Press Releases

Hurrah for Weeds

By Shirley Barker Special to the Planet
Thursday June 11, 2009 - 07:12:00 PM

Recently, as I read for and against comments in the Daily Planet concerning the restoration of the meadow at Berkeley’s marina, I realized my feelings were mixed. There is no question that the fenced trails that cross the meadow already show protection for the jack rabbits and other wild creatures that have struggled to survive there for decades. Wet areas when restoration is finished will doubtless attract migrating birds and aquatic life. 

However, I too feel a lack of something important that has not yet been articulated by correspondents, and that is a lack of access to areas that are allowed just to be natural and free—free from the incessant compulsive desire to tamper with nature that so many of us feel. Walking in areas left wild and natural allows us to escape if only briefly from the busybody within. 

Wild plants in wild places are crucial for our health, physical and mental. Not only might they provide subsistence food and alternative medicines, but simply being in their midst can comfort and calm the lonely and depressed. We eliminate these wild places at our peril.  

Farms in Europe are obliged by law to set aside patches of natural growth to provide habitat for wildlife. It is a safe bet that these enhance the farmer’s life. They are part of the farm, as coppices or hedges, not fenced off. 

Recently on television I watched a brief segment describing a place in Europe where people live to great ages. Reasons given were low-level exercise relevant to daily life, plenty of rest, and a diet of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, including a variety of wild greens. 

My thoughts about this community started to become mixed up with my thoughts of the marina meadow and my awareness that my own garden is full of weeds. Since I too believe that green leafy vegetables are central to a healthy diet, and many weeds have green leaves, I thought that if my garden was so luxuriantly endowed with them, why, then, not eat them? I went out to scavenge. 

This is what I found: Horseradish leaves. Wild radish leaves. Fennel fronds. Mint. An old collard that had volunteered. By the time I’d taken a few young leaves from each, I had plenty for lunch. Chopped and simmered briefly, they were delicious. 

Perhaps I’ll give up trying to grow my own vegetables. It’s starting to feel compulsive—bureaucratic-municipal. I have to wire the vegetables, not as at the meadow to keep out humans, but quite the opposite, to keep out wildlife. Perhaps I’ll take down my fences and see what happens. I will become a gatherer in my own back yard. 

Not only green leafy weeds produce free food. Fruits once established, such as avocadoes, blackberries, plums, even apples, are essentially wild. Flowers too, for rose hips, make delicious jam and syrup, loaded with vitamin C. 

All this is hardly new. Famed gardener William Robinson who, as a fine exemplar of the genre, lived to 97, pioneered the concept and in the 19th century, wrote a book about it, The Wild Garden. (Gertrude Jekyll, octogenarian contemporary and fellow advocate of the carefree look, contributed to a magazine he published.) More recently in 1985 Violet Stevenson under the same title produced a book full of inspiring ideas and attractive photographs and drawings. Indeed, Stevenson in her introduction quotes Robinson: “a pretty plant in a free state is more attractive than any garden denizen”.  

I wonder whether someone toiling in a dank basement on an exercise bicycle ever dreams of a siesta in dappled grass under a pear tree, drowsing to the hum of bumble bees, brushed by nectar-sipping swallowtails. That’s the life, on the wild and weedy side.