There’s really no such thing as a weed in nature. As Dwight D. Ligenfelter of the Department of Agronomy at Penn State University points out, weeds are simply plants “whose undesirable qualities outweigh their good points” in the eyes of human beings.
Indeed, it is our human activities — farming, gardening, creating golf courses and parks — that create “weed problems.”
We tend to think of weeds as pests — plants that grow where they are unwanted. As weeds produce an abundant amount of seeds — which can survive for long periods of time in a dormant state – they are, says Ligenfelter, “naturally strong competitors” for the “water, light, soil nutrients and space” needed by the plants that humans want to grow.
Weeds certainly have their drawbacks: they can be hosts for crop diseases, provide shelter for insects and produce substances toxic to plants, animals and humans — think about poison ivy. Not surprisingly, humans spend billions of dollars annually to control and eradicate weeds.
As Ligenfelter notes, however, weeds — which of course aren’t trying to push out human-planted crops — have numerous benefits, from stabilizing the soil to providing habitat and food for wildlife, as milkweed does for monarch butterflies.
These are some good weeds that can be welcomed in a yard rather than viewed as the archenemy:
Helen Atthowe of Vegan Permaculture observed that pennycress, a common roadside plant, did not compete with her crops and, indeed,, attracted beneficial insects. She started to allow pennycress to spread, hoping that it would prevent other weeds more likely to compete with her crops from doing the same. Rather than eradicating weeds, “editing” them can be beneficial.
Pennycress has other potential uses, as well. Researchers are investigating whether field pennycress might be a source of biofuel, as its seeds contain an oil that has uses in producing biodiesel.
2. Lamb’s Quarters
Lamb’s quarters are just one type of weed — another is goldenrod — that protect your plants by luring away insects that can cause damage. Lamb’s quarters can also be eaten — though be careful, lest they’ve been planted in contaminated soil — and can provide up to twice as much nutrition as spinach or Swiss chard.
As one urban forager notes, they’re not so tasty raw. But sauté them with a little olive oil, and you’ll wonder why the plant is even called a weed!
While many seek to uproot it from lawns, clover actually used to be included in grass seed mixes, as it helps to fertilize the soil. A legume, clover fixes nitrogen and adds it to the soil.
Clover also attracts earthworms and can lure rabbits away from eating your grass and other crops. Clover helps to retain more moisture than it consumes, acting as a sort of “green mulch” or “green manure” for surrounding plants.
This weed may irk those who want their lawn to look like a carpet, but it has numerous uses. Dandelions have strong tap roots that extend far under the ground, breaking up hard soil and bringing up nutrients that plants with shorter roots can’t access themselves.
Dandelions also exude minerals and nitrogen via their roots. Plus, they attract honeybees and repel army worms.
Dandelion leaves are edible — the young ones in salad and the older ones steamed. After being dried, chopped and roasted, the roots can be used to make a coffee substitute that is said to have detoxification effects.
Mugwort – also known as “felon’s weed” — grows in lawns, waste places, golf fairways, shores, roadsides and along railroad tracks. As it is resistant to mowing and has ”strong and persistent rhizomes,” it is not easily eliminated.
Peter Del Tredici, a senior research scientist at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, calls mugwort the “quintessential urban weed.” It is not welcomed by landscapers, but the plant has a number of properties, including the ability to absorb heavy metals from the ground, prevent erosion on slopes and replenish soil that has been stripped of nutrients.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, a weed is a plant whose virtues have not been discovered. Indeed, we might even say, in the words of Del Tredici, that “weed” is a “politically incorrect term” and an unfair “value judgment” on plants that have much to offer.
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