July 05, 2002

A Weed By Any

A Weed By Any Other Name

I am back in from the garden again this morning, with dirt under my nails from pulling weeds. They come up easily from the soft damp earth that benefitted so greatly from yesterdays thunderstorm, even if it was more of a sound than a soaking. The intentional plantings inside the fence are holding their own, but the weeds are growing like, well, weeds. I have already threatened on these pages to start eating the purslane, and I am wondering now if we might not just have enough of it to CAN soon!

We've done a fair job of weeding before the invaders set seed to inflict even more aggravation in the gardening season to come. Even so, with the rain, the weeds abound. Today for the first time, I am seeing a plant whose name I learned from a elderly farmer back in Wytheville years ago. "Now that'n there is Gallant Soldiers", he told me, between spits of RedMan, as we surveyed my hopeful garden. "Hit'll take off and spread seeds all over, so ya wanna get than'n out o'your garden quick like".

Gallant Soldiers? Hmmmm. Generally one can see a trait in the plant that leads to the common name (which may be different from one holler and one county to the next). Consider Black-eyed Susan has the black center, like an eye; Touch-me-not that has the exploding seed pod; Poison Ivy Lord'll make you itch; and one that I have dubbed "Mountain Toilet Paper" which is self-describing. But Gallant Soldiers?

We can thank Mr. Linneaus for saving us from speaking in plant-babel when referring to world vegetation, since the latin species designation is hard and fast, always linked to a certain set of plant features. Helianthus rudbeckia always refers to the same plant, all around the world. Even common names are rather firmly established, except in the rural hinterlands far from the towers of botanical academe. Common names can come from necessity, since when you live around garden and pasture plants, it helps to have a name to call it by, don't you see. Some colloquial names are quite creative, if confusing, and I have heard several good'uns since living the rural life.

I had a patient once who worked for the Park Service. He was lamenting how much time the roadside crew had to spend clearing 'them spindly trees' from the Blue Ridge Parkway right-of-way. I asked him what tree he was talking about. "We call 'em 'Lancers'" he told me. I prodded him for details about its leaf, bark, growth habit, and so on. I was stumped. He finally got around to saying that Lancers had a pithy center and that it 'smelt something awful'. AHA! He was talking about Tree of Heaven, an awful, invasive non-native plant, scientific name: Ailanthus. Lancers. Pretty close, and easier to say.

Another person I got into conversation with in downtown Floyd told me he was taking the afternoon off. He and his brother we going out in the woods near home and cut down some Bologny Wood to sell and make some money. Huh? "yea, they ship it over to Japan and pay right good money for it". Again, I thought I knew my trees fairly well; but this was a new one for me. I ran through the same series of questions about shape and size and habitat and so on. Finally, when he said that it had 'lots of purple flowers out on the ends', the light in my head blinked on. What he had told me about there being a market for it overseas was true, but most foresters know it as Paulonia. Okay. Bologny, whatever. He knew which trees to cut, and the woodlot man probably also called it Bologny. As long as they understand one another.

So, when I finally got around to keying out this new garden pest that my neighbor had identified for me, I found out that, here again, a little knowledge is dangerous. This plant is known among botanical types as Galinsoga. Granted, it's a scientific name adulteration but I like Gallant Soldiers...science touched by dirt, and that is what I have called this garden vagrant ever since.

But by any name, hit's a weed and I'm gonna get it outta my garden, quick like.

Posted by fred1st at July 5, 2002 07:57 AM

Loved the essay. what would be the harm in using paulonia trees to revegetate large areas after the Arizona fires? shouldnt we be using native trees?

Posted by: wendy walcott at February 28, 2004 10:08 PM

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