A WEED BY ANY OTHER NAME (August 22/97)

“There are so many bad things in the world that I have no power to get rid of, but I can pull up weeds and feel I am doing at least a little to make the world more beautiful.”

This quote from a recent column by Annie Bird illustrates explicitly the attitude most people have when it comes to weeds. The obvious inference is that weeds are a blight, while flowers and vegetables are a blessing. Or as George Orwell might have put it if he had written a gardening book, vegetables and flowers good, weeds bad.

With apologies to an excellent columnist, I must differ with Ms. Bird regarding the inference in her quote. In defense of weeds, not all of them are “bad.” As I’ve pointed out in this column before, many weeds are useful and in some instances are of great value to us.

But first we should ask, exactly what is a weed? A loose but reasonable definition is that any plant growing where it is not wanted is a weed. Agriculture Canada is specific about this, defining a weed as a “plant that grows where man does not want it to grow.” According to this definition, a rare, endangered plant flowering in the middle of several acres of sweet corn or a commercial strawberry field could be considered a weed and eradicated.

While I’ve exaggerated to make a point, weeds are simply unwanted growths, especially if they compete with food crops or threaten to replace or compete with plants favored for their aesthetic value. Before it was brought here for the purpose of beautifying our landscape, for example, that scourge of homeowners, the dandelion, was once a treasured flower in its homeland.

As for weeds being useful, we eat them, drink them, take them with medicine and vitamin supplements and even smoke them. The various species of evening primrose are a prime example. Evening primrose is listed in Weeds of Canada and Weeds of Nova Scotia and it is rightfully an unwanted species where it competes with food crops.

However, the people at research laboratories, such as Efamol in Kentville, could tell you a different story about the oil extracted from the seeds of evening primrose. Check the health manuals and read all the good things they say about this oil. Look no farther than the local drugstore, where evening primrose oil is sold as a supplement and its health benefits are spelled out in handout brochures.

In the same store you will also find chamomile in supplemental form – and you can get it as an herbal drink at Tim Hortons, by the way. Chamomile is one of about 500 plants designated as unwanted growths in Weeds of Canada and is among the 100 or so weeds designated as enemies in Weeds of Nova Scotia.

While it is a weed here, Chamomile has been cultivated in Europe for centuries and used in teas and vitamins for its health benefits. A number of other plants designated as weeds – pigweed, milkweed and St. John’s Wort, for example – may also have health benefits and may even be of use in combating cancer and AIDS.

My favorite weed is chicory. Two government publications list chicory as a “noxious weed,” yet I drink it every day. A weed by any other name, in other words, is not always a weed.

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