Image credit: Hermann Kaser, used under Creative Commons license.
The other day I took an unidentified, overly vigorous plant sample from my yard to my local garden center to figure out what it was. The staff looked at the leaves, checked out some online references, and made their best guesses as to the identity of this "invader". "It's so hard to tell the difference between a wildflower and a weed", they opined. They couldn't have been more right. Because to all intents and purposes, they are one and the same thing.
It turns out that conservationists, permaculturists and sustainability enthusiasts have been debating this very issue in Australia—looking at whether the "War on Weeds" has led us down the wrong path. A Combative Approach to Weeds
From discussion on "eliminating" weeds without chemicals to rejoicing as weeds struggle with climate change, TreeHugger has seen a fair few examples of humankind's combative approach to tackling weeds. But the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia has a fascinating article entitled Contentious Perspectives on Weeds that suggests we may want to revisit how we look at, tackle, and even talk about the plants we designate as "weeds".
Emotive Language Prevents Objective Analysis
Inspired by a recent panel discussion on the proper role of weeds and weed control in the search for sustainability, Adam Grubb recounts a discussion that goes to the very heart of what true sustainability is all about. First up—quoting researcher and weed expert John Dwyer—he suggests we need to reflect on language and terminology if we are to get any kind of objectivity on the issue:
Dwyer suggested that emotive language reflects and compounds fear and anxiety towards weeds. While he acknowledged many actual cases where this is justified especially in agriculture, he said the language makes it difficult to see scientific, unbiased views on the ecological roles and impacts of exotic species. Terms like 'noxious', 'feral', 'alien', and 'invader' are examples. Facilitator Brendan Roughead in part-jest asked how our perspective might change if we referred to exotic weeds as "new Australians."
Defining What Victory Looks Like
Grubb goes on to recount testimony and arguments from Dr Paul Downey from the University of Canberra who argues that if we do indeed have a "war on weeds", we need to define what our desired outcomes look like. While "elimination" of a particular species is usually seen as the focus, the real goal should be a tangible positive benefit beyond killing for the sake of killing.
Weeds As Useful Pioneer Species?
Next up comes an argument from David Holmgren—co-founder of the permaculture concept who Paula interviewed here—and who has already been both controversial and outspoken in his defense of using designated "weeds" in the quest for sustainable landscapes. His argument is that weeds are adapted to human disturbance, usually appear once an ecosystem is already disrupted by outside influence, and largely play the role of pioneer species that stabilize soils, halts degradation, and open up opportunities for other less vigorous native species to follow in their wake. It's time, argues Homgren, for a more conciliatory approach to biology.
Diverse Perspectives Reflect Conflicting Priorities
From beekeepers talking about the central role weeds play for bee foraging; to artists working to highlight the value of weeds; to conservationists that have to deal with weeds' impact on managed wildlife areas, the panel discussion clearly invited an astoundingly broad range of thoughts on what to do with weeds, and the very nature of what a weed is in the first place.
Perhaps most significant is Grubb's observation that how we view weeds depends very much on our broader objectives when it comes to land management. From the conservation approach, for example, which views human influence—including the introduction of "invasive species" as something to be minimized and avoided wherever possible—to the more collaborative permaculture approach that accepts weeds are "invading" even as we sleep, and we are better off understanding their functions and learning to work with them, there's almost certainly something to be learned from everyone.
But one thing is for sure, the more that we can look beyond simplistic terminology and/or emotive language, the more we can understand the plants around us for their real properties. This should be a prerequisite for figuring out what to do with them.