To Weed or ...Not to Weed?

THE crackle and bite is almost gone from the Northeast air; winter is slipping away like a robe thrown over Aunt Erma's knees in front of a fireplace down to a mere glow.

Snow? Not much this year.

Cold? Too much, too sharp, too often.

Skiing? Man-made snow all the way.

The next act in the yearly drama is the glee and warmth of spring. Throw off the coats and scarfs, and look feetward. Forget the flowers thumbing up through the mulch to the sun. The weeds are what we are after here: old Stellaria media, better known as chickweed; or Digitaria sanguinalis, unbeloved as crab grass; or Taraxaum officinale, the great Punchinello of weeds known as the dandelion.

There's no objection from me if someone wants to define a weed as a plant for which a use has yet to be found. Ralph Waldo Emerson felt the same way.

A few years ago, there was a man in Germany who started a weed museum to save the weeds that were being destroyed by the lust for weed-free lawns and gardens. He referred to the perfection of English lawns as "plastic" and dismissed them as ecological disasters. German gardens, he suggested, should have a weedy, unkempt authority and presence.

He said a beautiful lawn serviced by sprays and pesticides didn't have much to offer the birds, or little insects, or small mammals, all of whom are part of nature's balance. Presumably, they miss the weeds too.

His objective in establishing the weed museum was to stop excluding that which the planet originally included until man came along and revered the idea of perfect lawns. The last word out of Germany is that the museum is - what else? - overgrown with weeds.

The arguments against weeds are that they rob a disproportionate amount of the water and nutrients in soil from the nice plants. They rob the sunlight too.

Some weeds are as fecund as anything in nature. According to Sandoz, an international company that manufactures plant-protection products, one plant of mullein can produce 223,200 seeds, and the despised redroot pigweed can spew out 117,400 seeds.

Despised, of course, is in the eye of the weeder. For instance, the pigweed, when combined with sauteed mushrooms and cheddar cheese, topped with sour cream, horseradish, and mustard sauce, makes a memorable casserole I've been told, although I haven't the slightest idea if that includes one seed or all 117,400.

Weeds have some wonderful aliases, poetic stabs I suppose at making them respectable because their better-known names are like the "most wanted" posters common in United States Post Offices.

The chickweed is also known as satinflower or the starweed. Who could hate a satinflower?

The dandelion has been called blow ball, Irish daisy, lion's tooth, monk's head, and peasant's cloak.

Ground ivy is also known as creeping Charlie, gill-go-by-the-hedge, Lizzy-run-up-the-hedge, and Robin-run-in-the-hedge. This reminds me of a description I once read of a well-known writer: "She looks like she has been pulled through a hedge backwards."

One node of quackgrass, the weed with root tips as hard as ivory, can produce 14 underground stems that can travel a total of 458 feet. A quackgrass stem can slice through a potato in tuber form the way Arnold Schwarzenegger slices through a plate-glass window. Quackgrass is also known as devilsgrass, skutchgrass, twitchgrass, and wheatgrass.

Plantain, the weed the Indians called the plant that followed the white man's footsteps across the plains, is also known as rib-grass, ribwort, ripple-grass, bristly buckhorn, rat-tail plantain, and others.

Weed researchers may have the last laugh, or would it be the last drop? A few years back scientists for the state of Illinois said there were 34 kinds of weeds and wild plants that could be a source for the hydrocarbons needed to manufacture rubber and plastics now made with petrochemicals.

Now, if entomologists can harness the energy of cockroaches....

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