What exactly is a weed?

3 Nov

The standard definition of a weed is “a plant out of place”, meaning that any plant, under particular conditions, can be considered a weed. Other definitions include “a plant that crowds out cultivated plants” or  “a plant that grows and reproduces aggressively”.  In all of the above definitions, the weed-ness of plants is at least in part subjectively defined, since energetic reproductive activity on the part of desirable plants is usually cause for celebration rather than despair.

Take, for example, the humble dandelion, a common weed that thrives in many parts of the world, especially Europe, Asia and the Americas. Dandelions are not unattractive little plants, sporting bright yellow flower heads in spring and fluffy white puffs of seed that disperse with the breeze. Furthermore, all parts of the dandelion plant are edible: the root can be brewed as a coffee substitute, the leaves are delicious in salad and the flowers can be made into jam or syrup.

The use of the dandelion for medicinal purposes dates back to tenth century Arabia. At that time, it was used to treat liver problems. The bitter milky juice in the dandelion root is thought to be a natural energizer, and can also be used to detoxify the body and purify the blood. It also aids in digestion and treatment of anemia. The juice in the stem and roots are used as an astringent for warts, corns, acne, and blisters. Dandelion root is also used as a diuretic, and because it contains potassium, there is no need to worry about potassium being depleted from the body. Dandelion root contains high amounts of sodium, which can help to balance the electrolytes in the blood. Other vitamins and minerals found in dandelion root include vitamins B, C, and D, in addition to phosphorous, iron, magnesium, zinc, and manganese.

So why do we spend countless hours and lots of money trying to eradicate dandelions from our midst? Simply put, the dandelion is too successful. When dandelion seeds take flight on the breeze, then can land and germinate almost anywhere: in a lawn, between rocks, in the driest or the wettest corner of the garden, where their tough tap roots will push down into the soil and strenuously resist extraction. Once dandelions establish themselves in an area, they can crowd out other plants by absorbing too much moisture and too many nutrients.

Whether to love and harvest your dandelions, or attempt to eradicate them, is a personal decision. I leave dandelions to brighten my “meadow” (an open area of my garden that is home to a variety of weedy plants and native grasses) but remove them from perennial beds and from between the bricks of my patio. And even as I strain to yank them out of the ground, cursing under my breath and contemplating the use of nasty chemicals, I tip my hat to these tenacious little plants.

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