There was a time, long forgotten, around the advent of agricultural civilizations some ten thousand years ago that humans began to look at plants differently. Before this, all was a wild garden with diverse flora and fauna all having a place. But with the invention of the crop, people began to discriminate between the different plants. A plant that did not serve human needs or interfered with the crops was deemed a “weed.” This marked a shift in the paradigm of paradise, and humans began severing themselves from Nature in a paramount way. The desire and attempt to keep the wild at bay have been passed down to further generations and predominate people’s thinking to this day.
The nature of a weed is opportunistic, and we as humans have created enormous holes of opportunity for these plants to fill. They have adapted to be at humans’ side, waiting for those favorable times to cover the exposed soils humans are continually creating. Weeds have evolved to withstand the punishments that humans unleash upon them, with ever-changing genetics of form, function, and transmutation.
Weeds are especially adapted to adapt.
For tens of thousands of years, people have transported and intentionally introduced plants all over the world for food, fiber, medicine, ornament, and scientific curiosity, and as this practice has continued up until present day, we humans have been complacent in, and have encouraged, the spread of plants. Nowadays, the common plants we see throughout our meadows, countryside, and city streets--like plantain, mullein, St. John’s wort, burdock, chicory, coltsfoot, fennel, and daylily--are but “alien” species and did not grow here until the first Europeans arrived. Both the Native American and Chinese names for common plantain translate as “white man’s footsteps,” referring to the fact that this plant followed along the colonizing trail of Europeans. One plantain species has sword-shaped leaves (lanceolata) with wound-healing abilities. Instead of complaining about this plant, the indigenous herbalists made good use of it as medicine--for it was in need. I do not know if the first arrivals would have been considered invasive some five hundred years ago, but they sure were foreign, just like the knotweeds and loosestrifes of today. Over time though, we have seen these plants find an ecological niche in dynamic equilibrium among the different species within the landscape.
With this, all plants serve ecological functions within their environment. Mullein, for example, will blanket the land where fire has brought down forests. It appears as though the plant is “invading” the land, but after a year or two, new plant species emerge and diversity expands. Mullein acts as an Earth “balm” that eases and blankets with its leaves the internal burns and helps regenerate new growth--which it also happens to do for the human lungs.
Forests are the lungs of the Earth, you know.
While all colonizing plants offer medicine and some provide food for our planet’s inhabitants, some also protect the land after improper clearing and use, some renew degraded soils, some cleanse the waters, and some breakdown and clean up toxins and pollutants in the soil.
The plants are here for a reason.
They are here to serve essential ecological functions.
They are here for us to use as medicine.
But there are the rampant, freaky ones from faraway lands, those with the loud, annoying voices screaming throughout the world.
They stand up and say “Here I Am” with an arrogant smirk and go about spreading The Good Word cheerfully. People can put up with it for only so long. If the voices do not dampen their volume, human condition resorts to force to make them stop.
But what if these voices were actually saying something important?
Do we stop to listen? Do we know why this strange one has come bearing exotic fruits?
So many times, the messenger has been killed.
In our modern world, it’s as if all of us (humans, plants, animals, microbes, and so forth) are meandering around looking for a place to settle down. We all have taken root where conditions are right and have become a new expression, like never before. This time on the good planet Earth is a birth of something new, a global mosaic of intermingling forms and colors, changing landscapes, and a group of plants erasing the mark of the Industrial Age.
Whether we like it or not.
By the dawn of the twentieth century, laws began to be passed by U.S. Congress to control plants that impeded the progress of the Great Agricultural Machine. The regulations started with the Lacey Act of 1900, followed by the Plant Pest Act, Plant Quarantine Act, and the Federal Noxious Weed Act of 1974, in which officials targeted plants that “can directly or indirectly injure crops, other useful plants, livestock, poultry, or other interests of agriculture, including irrigation, navigation, fish and wildlife resources, or the public health.” Farmers were the primary promoters of these first bills to protect crops and livestock from the wilds of Nature. It was not until the Executive Order 13112 signed in 1999 by President Clinton that billion-dollar funds were allocated to promote widespread appeal and greater influence to “rapidly respond” against “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” This has led to a halt on importing virtually any exotic plant that hasn’t been cleared as a threat, even though scientists find it impossible to determine who the threats might be in the first place. No one knows the exact number of exotic species of plants in the United States, with a wide range from 30,000 to 50,000, with maybe 5,000 to 7,000 becoming naturalized. With a total of 150,000 species living among one another in this country, less than one-half percent of them fit into this category we put so much energy and money into combating.