The Virtuous Weed is a new feature on The Metropolitan Field Guide inspired by The Weeds in My Street on the Cryptoforestry blog. The definition of weed is a highly complicated and controversial affair as Richard Mabey discusses in his fascinating book, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants. Are they simply plants in the wrong place or defined as such for another reason; because they’re invasive, or toxic or disturbing agriculture, or because we disapprove of their behavior? Weeds often spark many debates on forums and blogs among various groups. What is behind all of this? I intend to get down to the basics of each plant I feature, where it came from, how it grows, why it’s disliked and what benefits it may offer. The Virtuous Weed borrows its name from a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, only one sentence of which is well known, but an interesting quote overall from Fortune of the republic:
Our modern wealth stands on a few staples, and the interest nations took in our war was exasperated by the importance of the cotton trade. And what is cotton ? One plant out of some two hundred thousand known to the botanist, vastly the larger part of which are reckoned weeds. And what is a weed ? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered, every one of the two hundred thousand probably yet to be of utility in the arts. As Bacchus of the vine, Ceres of the wheat, as Arkwright and Whitney were the demi-gods of cotton so prolific time will yet bring an inventor to every plant. There is not a property in nature but a mind is born to seek and find it. For it is not the plants or the animals, innumerable as they are, nor the whole magazine of material nature that can give the sum of power, but the infinite applicability of these things in the hands of thinking man every new application being equivalent to a new material.
A common weed throughout North America, native to Eurasia, Common Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) is very successful due to it’s prolific seeds, as many as 25,000 produced by a single plant. However, despite being an annual, once it goes to seed that’s not necessarily the end of this plant for the year, it can go through three generations in a single year. Just to be on the safe side, it has one further trick up it’s shoots; even if it’s cut down, the flowers will still mature and germinate seeds. All this is important because the seeds are relatively short lived, only being viable for about a year.