The plants we think of as weeds are a vital part of our natural environment.
The most common definition of a weed is ‘a plant in the wrong place’ – a dandelion popping up in a pristine lawn, stinging nettles taking over a flower bed, or wild grasses appearing among crops.
But no plant is a weed in nature – we simply label certain plants as weeds when they get in the way of our plans. As a result, we can wind up in an endless battle to eradicate them, in some cases involving damaging pesticides.
The virtues of weeds
Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer and philosopher, wrote in 1878: ‘What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.’
Weeds can also be plants whose virtues have been forgotten. Many of today’s ‘weeds’ were once cultivated plants but fell out of favour.
For example, in the Middle Ages ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) was cultivated as a food crop and medicinal herb used mainly to treat gout. These days gardeners do all they can to eradicate it from their borders, without a thought for the value it once held.
Red dead nettle, Lamium purpureum,