A Love Letter to Weeds

Small pale pink flower resting on a page of text that reads "Malva neglecta Wallr.—Common Mallow; Cheeses. A Eurasian weed...

I’ve always liked weeds—those plants who may be described as scraggly, scrappy, and somewhat unkempt, thriving in the most unlikely of places. Sometimes, it makes me feel like a black sheep of a botanist. Many of my colleagues have immaculate houseplant collections of orchids and carnivorous plants, or bucket lists of taxa that they must see in their natural habitats. For me, a favorite hobby is walking slowly along city streets, eyes trained downward, my gaze massaging cracks and corners for hints of green.

I chalk up my love for weeds to my first botany class, a late spring ethnobotany class held at a field station in northern Michigan. Because it was an ethnobotany class, we didn’t just learn about plants through dissecting, observing, and researching them; the instructors also highlighted how plants exist in relationship with us humans. They always encouraged us to think of plants as autonomous beings—as mentors, as friends. The rhetoric of the course, and in turn the way I now relate to plants as a botanist, was deeply indebted to the influence of both Anishinaabe writers (such as Robin Wall Kimmerer, Mary and Wendy Makoons Genuisz, and Keewaydinoquay, among others) and local tribal members.

In addition to these Indigenous perspectives, during the class we were also gifted a thick tome titled the Field Manual of Michigan Flora. This book, what botanists call a dichotomous key, is a choose-your-own-adventure that unlocks the name (or a given name) of nearly any plant you may come across while traveling around the Great Lakes. And names are important for getting to know your friends.

What’s in a Name?

Chicken coop, garden, and rows of fruit-bearing bushes on the Faber Hobby Farm. Photo by the author, 2018.

After the class ended, I returned to my parents’ home to finish out the summer, and each day I ventured into the yard to befriend a new plant. The process of identifying (or “keying out”) a plant using a field guide is deeply intimate. You must carefully observe each minute characteristic to be certain you got to the right identification, and the process can take anywhere from ten minutes to several hours—or even days—depending on how well you know the plant and the key. With each plant, I would gently open its flowers to count ovaries and stamens, peer at stem and leaf surfaces to see the shape of their fine hairs, measure leaves tip to base. It was like a conversation, a first date. For me, it was the first step to falling in love.

Weeds have loved us humans all along.

I wrote down the names of the plants I met in the little notebook I’d started to fill during my ethnobotany class, and it wasn’t long before I noticed something. During the class, we’d been introduced to a variety of trees, shrubs, and herbs all native to northern Michigan. However, on my parents’ property—an 11-acre hobby farm that had been a hay field ten years prior—the flora seemed almost exclusively composed of “weeds.” The term came up again and again in the short biographies offered by the text: “A familiar tall weed”; “an attractive but persistent invasive weed”; “a widespread Eurasian weed.” Often, the plants’ names reflected their supposed weediness: chickweed, milkweed, horseweed, goatweed. Even the trees around the property had remarks written about their “weed-like behavior.”

In short, the Michigan Flora taught me that the Faber hobby farm was an ecological abomination.

The field manual comes with a short glossary in the back to help define the nomenclature used throughout the book, but curiously, it doesn’t define what a “weed” is anywhere in the text. Colloquially, many use the term “weed” to refer to a plant they don’t know and don’t particularly want in their garden or near their house. A quick Google will give definitions ranging from “a plant in the wrong place” to “something considered useless, detrimental, or worthless.” Plants that are called “weeds” are also called “aliens” if they migrated from another country, “non-native” or “invasive” depending on how “aggressive” they are, and “noxious” depending on how “troublesome” they are. All these terms showed up with good regularity in the entries describing my new friends—plants that I had grown up with but only recently began to know.

Making Sense of Shared Histories

Thinking as an ethnobotanist, the weedy composition of my parents’ property makes sense given the history of relationship on the land. From an ecological perspective, “weeds” are plants that have decided to make human-disturbed environments their niche. My parents’ property, as a former hay field, has a history of being constantly towed and reseeded—a grand disturbance to the landscape with intentional replacement of who had been there prior. The former farmers on this land were themselves settler-colonizers displacing Anishinaabe communities, likely Ojibwe or Odawa communities that had called the area home for centuries. The seeds the newcomers sowed, both intentionally and unintentionally, became the new residents of the soil.

Veronica serpyllifolia, a “Eurasian weed” with medicinal properties. Photo by the author, 2018.

Upon first learning this history, I lamented how European colonization so disturbed the land from the supposed ecological paradise it may have been. Back in college, I shook my head alongside my peers when we talked about the invasive spread of Phragmites, cattails, and garlic mustard, and I gladly helped pull these and other non-natives out of the soil. Meanwhile, when I returned home, I still smiled at the little speedwells and clovers I’d find in the lawn. I still said hello to the St. John’s wort and the autumn-olive when I walked the trails. It wasn’t like I could just stop loving the weeds, even if I felt I could scarcely admit it to another trained ecologist.

I found myself caught between an interpretation of weeds as emblems of colonization—aggressive outsiders destroying the “natural order” of things—and weeds as my friendly neighbors, full of interesting stories and lessons to share. What would it mean to “restore” my parents’ property? To remove all the current inhabitants that had arrived in the last 500 years? My secret love affair aside, would that even be feasible?

It was not lost on me that removing new inhabitants necessarily means not just those that photosynthesize. Just like the farm’s flora, my family also comprises a blend of transplants from all corners of what’s now the European Union. The most recent wave of immigrants was the family of my great-grandfather, who traveled from Germany to central Michigan just after the sinking of the Titanic. There’s some record that my European ancestors have been living and dying on Turtle Island from as early as the 16th century. The same goes for many of these introduced plants, who had immigrated right alongside the first colonizers, unwittingly hitching rides through foodstuffs and bootheels ever since. If I were to really “restore” my parents’ property, I would have to condemn not only the weeds, but my family and myself as well.

Displacing Displacement

Does “restoration” necessarily mean trading displacement for displacement once again? It’s at this point that I think back to my ethnobotany class and the teachings of Indigenous writers such as Robin Wall Kimmerer, Patty Krawec, Kyle Powys Whyte, and many others. Instead of perpetuating the violence and displacement that have been hallmarks of colonization and are the continued tools of settler-colonial ecological management, these scholars and activists offer Indigenous epistemologies of kinship. Kinship means actively healing our communities through renewing and repairing our relationships with all our neighbors—those that fly, those that burrow, those that flow, those that stand still for eons. And yes, weeds, too.

But as many ecologists would be quick to point out, what do we do if our neighbor isn’t practicing good relationships with others in the community? This bears on the idea of “invasive” species, or species that take space from others in the community and lead to a decrease in biodiversity as they take over. Surely then it’s up to humans to put these other species in their place?

There’s actually evidence that how we as humans relate to the landscape plays an important role in the behavior of other species. Take cattails, for example. Driving around the Midwest, it’s common to see thick stands of cattails in ditches and wetlands mirroring the monocultures of corn and soy on either side. It turns out there’s a reason for this: cattails thrive exceptionally well with increased inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus—nitrogen and phosphorus that are gifted in copious amounts in industrial agricultural fields, which then run off into waterways, causing cattails to choke out other plants in the environment. How effective is it then to blame the cattail for thriving in the environment we humans have created?

Plant with spiky green leaves and small white flowers growing on the forest floor
Garlic mustard, like many other “weeds,” thrives in disturbed environments. Photo by Erin Lunsford Jones, 2009

Additionally, a research team from Cornell University investigated the long-term effects of the presence and management of garlic mustard, one of the most villainized invasive plant species. Against all assumptions previously held in conservation biology, they showed that intense management and removal of garlic mustard results in a much more detrimental effect on the health of the plant community. When left alone, the garlic mustard population would expand in the first 3-5 years of being introduced, and then gradually decline to a more balanced level with the rest of the surrounding species after about a decade. It turns out that human “management” was creating more space for garlic mustard to thrive because it was creating more disturbance—the very thing to which weedy species are highly adapted.

That, to me, is the irony of weeds—plants in the “wrong place.” Through our relationships to the land we create the perfect conditions for “weeds” to thrive, and then in some cultures villainize the plants for their successes while blinded to our role in their rise. Really, we all have a responsibility to be active participants in the relationships we cultivate, with all beings, on personal to systemic scales. The health of our ecosystems is predicated on the health of our relationships. After all, what is an ecosystem but a complex web of relations?

Restoring Our Relationships with Weeds

Categories like “weed,” dripping with connotations of “worthless, useless, wrong,” make it harder to cultivate healthy relationships. This makes me think of the plant I study for my dissertation research: Dysphania ambrosioides, or apazote. In the United States, the plant is dismissed as a “noxious weed.” In Guatemala, where I study the connections between apazote and the people who use it, the plant is considered a grand medicine, an indicator of fertile soils, a favorite food, and above all, a good neighbor. Again, the problem doesn’t lie with the plant, but with the relationships and associations we humans have cultivated. The more I learn about weeds the more I find this holds true.

Kinship means actively healing our communities through renewing and repairing our relationships with all our neighbors—weeds too.

When we step back from the cultural construct that is a “weed,” we see plants that have thrown in their lot with humans for so long, they have come to depend on the environments we create for their survival. For some “weeds” like lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album), we can’t even trace their “natural” origins anymore—while scientists are able to use genetic methods to trace the likely evolutionary origin of most species, lamb’s quarters is a plant so widespread and genetically diverse that the only history we can deduce is that this plant has thrived near humans for a very, very long time. And it isn’t that these plants are simply tagging along—plants like lamb’s quarter and apazote offer a plethora of gifts in their nutritive and medicinal qualities. Really, from this perspective, weeds have loved us humans all along.

When I return home now, I ponder the great responsibility, and beautiful opportunity, to restore my relationship to my neighbors. I always make a point to walk the trails and say hello to familiar faces blooming up at the sun. I’m not ashamed to tell them I love them too.

Fatured image: Common mallow (Malva neglecta) alongside its description in the Field Manual of Michigan Flora. Nearly all of the entries of Malva species include “weed” or point to its Eurasian origin. Photo by the author, 2018

Tabitha Faber is a PhD student in the Botany department at University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her work focuses on the connections between plants and people, especially as related to plants that we eat—foods, medicines, and when they may turn toxic. Contact. Twitter.