without that division, the label of “weed”. How does the world seem then?

I don’t know about you, but it feels friendlier to me….

“I sympathize with all this luxuriant growth of weeds.”
— Thoreau, in one of his journals

Weed1This leads one necessarily to consider all the other concepts and constructs we place upon reality to order our days, from the bare nouns we use to let us feel we know something because we know its name, to the philosophical realms pigeonholing mind, body and existence, and to the ideas we act on to war against each other. Like “weeds”, these are all human creations, and not necessarily true to reality.

But all this talk about concepts is too conceptual… Weeds end up returning me to the mystery of the most ordinary things, about what the best photography and painting try to show us.

And what is more ordinary than myself?

I learn more about God
From weeds than from roses;
Resilience springing
Through the smallest chink of hope
In the absolute of concrete….
Phillip Pulfrey

Trust an eccentric Englishman to have written an entire book on weeds along these lines. Described as a forager and crypto-forester, Richard Mabey wrote Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature.

(A crypto-forester, by the way, is one who favors the disarray as nature takes over planned forests such as the plantings along highways or the ignored wild bush and tree stands on undeveloped margins of all kinds.)

Mabey notes for instance that nettles were so esteemed by the Romans as a medicine and raw material that when they invaded Britain they brought their own varieties.

I appreciate the misunderstanding
I have had with Nature over my perennial border.
I think it is a flower garden;
she thinks it is a meadow lacking grass,
and tries to correct the error.
Sara Stein

Weed2Of course the picture is complicated by invasive ‘alien’ weeds out-competing, sometimes by sheer virulence, resident species of a longer history. I think of the giant hogweed, which can grow upwards of 20 feet high and the sap of which can cause skin lesions and blindness. So maybe we don’t want to embrace all weeds.

But my sympathies do often lie with the weeds. They symbolize the unstructured effervescence of life, and the limits of the ‘useful’.

“What would the world be, once bereft of wet and wildness? Let them be left. O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins

That symbol of contemporary western civilization, the lawn, is where the conflict between weed and preferred plants is often dramatically played out. I think of ridiculous lawn fertilizer and herbicide TV ads which extol victory over plantain, mallow, and crabgrass, and glorify oneupmanship over the neighbours.

But there are those who have ceased the arms race and converted their lawns to meadows.

Using all native plants, they are already adapted to the climate and may need no watering, fertilizing, or tending whatsoever. But what will the neighbours say?

I think of a great line from one of Jakob Dylan’s songs for the Wallflowers: “I’ve been waist deep in the burning meadows of my mind.”

It would lose something to refer to “the burning lawns of my mind…. ”


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4 Comments on “Emissary from the Kingdom of Weeds”

  1. MDW Says:

    Very interesting. I’ve gotten more weed tolerant and chemical averse over the years myself and I sometimes dream of turning more of my yard over to “natural” growth – especially while pushing the mower.

    I’ve collected various plants from the woods and brought them up to the house as native species for the flower beds and we keep a patch of milkweed out back to encourage Monarch butterflys. Not very tidy, but more fun than grass.


  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Mark,

    There’s probably many quite beautiful flowering weeds, if I only knew which ones (botany is not one of my strong points).


  3. What is a weed except a plant in the wrong place?

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    That’s it in a nutshell (or other tiny container)!


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