African Garden + [wildflower]

A Weed By Any Other Name: Reviewing Michael Pollan's "Second Nature"

I'm so glad Carol at May Dreams Gardens chose "Second Nature: A Gardener's Education" for the February/March Garden Bloggers' Book Club selection. This book made me laugh and made me think. This is not a gardening "how-to" book, but rather is a discourse on the political, historical and social aspects of gardens. Because it is so packed with interesting points, I am limiting this post to a single chapter, "Weeds Are Us."
In this chapter on weeds, Pollan describes an annual flower bed he created while under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson's philosophy of a weed as simply a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered. I almost snorted my coffee as I read how Pollan allowed a "delicate vine" with morning glory flowers to take hold in the bed. The poor misguided fool; anyone who has ever battled Bindweed could never describe it as "delicate." Bindweed is the only non-woody weed on which I will use Glyphosate. That's how "delicate" it is. As Pollan subsequently learned, Bindweed cannot simply be dug up once it has gained a foothold. No, the spreading, deep, yet thin roots will sprout new plants at each break in the root. He aptly describes it as a "hydra-headed monster." A gardener's education indeed.
After examining the nature of his weeds, how they are more resilient and versatile than other plants, he concludes that a weed is not so much a plant in the wrong place, but is instead more in the nature of a horticultural cockroach. In his opinion, weeds are plants that need human intervention in the landscape, that, without humans messing about, weeds could not survive in the wild. Then there are the "gray area" plants that can be called "wildflower" or "weed," which may be included in a garden at the gardener's whim. While I agree with this in theory, I find it difficult to understand how Pollan could choose not to eradicate the Purple Loostrife (Lythrum salicaria) that he had planted in his perennial bed, despite learning that it has been outlawed as a noxious weed in many States. Merely because a plant may appear to behave itself within the garden does not mean that it will not act like a weed without, where its myriad seedlings crowd out native plants and destroy ecosystems. However, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. The edition of "Second Nature" that I read was published in 1991. I'm hoping he has reconsidered keeping Lythrum in his garden.