Adventures in Ethics and Science

An open letter.

Dear Natural Selection,

Can we have a chat about weeds?

Don’t get me wrong, I am duly impressed with the variety of plants that have evolved under your pressure. I’m all about the plants, and I try to be respectful of the growing conditions you impose in our zone.

But would it kill you to make more of the plants that grow like gangbusters without us tasty? Why can’t they all be like mint and lemon balm?

Sure, yeah, if the weeds were tasty, it would be hard for them to defend themselves against being eaten. But I promise we’re not drinking mojitos every night at Casa Free-Ride. And if the non-tasty weeds keep providing safe haven for the snails chomping on our lime tree, our mojito-drinking capacity will never keep pace with our mint patch.

The snails, by the way, don’t care for the weeds as food either. Instead, they use the weeds as shelter from which to mount raids on our domesticated plants. Yes, natural selection, the plants that adapted to your pressures are beating the plants we developed using artificial selection. You are way more awesome than we are.

But why gloat? Why rub our noses in it? If you’ve given a weed thorns, do you also need to coat it in a resin that makes me break out in hives?

Be the bigger force of nature, why don’t you?


Dr. Free-Ride


  1. #1 Ian
    May 17, 2009

    Umm, yeah. You do realise that all the tasty food plants are weeds, right? That the reason they were so amenable to our needs for annual crops that put almost all of their energy into reproduction was because they were weeds? And for that matter, the taste of lemon balm and mint probably are defensive compounds?

    Oh, and by the way – loved the post. 🙂

  2. #2 Larry Ayers
    May 17, 2009

    Watch out for that lemon balm, Janet! Perhaps the species is better-behaved out on the West Coast, but here in the Midwest it spreads virulently, like many Eurasian Mint Family species do.

    I prefer the native mints in the genus Pycnanthemum. They are pleasantly aromatic, they are useful for tea, and don’t spread as the aliens tend to.

  3. #3 samantha
    May 17, 2009

    You must not have the green onion + garlic chives issues that I do. Don’t get me wrong, I like those foods. But when they invade the entire backyard, crowd out everything else, and it seems like there’s 30 new plants a day, yep, they’re just like other weeds.

  4. #4 Bob
    May 17, 2009

    Very many garden weeds are perfectly edible AND tasty, at least in temperate climates. Especially during the period from March to June. When regularly cut, and growing in the shade, even longer. Think of nettles (uritica), garlic mustard (alliaria), french spinach (Atriplex hortensis) and dandelion leaves (Taraxacum officinale). Very tasty when cut and added to stew, rice or mashed potatoes, only just before turning off the heat.
    When going to a different climate or continent for a few months, for a field assignment or so, it pays to learn something about edible and dangerous plants. Try to make friends with a local farmer, herbalist or witch doctor. Apart from getting a very detailed record of what happened in the landscape and history (my graduate mangrove research in Surinam did benefit a lot from knowing the past 40 year history of coastal changes and land use), I learned many wild edible plants and fruits, some fishing techniques, and of course a lot of the local culture, including superstition, but also for example, we had interesting discussions, like about what the Obama presidency would mean!. They were very happy to see Google Earth printouts of their area (which I used as field maps).

  5. #5 Natural Selection
    May 17, 2009

    Dr. Freeride,

    Thank you for your letter re: weeds. Unfortunately, the subjects do not fall under my jurisdiction, so I have taken the liberty to pass it on to the Intelligent Designer, with whom you should take up any further communications, using one of His many outlets in your region (open Sundays, times may vary).

    I sincerely thank you for your interest in our work. Do not hesitate to contact me in the future if you have any further questions.


    Natural Selection, or the Preserver of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

  6. #6 Natural Selection
    May 17, 2009

    Dear Dr Free-Ride,

    Thank you for your very kind letter. All of us (Physics, Chemistry, …) are pleased you admire the billions and billions of years of careful planning and experimentation which has result in all those plants. And bugs. And birds. And slugs. And bugs. And even more bugs. (I happen to like bugs, Ok? I can do without cats, but then Genetics gets real snitty and the strawberry crop fails, so… cats. Win some, loose some.)

    However, your literal suggestion for everything to be either mint or lemon balm is unsustainable. As a scientist you should realize that. And why no strawberrys? What do you have against strawberrys?

    Of course, you were writing metaphorically. You want to be able to eat all the plants. Well, you can. Some won’t taste good, true, and some will kill you, but nothing’s actually stopping you from eating them. Except, of course, if the plants, you, or both were previously eaten by the slugs and snails.

    I’m disappointed you don’t drink mojitos every night. You don’t sound like any fun at all… though I did get a laugh at your attempt to teach a snail to fly. That was so funny I think I’ll name my next bug after you. How does Periplaneta freeride sound?

    I’m not gloating. The hives are a hint. Loosen up; don’t be so upset at the plants trying to eat you. I mean, you want to eat them. It’s all life. Now, please, go have a mojito on me. Two, even.

    Evolvingly yours,

    Natural Selection

    p.s. Thanks for not mentioning the platypus. I mean, I was trying for a four-legged submersible duck, but I think I had too many mojitos that day. Bugs are more fun to do anyways.

  7. #7 Ahcuah
    May 17, 2009

    Along those same lines . . .

    You know, we’ve had Dutch Elm Disease, Chestnut Blight, Emerald Ash Borer, the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, zebra mussel infestations, etc., etc., etc..

    Why they heck couldn’t we get a Poison Ivy Blight? Now that’s something I could get behind (and I’m pretty sure the ecological niche would be adequately filled by Virginia Creeper).

  8. #8 Jim Thomerson
    May 17, 2009

    Poke Salid anyone? I see you are using the I-did-not-plant-it-therefore-it-is-a-weed definition.

  9. #9 Janet D. Stemwedel
    May 17, 2009

    There are a number of plants I didn’t plant in the back yard. These include roses and cala lilies (which are not weeds), mint and lemon balm (which certainly act like weeds from the point of view of their spread and their ability to withstand challenging conditions), and violets (which seem to fall somewhere in between).

    If I had planted the mint? I’d still probably consider it a weed (although a welcome one). I did plant some lemon thyme as ground cover, and it’s trying hard to be weedy.

    My objection is primarily to the non-tasty, fast-growing, spiky, hive-inducing plants, no matter how they got there. If all weeds were as well behaved as mint and lemon balm, I wouldn’t be writing letters complaining to Natural Selection!

  10. #10 Kim Hannula
    May 17, 2009

    I like dandelions. Edible, pretty flowers, fun for small children, no thorns, grow easily. I don’t understand why I’m supposed to dig them up.

  11. #11 Rugosa
    May 17, 2009

    Kim – you dig the dandelions up to increase their numbers. Since it’s practically impossible to remove every last bit of root, new plants are bound to sprout from the escapees. Like you, I’m fond of dandelions. Mark Bittman has a terrific recipe for dandelion greens and potatoes, and I stew the greens with mild onion, sweet red pepper, stock, and white wine for an awesome stew to go with pasta.

  12. #12 Laelaps
    May 17, 2009

    As my ecology professors have so often reminded me, a weed is just a plant that is growing where you don’t want it to.

  13. #13 mrcreosote
    May 17, 2009

    a weed is just a normal plant in the wrong place.

  14. #14 DrA
    May 17, 2009

    Dear Disturber of nature,

    Weeds are plants adapted to disturbance. Weeds hardly stood a chance until humans became a force of nature and began systematically disturbing communities for our own purposes. Agriculture is one big ecological disturbance and I won’t comment again on the ecology of lawns. Weeds abound because human activities have given them so many opportunities. So put the blame where it belongs.

  15. #15 Monado
    May 17, 2009

    Before dandelions bloom, you can pick the leaves and use them in salad. They are bitter, like endive, only more so. So you can add just a few to a regular salad. Or you can use all dandelion, I recommend a very strong dressing, such as salt and a dressing that’s mostly vinegar or balsamic vinegar.

    If you make mashed potatoes you can throw in a couple of handfuls of cleaned dandelion leaves for a very nice “bubble & squeak.” Using cabbage pales by comparison.

    After the dandelions bloom the leaves are tougher and more bitter.

  16. #16 Guy
    May 19, 2009

    Re: plants I planted but think of as weeds — one word: horseradish
    Something about an incident with a rototiller …

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