What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
My love affair with plants began on my sixteenth birthday, when my
friend Joyce gave me a philodendron. I admired the seven glossy, heart-shaped
leaves trailing from the little white pot and reverently placed her
on the windowsill above my bed. As I poured water into her rich black
soil, I whimsically baptized her "Weed." I imagined her birth
in the steamy jungles of tropical America, where she attached herself
to a tree and climbed to prodigious heights.
Weed was the first nonplastic plant to enter my family's home in Pennsylvania.
Unlike the Japanese dolls and ceramic animals on my bookshelves, Weed
was alive. I celebrated each new leaf. By the time I graduated from
high school, she covered my bedroom window in a luminous green weaving.
She has been a more constant companion than any family member, lover,
husband, friend, or pet. I keep marveling at how she creates so much
green beauty from the meager dirt in her pot.
Weed accompanied me to college. When I needed to decide on a major,
I sought inspiration in my tree-house refuge. There I decided that what
I most wanted to know was how plants work-how the xylem and phloem transport
nutrients, how chloroplasts capture light and make food. It felt as
if the knowing would bring me closer to them, and so I majored in biology.
But in the process of my training, I was waylaid onto the path of science
that looks at smaller and smaller parts of nature. I earned a doctorate
degree in biochemistry, with a minor in physical chemistry.
Daughter-of-Weed sought out light amid the reagent bottles and experiments
on my lab bench, while Weed presided over my studies at home. By now,
she had many cousins, including an unruly purple-passion plant and a
cascading spider plant. Various shades of green pervaded all my living
and working spaces. Weed witnessed my marriage and accompanied me to
my first job.
When my husband and I separated, and I took a job with a biotechnology
company clear across the country, I carefully boxed up my plant family-despite
the dire predictions and disclaimers of the movers. I couldn't leave
my green sisters behind. While I flew to Seattle and found a place to
live, they traveled in a moving van through the winter cold of Montana.
They arrived in Seattle with blackened leaves, almost dead and certainly
unattractive. But they were my family. So, holding on to hope, I patiently
tended them. They had always given me solace. Now it was my turn to
talk to them, encourage them, and cheer them on when I saw the first
glimmers of green. Over the weeks and months, their beauty gradually
returned, and Weed's heart-shaped leaves unfurled. Again she thrived.
One day the director of quality control asked me to remove Daughter-of-Weed
and her cousins from my office. She feared they might harbor fruit flies,
which could contaminate the monoclonal antibody products in the manufacturing
rooms across the hall. Somewhat to my surprise, the first thought that
sprang to mind was: If my plants go, I go. I dug in my heels in silent,
passive resistance. We both stayed.
At that point, I realized I needed plants around me as much as I need
air to breathe. Though I rarely talk about my feelings for plants, they
are intrinsic to my nature-as much a part of who I am as my long hair.
My bond with them is a given, a foundation for my life. I require their
beauty and tranquillity for inspiration-in all senses of the word, since
plants literally give me my life breath, oxygen.
While I was developing biotech health-care devices, I read about a
new Weyerhauser product: Inscape Interiorized plants and
trees-real plants that had been fed a liquid plastic that polymerized
inside the plant and essentially embalmed it. "No mess, no maintenance,"
the advertisement said. "A revolution in interior landscaping.
This forest thrives without light, water, or even soil." I read
the advertisement over and over, unable to believe my eyes. Was this
better living through chemistry? What could motivate anyone to undertake
such research? Why would anyone want a plant that could not offer the
joy of watching it grow? "They're still beautiful," a friend
said. "Human skin makes lovely lampshades," I replied.
Without Weed's growth, her abundance and generosity-her messiness-I
never would have had the pleasure of sharing her with other humans.
She and her green cousins have made a living bridge to many friends'
homes, offices, massage studios, and dojos. At the same time, I know
that plants themselves thrive on companionship with their green cousins.
For example, Russian peasants appreciated the value of the "noxious
weed" cornflower (also known as bachelor's buttons) growing in
a field of waving rye. They had observed that rye grew better with her
blue-blossomed cousin than alone.
To honor this compan-ion-ship, Russian peasants decorated the first
sheaf of rye harvest with a cornflower wreath and placed it in front
of an icon. Similarly, one oxeye daisy amid a hundred wheat plants promotes
growth of the wheat. Further experiments have shown that a ratio of
twenty daisies or cornflowers to a hundred crop plants crowds out the
sprouting crop. But in limited numbers, such "weeds" bring
minerals up from the subsoil and create root highways that enable crop-plant
roots to dive deep to otherwise unavailable food.
Weeds are usually undervalued-or seen as the enemy. In the competitive
world-view of agribusiness, herbicides eliminate weeds that compete
with crops. As a woman scientist, I love to learn about research that
demonstrates how weeds cooperate with crops and form community. Researchers
at the University of California at Santa Cruz studied the traditional
Mexican farming practice of pruning back, rather than pulling, a weed
that commonly sprouts between rows of corn. They found that the roots
of the weed, Bidens pilosa, secrete compounds lethal to fungi and nematodes
that destroy corn. Instead of competing with the corn, the weed controls
the pests without significantly stealing soil nutrients from the corn.
The practice protects the soil and provides more wholesome food. The
weed gets to express its nature. That, I believe, is what Earth asks
of us: for each of her creatures to express her unique nature joyfully
From my sunny condominium in Seattle, Weed and I moved to a house in
an acre of young forest on Tiger Mountain to be with Paul, who became
my second husband. We suspended Weed from the beam of the cathedral
ceiling in our living room. Her scant six-inch yellow pot disappeared
behind her shiny leaves. Abundant leafy tendrils climbed up twine macramé
to the skylight, while others trailed down the wall to wander amid a
Navajo wedding basket and Hopi kachina dolls on a shelf before cascading
to the floor.
Paul and I had selected the house partly so we'd have minimal outside
upkeep. Then I discovered that I could not resist planting and co-creating
with the plants. Over the past ten years, my garden has become a conversation
with nature about living beauty. When a huge decaying cedar stump fell
on its side, I filled a depression with dirt and planted a weeping Japanese
maple and fuchsias in it. When an ice storm felled hundreds of fir,
alder, and hemlock branches, I wove them together to create a long flowerbed
along the side of the road.
My gardening style is to respond, rather than to bulldoze plants and
impose an abstract landscaping plan. I'm happiest when I'm making use
of what's around. I heap together weeds and fallen leaves until, over
the years, they magically become the rich black dirt of a new bed. Split
logs edge trails filled with chipped branches. I build rock walls from
stones uncovered in planting shrubs. Reveling in a sense of abundance
and resourcefulness, I feel the satisfaction of nurturing and bringing
order to all the forms of life in the garden.
When a space in the garden opens up, I'm led by desire. Plant lust.
Pictures in seed catalogues seduce me with their promise of beauty.
I imagine lush colors attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
Emerald temptresses in nurseries lure me with their fragrance of lilac
and lavender, honeysuckle and spice. I'm captivated by descriptions
of fruit that can't be found at the supermarket, such as native American
pawpaws, which produce yellow fruit whose pulp tastes like vanilla custard.
Hesitant to force my will, I'm reluctant to prune. I'm too curious
to see what the plant will do on her own. I want to learn about her
habits. Yet browsing-pruning- stimulates growth in plants such as sage
I'm still coming to terms with weeding. "A weed is a plant out
of place," I learned in ninth-grade biology. Usually, "weed"
carries a negative connotation, implying a plant that is unsightly or
a nuisance. But, ecologically, weeds are pioneers, colonizers of open
habitats-healers of land disturbed by mankind. "Very successful
life forms," as Star Trek's Spock would say. It is only our egotistical
human point of view that labels a weed a weed.
When viewed as a functioning part of nature, weeds have much to teach.
They are excellent indicators of soil conditions. Sorrels, docks, and
horsetails are a sign that the soil is becoming too acidic. Far from
being harmful, plants such as ragweed, pigweeds, purslane, and nettles
bring up minerals from the subsoil, especially those that have been
depleted from the topsoil. As companion crops, they help domesticated
plants get their roots down to food that would otherwise be beyond their
reach. Dandelions actually heal the soil by transporting minerals, especially
calcium, upward from deep layers, even from hardpan.
Having grown up feeling like an outsider, I have an affinity for weeds-which
is how Weed got her name. I've admired their robustness, their ability
to thrive in harsh conditions. They are wild, uncivilized, untamed-free-the
American ideal of rugged individualism. Old-growth forests, on the other
hand, are the climax of a community of wild plants who have learned
to live together.
As I grow older and seek more intimacy and community, I realize that
many weeds are symptomatic of imbalance. Some weeds act to heal the
soil, but others haven't yet learned to live in their new communities.
Like rats, cockroaches, and starlings, they are uninvited guests in
niches carved by humankind. Most Northwestern weeds were brought intentionally
or accidentally from Europe or Asia. For example, purple loosestrife
is a valued wildflower in her native Eurasian habitats, where her patches
are kept small by a complex society of insects and animals feeding on
her leaves and seeds. But in North America, she crowds out native species
and chokes waterways.
And so I pull wild geraniums and blackberry vines that run rampant
over more delicate trilliums and bleeding hearts because I love diversity.
I want to create a balanced community in my garden. Now, to my delight,
I'm finding uses for some overly rambunctious-generous-plants. I've
perfected a recipe for dandelion-chive quiche. Sweet woodruff scents
my living room. I keep lemon balm and comfrey in check by harvesting
leaves for tea. And Weed travels to ever more friends-an ambassador
of the plant world.
Since plants are sessile, peaceful-undramatic-they rarely make breaking
news. They set boundaries with thick skins and thorns. They infuse their
leaves with unappetizing tannins to protect themselves from overgrazing.
They protect themselves, but they don't intentionally cause harm.
As a child, I always sought out the comfort of plants after a family
dispute. I sat high on an old log in the woods and felt the forest embrace
me. As I entered the contemplation of trees, I felt soothed. My perspective
broadened and deepened like the branches and roots of the trees around
In fact, I'm not alone in seeking the solace of trees. Recently, researchers
at the University of Illinois found a correlation between safety and
trees, which appear to have a calming effect on city dwellers. At tree-lined
housing projects, children play more creatively, parents are more sociable,
and adults report dramatically fewer incidents of domestic violence.
The researchers concluded that trees are as necessary to urban life
as streets, sewers, and electricity.
I was not surprised to learn that, in contrast to the prevailing competitive,
survival-of-the-fittest, Darwinian conception of nature, plants also
practice charity. A study done by a group of researchers in British
Columbia showed that well-fed birches shared their bounty of sugar with
nearby undernourished birches. Underground fungi transfer nutrients
between plants via their roots.
Disconnection from plants and the natural world can lead to everyday
evil, usually with the best of intentions. "Clearing the land"
is equated with progress, with civilizing. A gardener cuts down hemlocks
and cedars to grow lettuce. Ancient forests left uncut are deemed "wasted."
Trees mean lumber. In mankind's narcissism, a view is worth more than
a living tree. How do we arbitrate such divergent value systems? I wonder.
Who speaks for the plant world? How can I become a better guardian?
When I hear accounts of war, battles, and bombings, I mourn the slaughter
of innocent plants and animals as well as I do the people who die. Napalm
denuded the jungles of Vietnam. Meadows of wildflowers decimated by
tanks and grenades leave rabbits and foxes to starve in the muddy wastelands
left behind. Atomic testing obliterates every plant, every seed, within
range. The Gulf War killed even the most tenacious desert vegetation.
Yet few mention the cost of war to the land. Even in times of peace,
the violence continues. I look away when I drive past clear-cuts; sometimes
it feels easier to deny the sacredness of all parts of the natural world
than to feel the distress of its ruin.
Recently, I was shocked to read a report by the World Conservation
Union that said that 12.5 percent of the world's seed-producing plants
and ferns-nearly thirty-four thousand species-are endangered. In the
United States, some 29 percent of plants, or sixteen thousand species,
are at risk of extinction because of loss of habitat and competition
from nonnative species. In a statement to the press, a representative
of the New York Botanical Garden observed, "Every nation understands
and appreciates its biotic wealth much less than it does its material
and cultural wealth. Ironically, it is precisely the biological assets
that are most at risk."
The rate of extinction is being exacerbated by agribusiness. Philip
Abelson, editor of Science magazine, contends that "the greatest
ultimate global impact of genomics will result from manipulation of
the DNA of plants." He predicts that most of the world's food,
fuel, fiber, and chemical feedstocks, and some pharmaceuticals will
be obtained from genetically altered vegetation and trees. Major companies
including Dow Chemical, Du Pont, and Monsanto are now spending billions
of dollars annually on genetic engineering. Already, they have succeeded
in their highest priority-creating crops resistant to their proprietary
With research financed and motivated by sales of the highly profitable
herbicide Roundup, Monsanto has genetically altered soybeans, cotton,
potatoes, corn, and other plants. Sale of these seeds has been expanding
rapidly since the federal government approved the first biotech crop
for commercial planting in 1992. Over fifty percent of the soybean seeds
planted in 1999 were herbicide-resistant. Such Roundup Ready varieties
mean that farmers can apply more herbicide to their crops-our food.
This continuing trend toward chemically intensive agriculture degrades
our soil, water, air, and health. As more herbicides find their way
into our bodies, our health declines-even as it fosters the economy,
since we then spend more money on pharmaceuticals, doctors, and hospitals.
We now eat "virtual" food, devoid of nourishment-and then
buy bottled water, vitamins, mineral supplements, fruit-ceutical and
vegi-ceutical caplets, and additive-packed Ensure drinks and energy
With increased reliance on genetically engineered seeds, the diversity
of naturally growing varieties is being lost. Fortunately, devoted gardeners
are striving to maintain viable banks of heirloom seeds, sponsoring
seed exchanges and even expeditions to collect and preserve vanishing
varieties. In contrast to seeds from plant hybrids, which are unpredictable
and sometimes sterile, heirloom varieties can be pollinated through
insects, wind, and water to produce offspring with reliable characteristics,
allowing seeds to be saved and grown out year after year, generation
after generation, without herbicides, fungicides, or pesticides.
In April 2000, a National Academy of Sciences report confirmed that
crops engineered to contain pesticides might produce unexpected allergens
and toxicants in food. In addition, they have the potential to create
far-reaching environmental effects, including harm to beneficial insects,
the creation of super-weeds, and possibly adverse effects on soil organisms.
Yet these environmental side-effects have been virtually unstudied.
In response to consumer protest, a hundred and thirty nations signed
a treaty that would allow any country to ban the import of genetically
altered foods. Now many food processors and farmers are shunning genetically
engineered crops, and Monsanto is considering abandoning its business
model that combines pharmaceuticals and agricultural products.
As I work in my garden, I continually ask myself: How can we, as humans,
help our plant companions to express themselves most fully? How can
we create more life by cooperating with weeds and bugs-by allowing them
to do what they do best-rather than killing them with herbicides, pesticides,
During a three-week herbal apprenticeship in wise-woman tradition,
I saw how much life could be woven together on less than an acre of
land. Chickens scratched the ground, trimmed and fertilized the grass,
ate kitchen scraps, and laid eggs. Ducks grazed on slugs and fertilized
the strawberry patch. Rabbits ate dandelion greens and provided meat.
Goats ate invasive blackberry bushes and gave milk. Worms, bugs, fungi,
and bacteria filled the soil with life.
We humans harvested weeds-chickweed, bittercress, shepherd's purse,
and lamb's- quarters-for our salad, and prepared medicinal tinctures
from cleavers, yarrow, and Saint John's wort. We invited bacteria and
fungi into our bodies by eating foods such as goat cheese, yogurt, miso,
fermented tea, and dandelion wine. Now that I was better able to see
the interconnections within the web of life, it made perfect sense to
me that research shows that high-frequency sound-in the range of birdsong-opens
the stomata, the pores, of plants and increases the flow of nutrients.
I began to learn about the wise-woman tradition of healing, which
honors a bond between women and plants that spans millennia. Often the
medicinal plants were what we call weeds. Women used Saint John's wort
oil for healing burns, and her tea for a diarrhea remedy; calcium-rich
horsetail healed bone fractures and cleansed the urinary tract; plantain
made a poultice to soothe bee stings, and her seeds provided a laxative.
Since each plant treated a variety of ailments, the forests and meadows
provided an entire pharmacy.
Only in the past year have I experimented with eating wild plants.
Mineral-rich stinging nettles and deep-rooted burdock are deemed impractical
for mass cultivation, but are freely available in wild places. By narrowing
our experience to sweet and salty tastes, we miss the tonifying bitterness
of dandelion leaves that wakes up our digestive system. We forget the
pungent zip of gingerroot and anise seeds. In isolating (and patenting
for profit) single "active ingredients" of plants, we lose
the ameliorating and balancing effects of the plant's multiple components.
For example, meadowsweet, whose "active ingredient" is methyl
salicylate, heals damage to the stomach wall because of the combination
of mucilages and tannins in the whole plant. Yet salicylates alone,
such as aspirin (named for the old botanical name for meadowsweet) are
known to cause stomach bleeding as a side effect.
In our commercial culture, gathering dinner from the wild has somehow
become associated with poverty. Yet to me it provides joy, grounding,
and an intimate connection to the earth and her seasons. During the
salad days of spring, I watch to catch peppery bittercress before she
goes to seed, and nutrient-rich lamb's-quarters while she is tender.
I eagerly await the blooming of calendula, impatiens, and red clover
to adorn my summer salads. I graze on plantain, chickweed, and miner's
lettuce as I garden. When the nip of fall crisps the air, I notice my
body asking for root stews.
Surrounded by the bounty of the forests and fields, we no longer know
how to survive without a supermarket. We've forgotten that honeysuckle
flowers are sweet and delicious, plantain is palatable and nutritious,
and Oregon grape leaves and flowers are lemon-tart. Wild foods bring
wildness into our bodies.
Through my connection to Weed, I grew sensitive to other plants as
well. While Paul notices the Jaguars and Ferraris on the road, I relish
the first blush of willow green and the spare winter skeleton of a maple.
Watching for patches of yellow Saint John's wort to harvest, I practice
my sixty-mile-per-hour botany. I try to remember when and where I saw
a linden tree's fairy blossoms last summer. I wonder if the bankers
will chase me away if I harvest leaves from the ginkgo tree in their
We take plants for granted; yet they give us life. Weed and her cousins
give me the air I breathe; they give me their fruits, seeds, and bodies
to nourish my body. Their beauty nourishes my soul; their flesh becomes
my flesh. They fill me with a sense of abundance. From next to nothing-simple
carbon dioxide, water, nitrogen, and minerals-they alchemically create
huge, beautiful, complex, intricately adapted structures. The cathedral
hush of a redwood forest. The sensual cinnamon bark of madrona. The
voluptuous iris. I marvel at their mystery. I am grateful for their
by Linda Jean Shepherd, Ph.D.
the Veil: The Feminine Face of Science
Sweet Breathing of Plants