Every garden has its share of “foes” (read weeds) and aren’t they glad winter is over! If the pansy you planted seems a little diffident about flowering, it could learn a thing or two from the weeds.
But then, what is a weed? It is a plant that grows unwanted. Some of our weed lexicon is inherited from what we are told are weeds. I realized this during our frequent travels. You see a vibrant leaf and a bunch of bright berries and let out a gasp of wonder. Your guide looks dismissively at the plant and says, “Yeh jungli hai (this is wild).” And so, in the hills, the ‘Arisaema sikokianum’ or the cobra lily is ‘jungli’ even while nurserymen at lower altitudes dream of growing enough to sell.
Some plants are considered weeds simply because they lack the looks. Many others are called weeds because they grow too fast or are invasive. Easy come, easy go. And so, we yank the fast-growers out with virtually as much gusto, perhaps, as we would unseat a pest. Most weeds grow fast and are stubborn. They’re tough contenders for resources such as water, light and nutrients. Some have adventurous roots that would beat the inveterate traveller hollow. They’re so prolific that they often don’t allow roots of less aggressive plants to survive. Some weeds release toxins that change the ground chemistry and make it uncomfortable for other plants to survive. And some, like the datura, are so poisonous that they’re unwelcome in most gardens.
And yet, most gardeners admit, some invasive species can look most attractive. Think of the alocasia or ‘arbi’. Most gardeners I’ve met look horrified when they see an alocasia in a fancy planter. Tell them that you love the leaves, and you come down a notch or two in their assessment.
In flower-starved Delhi, I find it difficult to pass by a hedge of lantana without admiring the bright flower clusters. The thorny bush makes an efficient hedge, especially because most cattle give its poisonous leaves a go-by. The flowers aren’t particularly fragrant, but they have a distinctive aroma and they certainly are bright. This invasive species, also called the ‘banmara’ or forest killer, is the enemy of many a small or marginal farmer. So, you just don’t have the courage to bring it home.
One plant that is perhaps an undisputed weed is the dodder or cuscuta. It is that stringy sickly-yellow plant that hardly looks like one. It quickly drapes itself over a host plant like a messy ball of string that has come unravelled. It is a parasite that weakens the host. They say, cuscuta brings with it plant disease. It certainly doesn’t look attractive, nor does it allow the host to grow and thrive. Gardeners recommend that cuscuta be torn out and destroyed from the early stages of attack.
Lawn owners certainly dread quack grass and crabgrass, two persistent greens that can spread as fast, or faster, than you can dig them out. However, many plants that we consider weeds have medicinal properties. The broadleaved plantain or ‘Plantago cordata’, and others in the plantain family, such as the broadleaf plantain, are considered weeds because of their allergy-causing pollen grains. But the cordata, from which several medicines are made, is now an endangered plant.
The purslane has caused much ado among gardeners. Weed it or eat it? they ask. Well, it has one of the highest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants among plants.
The biggest surprise I suffered was when I was reading up on the oxalis we picked up at a recent gardening fair. The nurseryman sold it to us with glowing tributes. The plants, with their jade green leaves and perky yellow flowers, cheered up many a winter day this year. Imagine my surprise when I found out that it is considered a weed by many.