Weeds, humans and virtue

‘A plant in the wrong place’. I have long been aware of this rather cryptic definition of a weed. A few years ago I mentioned it to my friend Devi Vijay, whilst strolling around the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and puzzling over a few patches of vegetation here and there that seemed out of harmony with the overall presentation of the place. When Devi got in touch with me recently about the work of a cultural anthropologist who has written in detail about the subject, I realised that there is a great deal more to the casual question, ‘what is a weed?’

The ‘weed’ has a well established etymological history. Boethius, in the The Consolation of Philosophy of 523 wrote :

Who fain would sow the fallow field,

And see the growing corn,

Must first remove the useless weeds,

The bramble and the thorn.

Weeds are ubiquitous in literature. I remember studying Hamlet at school and still recall the speech from Act 1:

… ’tis an unweeded garden,

That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely.

For Shakespeare, who famously knew a great deal about plants, weeds signified not only the disorder of the nation, but also the deterioration of the mind, as represented in Ophelia’s head-dress and in her drowning, bedecked by ‘her weedy trophies’.

So, to be clear: weeds are a serious business.

As an amateur gardener in Dumfriesshire, at a practical level, I think I know what weeds are. They are a nuisance, they get in amongst the things I plant, they can come back year after year. In some cases a small piece of root if inadvertently carried from one part of the garden to another will soon get a hold where we don’t want it. In late summer, weed seeds blow about promiscuously and we meet the consequences the following spring.  

Yet most of the specific plants I am thinking about, only count as weeds when they are in a cultivated space, like a border. This fits with the cryptic definition.

The Buttercup (Ranunculaceae) is a good example. It is unwanted as it spreads among the Meconopsis, but welcome in the meadow grass. I remember whole fields of it when I was a child and the lovely test we did, placing a flower under a friend’s chin, to see if it reflected, thereby confirming that the person in question ‘liked butter’. Likewise the Bindweed (Convulvulus) twines perniciously around herbaceous plants and is very difficult to remove, but looks rather pretty in a roadside hedgerow.

Another contender is Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum). It  can be annoying spreading through a rose bed, but just a few yards away, and especially when in bloom, it is welcome and charming in the clefts of a dry stone wall.

At the same time, some common weeds, otherwise unlovely, can have a use-value. Nettles (Urtica dioica) may be used for soup, or contrastingly, as a liquid fertilizer, though I realise it may be hard to distinguish between the two! The nettle’s sting can be relieved by Dock leaves (Rumex obtusifoliu). The obdurate ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria), brought to Britain by the Romans, can be added to a salad. The Common Plantain (Plantago major) unloved by lawn enthusiasts, has been used as a healing poultice and to stop blood flow.

The Galloway artist Pamela Grace is intrigued by weeds. They feature in many of her works, where the subject is often on the edge of something, beside a wood, along a field fence, or a wall. Weeds make a lot of sense as marginalia, situated on liminal boundaries that are betwixt and between defined spaces. I bumped into Pamela whilst writing this piece and we shared our common interest in the weedy world. She kindly offered the use of a painting of hers I’d seen just a few days earlier and which appears here, capturing beautifully an enchanting drift of foxgloves at the edge of a copse, their heads leaning and nodding airily.

Foxgloves by Pamela Grace 2021

Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) are ambiguous however. Are they weed or wildflower? Attractive ‘in the wild’, certainly, but growing next to garden paths, cold frames or outbuildings they incline to the scruffy. More significantly, when near my own home-grown Foxglove Alba, they become a pollination threat, agents of unwanted cross-fertilisation that must be removed to protect the cultivated white form.

As gardeners, we give agency to our plants. They can be temperamental, forgiving, tough, delicate, reliable, bossy or easy going. Our weeds are similarly labelled, but almost always with negative associations. They can be a nuisance, a pest, a brute, a bully. The French make this overarchingly clear. Weeds are simply ‘bad plants’, mauvaise herbes. Thus classified, they seem incapable of any virtue.  The dandelion is a pis en lit.

The demonisation of plants by gardeners is something I may tackle in another piece. It’s a disposition that’s heavily directed towards weeds. So much so that they are subject to harsh measures – chemical sprays and unpleasant treatments that knock them dead, first wilting, then yellowing, then rotting. Controlling weeds in this way, to whit unsightly in itself, has become a defining feature of the modern gardener. Weed killers lurk on the shelves of garden centres everywhere, whilst disputes rage about their safety and side effects. If weeds are a contested category, so too are the means of their destruction.

Thankfully, there are other narratives. Robert Louis Stevenson, chemical free, found calm and repose in the weeding of his Samoan vegetable garden. Indeed, according to one biographer: ‘He liked weeding so much that he sometimes had to drag himself away in order to get his daily quota of writing done’ (1).  There can be a delicious rhythm in weeding, whether bent over the hoe, or kneeling close to the objects of attention, with hand rake, fork or trowel in constant motion. What pleasure can result as we straighten our back and survey the results of our labours, the freshly turned soil, weed-free for the moment, a rich backcloth to our favourite plants.

One of the most brilliant books I read as a student was Purity and Danger, by Mary Douglas. In that 1960s classic she outlined a theory of ‘dirt’ and taboo, which was based on the notion of ‘matter out of place’. Things offend against our sensibilities when they are in contexts where they don’t belong. Weeds can be seen in this light. Indeed Ben Belak, riffing on Douglas, sees them as ‘herbage out of place’.

The cultural anthropologist, Anna Tsing defines weeds in a very particular way, as the organisms that take over after human disturbance, a process she refers to as auto-rewilding. In this context, weeds can be quick to appear when new roads are built, quarries and mines are abandoned or after bombings, battles, fires and varied catastrophes of our own making. Sometimes they have enormous destructive power, creating what Tsing calls a ‘new wild’, such as in the spread of Merremia peltata a vigorous vine, which overwhelms all other fauna in the wake of commercial logging in island south east Asia. This line of thinking about weeds, I must acknowledge, takes us into deeper questions – about the character of the Anthropocene and indeed, the potential for human extinction.

Weeds therefore tell many stories.

Rosebay Willow Herb (Epilobium angustifolium), was the first thing to flower after London’s great conflagration of 1666 and became known as Fireweed. Almost 400 years later, after the Blitz, it again colonised so rapidly that many Londoners referred to it as Bombweed. Its Canadian variant (Chamaenerion augustifolia) is said to have found its way to Britain in World War Two, blowing out of the kitbags of soldiers, travelling along train lines, into railway sidings and thence to the wider landscape beyond. The rhizomes of Willow Herb are relatively easy to control in the garden border. But when each plant can generate up to 80,000 seeds, it is consummately proficient at wind-borne spread.

The yellow Ragwort is another late summer self-seeding weed that troubles gardeners. A couple of feet tall or more and with a daisy shaped flower, the Ragwort has been the object of high profile condemnation from several quarters. It is surrounded with harsh opinion, prejudice, myth, even malice. Ragwort is invading the countryside, it is poisonous to cattle and horses, and dangerous if it finds its way into hay. The Prince of Wales has joined the attack and former Conservative minister Lord Tebbit has even said that pulling up Ragwort by hand (the favoured method of control) should be done by ‘anti-social’ elements as a measure of paying back to society for their misdemeanours.

Yet when Willow Herb and Ragwort combine in drifts across a Lammas field, the effect is stunning. An impressionist painting alive and growing in front of us. Weeds in harmony, rich in colour and beautifying the landscape. The sight is a far cry from the useless and untamed, and as Friends of the Earth have shown, Ragwort is also a source of food for dozens of insects and pollinators and is the 7th most important source of nectar among British plants.

Weeds,  it would seem, constitute a moral category as well as a botanical classification. In our gardening we create enclaves of meaning that are distinct from the areas around them. These can often be marked by physical boundaries like hedges and fences. Inside the boundary, weeds must be banished. Outside they merge into the prevailing landscape and even when massing in force, can be extraordinarily beautiful.

Perhaps we are forming a new relationship with our garden weeds. A harmonious ‘third way’ between chemical obliteration and weedy colonisation seems to be emerging in the minds of some gardening writers. Its ethic is appealing. Is the interest in biodiversity loss a stimulus to weed tolerance and greater understanding? There seems to be a new revisionist literature emerging that encourages all of us to live with, rather than wage war on, our weeds. Even a non-systematic review throws up numerous recent titles devoted to these previously stigmatised plants, now depicted in a new and more virtuous light. Outstanding is Richard Mabey’s ground-breaking book on weeds, a story of outlaw, shape shifting plants, that is rich in botany, biography and metaphor. A true celebration of weeds in the world.

In the garden shed, my eye avoids the shelf where weed killer can be found. For yes, I too have gone down that unedifying road, if only I tell myself, in a selective and targeted manner.

Now it’s time to draw a line. Time to accommodate ourselves to the weeds around us, celebrate their diversity, and acknowledge the blurred sometimes invisible boundaries that exist between our weeds and our plants. The relationship between weeds and anthropogenic disturbance is a powerful message. Weeds can undoubtedly keep going in the wake of destruction. Perhaps they will do so even when we humans no longer inhabit this fragile planet?

(1) McLynn, F (1993) Robert Louis Stevenson London: Hutchison, p.403.


My thanks to Dr Devi Vijay, Pamela Grace, and Colin Crosbie for their various influences on this piece.

Published by David Graham Clark

I am a sociologist and writer. Pieces on this site include reflective writings, stories, and memoir on aspects of daily life, along with associated images and videos. In these various ways I try to illuminate what I call the quotidian world, particularly my own.

2 thoughts on “Weeds, humans and virtue

  1. Thank you again David for your excellent piece on weeds. Something I look forward to observing myself is the caterpillar of the Cinnabar moth which absolutely loves ragwort. The yellow and black striped fellows can be found in their hundreds devouring the flowers and the resultant moth is a charming red creature. Beauty and the beast, but which is which?! Andrew


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