Comstock Publishing Associates

Weeds of Change

Return to Home

Nature responds to us, how we behave, understand the world, and practice our values. But the scale of global change is so great that one person’s daily choices seem insignificant. Communities are recovering from the latest hurricane made worse by atmospheric warming. But who can possibly see a connection between a trip to the grocery in the SUV and the next tropical storm? To get a more intimate sense of how nature responds to us, it helps to look at weeds.

Lives of Weeds explores connections between humans and the natural world. Weeds are part of everyone’s life. Even if you’ve never tangled with them in a farm, garden, lawn, or flower pot, weeds are present in hay-fever pollen and in the cost of food and hundreds of products. Choices about your food, health, and lifestyle are reflected in the weeds that persist in your neighborhood and infest local farms. We all live lives of weeds whether we know it or not. Looking at weeds, we can see our connection to natural processes, even things like evolutionary changes and adaptation to a warming climate.

To get a more intimate sense of how nature responds to us, it helps to look at weeds.

In my own backyard, just this morning, I spied a patch of weeds that got away. I thought I had them beat this time around. After all, I had cleared all the lambsquarters and ragweed in June. But when my enthusiasm slumped in summer heat and humidity, the late-season goosegrass and carpetweed found a happy home beneath the fading green.

Last week on a visit to center city Philadelphia I was greeted by a tangle of different weeds—marestail, pigweeds, foxtails, and crabgrass. What luck: I’d found a parking space. Beside the meter, a haggard tree surrounded by waist-high weeds. Down a few blocks of noisy gritty sidewalk, the pavement cracks sprouted with botanical diversity: barnyardgrass, nutsedge, purslane, smartweed, and bindweed. Farm weeds. In the middle of the city. How did this happen? What does it mean to find them here?

I explore such questions in Lives of Weeds as a way to link plant ecology with human ecology. The weeds tell a story. They tell of the history of the place, the people who make their home there—their health and happiness and the quality of their lives. Weeds and people are inseparable. So are their histories and their fates.

The weeds tell a story. They tell of the history of the place, the people who make their home there.

You plant a garden that reflects your taste in flowers, herbs, or vegetables. The weeds in your garden are the types that tolerate the practices you use to bring your favored flora to fruition. The weeds that celebrate life in my garden reflect my own hapless efforts to be rid of them. The patch I discovered in my garden today is a tribute to simple laziness.

Likewise, city streets host a diverse weedy plant community that represents the breadth of diversity in the surrounding human community. Cities are crucibles for the mixing of cultural and genetic materials and information, human and botanical. They reveal ongoing migration, settlement, redistribution, along with commerce and trade, and culture including culinary traditions and habits. So farm weeds far from the tractors and herbicides reflect incredible mobility of people and machines along with urban-rural linkages.

The patch I discovered in my garden today is a tribute to simple laziness.

Even the weeds along suburbia’s green lawns and edge-trimmed driveways tell a story. Stinkgrass, spotted spurge, path rush—survivors of the springtime herbicide sprays. They are flat creepers, too low for the blade, and generally homogeneous, monospecific, reflecting surrounding regularity.

Weeds respond to our manipulation of the environment as we react to them. Pull one weed and another—tougher one—replaces it. Scale up to the burning, plowing, and draining of vast areas of grassland to build farms or cities, or suburban allotments. Now spread that environmental manipulation around the world: industrial farms and confined animal feedlots with herbicide-resistant weeds outside of urban centers linked by petroleum. Call it development. Call it lifestyle choices. The weeds are still there—robust kudzu, phragmites, and giant knotweeds.  

*Featured photo: Farm weeds like green foxtail find a home by a downtown fire hydrant. Credit: John Cardina.

Lives of Weeds
Cover image of Lives of Weeds.
Read more about this book.

John Cardina is Professor in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science at Ohio State University.

Book Finder