By RICHARD MABEY
Published: June 30, 2011
AS the United States celebrates the Fourth of July, perhaps we English finally should let you in on a little secret. You didn’t quite win total independence: we left behind a covert occupation force, in the shape of our weeds, which rapidly became your weeds, pesky and persistent.
They came as stowaways in those first shiploads of cattle and seed corn and none-too-hygienic European settlers. The New World’s ancient landscapes, unused to gung-ho farmers and trampling cattle, didn’t stand a chance. As East Coast forests were cleared, a riot of foreign weeds — dandelion, groundsel, dock — took over, promptly followed by European grasses. It came as a shock to me to discover that Kentucky bluegrass — which I’d thought as American as the haze over the Appalachians — was none other than our backyard meadow grass, which assuredly never looks blue under our gray skies.
While we’re at it, I should apologize for our Charles Darwin, who made a joke in rather poor taste at the expense of his friend the American botanist Asa Gray. “Does it not hurt your Yankee pride,” he asked, “that we thrash you so confoundedly? I am sure Mrs. Gray will stick up for your weeds. Ask her if they are not more honest, downright good sort of weeds.” (Mrs. Gray’s reply was impeccable: American weeds, she said, were “modest, woodland, retiring things; and no match for the intrusive, pretentious, self-asserting foreigners.”)
But this intrusive colonialism is of course the weeds’ way. They wouldn’t be the plants they are if they were not assertive, hugely adaptable, cosmopolitan. They’ve tagged onto the coattails of global trade, agricultural adventure and gardening fashion, so that there is no real sense in which a weed can be said anymore to “belong” to any one nation. They are citizens of the world — or at least of the world of frenzied environmental disturbance that humans spin around themselves. I find it oddly comforting to see familiar home weeds like bindweed and bracken in Manhattan back lots. Perhaps Americans feel similarly pleased to find North American fleabane (whose seeds are thought to have ended up in Europe inside a stuffed bird) flourishing on the stonework around the Bank of England. The commonest city weeds are now virtually identical across the planet. They seem to have the botanical right stuff for urban environments: streetwise and opportunistic, resilient fillers of metropolitan dead spaces.
But it would be stretching our “special relationship” too far to suggest that our shared weeds make up a kind of agreeable green commonwealth. Vagabond plants can change their behavior dramatically when taken away from their native habitats, and all their traditional predators and constraints. In Britain the magenta sprays of purple loosestrife have made it one of our best-loved riverside flowers. It’s elegant and well behaved and knows its place. It figures in the margins of John Everett Millais’s unforgettable painting of a floating Ophelia, Hamlet’s rejected love interest, before she drowns. But it was inadvertently introduced to United States shorelines with dumped ships’ ballast in the early 19th century and has become quite a different character, monolithic and invasive.
This is not, of course, the fault of the weeds. From the Japanese knotweed that jumped the walls of big country houses to become Britain’s most notorious plant demon to the casually ditched aquarium plants now suffocating Florida’s lakes and rivers, we create our own weed nuisances. This has been true since the very beginnings of civilization. We’ve opened opportunities for a whole range of adaptable plant species to gate-crash our ordered lives by the reckless way we treat the earth. It’s time, I think, for a new perspective on them, for a curiosity about why they are there and a more critical view of our own role in their fortunes.
And it’s here, I feel, that American attitudes toward weeds have a lot to teach us Europeans. I learned the strict protocol of poison ivy recognition and respect from a farmer in Maryland — a mantra for which there is no equivalent for any of our toxic weeds. I’ve enjoyed the conspiracy theories and black jokes about kudzu vine in the South. (“Shut your windows at night.”) I give thanks for Thoreau’s “Bean-Field” essay in “Walden,” the best literary defense of the ecological role of weeds. And for the incomparable Euell Gibbons, whose books revived weed foraging in Britain. All these approaches seem to me to accept that weeds are part of creation too, and that we need to find a way of living with them.