The Master Gardeners

The Praise of Weeds

Bill Meredith

Charlie Brown: "We had a good time in school today. We went on a field trip and we saw this field, and we stood there and looked at it."

Lucy: "Do you think youíll have any more field trips?"

Charlie Brown: "I doubt it. When youíve seen one field, youíve seen them all."

When I was still teaching, I sometimes thought of my drive to work as a field trip because there was a field that I watched every day as I went by. In September, most of the field looked tired; it had worked all summer to produce yet another crop of corn or wheat or soybeans, and then had been compacted by harvesting machines that seemed to get bigger every year. But in the corner nearest the road, it was too wet to plow in the spring and too tight a space for the big machines to maneuver in the fall, and there the field looked alive. There were weeds there, and they were what I watched. Through the end of August they were undistinguished shades of green and brown, but early in September there would come a morning when they were transformed into a mass of yellow flowers so bright that it seemed a piece of the sun must have fallen into the field and shattered into a million fragments. It happened every year, and it was worth looking forward to; the sight of those flowers gleaming in the morning sun stayed with me throughout the whole day. Even now, several years into retirement, I go to that field each September to see them. They are Bidens bipinnata, the Spanish Needle, and when I see them time stops, reverses itself, and goes back 65 years.

The image that comes into focus then is my Great-uncle Enoch; I remember him from when I was 3 or 4 years old. He would come to visit my grandmother two or three times a year, walking all the way from Catawba, a distance of four or five miles. I guess he felt some responsibility as her older brother to look in and see if there were any "menís jobs" that needed doing; he would always sharpen her knives, sickle and hoe on the old grindstone that stood under the grape arbor behind the house. I especially liked that job, because I got to help by dripping water on the grindstone as he turned it with the foot treadle.

He was a big man, or at least seemed so to me, and he led an active outdoor life; he kept a pack of hounds, hunted foxes, coons and possums at night, and always had plenty of hunting stories to tell. He wore bib overalls in the summer, but when he came in the fall he wore riding breeches with leather leggings; and the breeches would be covered with Spanish needles, picked up when he left the road to take a shortcut through a field. After the odd jobs were done, he would sit in Grandmaís living room, eat apple pie, and tell stories while I picked the Spanish needles out of his trousers and arranged them neatly in the piepan.

In those days, at the height of the Great Depression, there was no money to squander on toys, but I was not deprived. I could spend hours playing with Spanish needles, making designs and pictures by sticking them into an old dishcloth. When the barbs finally wore out, Grandma was always watching to make sure I threw them into the stove; she didnít want them thrown out where they might get into her garden. That made sense to me, since they were weeds; but then one day I made the wondrous discovery that they came from the yellow flowers that grew in the field and looked just like the Cosmos in the flowerbed. I begged to be allowed to plant some, but Grandma was adamant. Weeds, she said, were reminders of evil. In the beginning, she said, there were no weeds in the Garden of Eden; they were put on earth to remind us of our sinful nature, and they were not going to be allowed in her garden.

Years later my botany professor explained that weeds play an essential role in what ecologists call succession. When the natural vegetation is stripped away from an area by some disturbance such as a forest fire, or by human activities such as plowing, weeds colonize the area and stabilize the soil, preventing erosion and setting the stage for the growth of a more permanent plant community, eventually leading to a forest. I passed that version of the story on to my own students for over 40 years; but each September I am prompted to wonder if either Grandma or the professor had the whole truth. Weeds, I have decided, have other purposes on earth. For a few weeks each fall, they can lift our spirits at the beginning of the day; and they can make us remember.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith