The one principle on which all social segments, on both sides of the Atlantic, agree is that they are not complicit in the presence or survival of these invading organisms. Weeds are “the others”, literal or metaphorical aliens. We have no wish to know about why they seem to dog human activities so remorselessly: we just want to find ways of getting rid of the bloody things. They’re regarded as inexplicable and impertinent intruders, whose presence is quite unconnected with the way we live our lives. Ironically it’s only those fundamentalist Christians—who still regard them as the thorns and thistles with which God punished humanity’s bad behaviour in Eden—who get it right. Weeds are our fault. It’s the trashing of our metaphorical Eden over the past 10,000 years that has given them the opportunity to move out of the wild and into what we regard as our personal space.
Although any kind of plant can become a weed just by gate-crashing, the majority are species which evolved to cope with the naturally disturbed areas of the earth: on volcanic scree, along tidelines, in gale-wrecked forests. As soon as we began our human project of opening up the earth, be it with a fork, a jcb or a napalm bomb, we created replicas of these turbulent zones, which their floral natives smartly took advantage of. Nettles (native in river flood-plains) move into the similarly rich and shifty soils of human dumps and fertilised fields. Bindweed scrambles up fences as effort-lessly as if they were willow scrub in the wild. Mexican fleabane, introduced to Britain as a rockery plant from the dry hills of Central America, has escaped to become naturalised on walls, from the elegant perimeter of Merton College, Oxford, to rough drystone in the moors. Weeds are our most successful cultivated plants.
Pictured: no place like home
Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), a native of the hotter, dryer parts of Central America, clings to a stone wall in Kirkstone Pass, one of the colder, wetter parts of the Lake District