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What do you do with a Beautiful Weed?

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 28 June 2002

Is a weed just a plant growing where you don't want it? Michael Pollan, in his book Second Nature; a Gardener's Education, makes a good case that "weeds" are plants which have adapted to garden conditions better than "garden plants": hardier, more prolific, faster growing.

After years of learning about garden plants, I suddenly realized I can't even tell you the names of the weeds in my own garden. So during Biodiversity Days, I asked Townsend Coordinator Joanie MacPhee to walk with Pearl Russel and me through our back yards, to identify weeds.

At one point MacPhee sat down on the ground to study a three-foot plant none of us knew, that had what I think of as a strong presence. This plant was happy: every leaf perfect and vital. Finely-divided, dark green leaves, flowers like flat-topped, lacy white parasols: it was clearly a member of the carrot family, but which? It's important to identify what we have; for example different but similar-looking (even closely related) plants can have very different culinary and medicinal properties.

Turns out it's Fool's Parsley (Aethusa cynapium), and on the "watch-list" of species which have the potential to become endangered.

It's growing onto a major path, making it hard to walk there. My sense of design is offended: I want to be able to see the path because it's made of beautiful big stones I put a lot of work into placing. But I have promised Joanie I won't pull up the plant — at least until the seeds are ripe and we can gather some.

Some yellow-flowered hawkweed is also giving me trouble. This gray-green plant is low-growing; its fuzzy leaves mainly hug the ground, in rosettes and stolon-spread patches, except for the 10-inch flower stems, which carry inch-wide, semi-double yellow flowers, two or three of them, whose strap-shaped petals have ragged ends.

I like the contrast between the gray-green and the yellow, between the ground-hugging leaves and the thin flower stalks rising above them. I like the presence of this weed too; it occupies its space with pizazz, declaring "I'm right where I belong." However it's spreading fast; I'll pull up at least some of it, to prevent it from taking over.

MacPhee says she has a hard time gardening, can't bring herself to pull up any plant. I'm more selfish: I want my garden to follow my design. Still when a pretty weed glows with health, I'm tempted to change my design.

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© Copyright 2002 Catherine Holmes Clark