Lives of Weeds by John Cardina

Lives of Weeds
Opportunism, Resistance, Folly
By John Cardina
Cornell University Press
ISBN13: 9781501758980
ISBN10: 1501758985
Publication date: 09/15/2021
Pages: 296

What characteristics distinguish a crop from a weed? How do you define “weediness”? Nobody gives a second thought before yanking out dandelions and thistles from their gardens or crop fields. Weeds are a nuisance. Their decimation runs well-oiled machinery of pesticide and herbicide conglomerates and DNA manipulation companies. John Cardina, professor in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science at Ohio State University, attempts to break these myths and provides answers to some of the questions posed earlier. Cardina brings years of research in weed biology and melds it with his love for nature and succinct humor.

The book is organized into eight kinds of individual weed species (or belonging to a similar group). Cardina shows the various paths these plants have taken to become robust ecological successes. The dandelion (Taraxacum sp.) plant was once used by the Ancient Chinese in herbal tonics and food by Romans. The plant crossed oceans through early European settlers into North America. These settlers planted dandelions for food and medicine. The age of colonization and the westward expansionist movement gave dandelion the evolutionary playground it needed. Meanwhile, the colonizers adopted the concept of well-tended “lawns” from the aristocratic English gentry as the symbol of wealth, prosperity, and moral superiority. Soon the Industrial Age gave way to lawnmowers and tractors that crystallized the dandelion’s “weediness”. The dandelion’s expansion became a problem and led to the massive use of herbicides. 2,4-D, the most well-known pesticide around the world changed weed eradication after World War II. The relentless application of herbicides coincided with the drastic change in social diaspora in the American suburbs. In Cardina’s words,

“Get rid of the offensive Dandelion and stifle the outrageous public florid display transpiring right outside your door. Oversized cars shining in the driveway, phallic-sculpted bushes, and taut teenage bodies sunning themselves in the backyard are okay because they are displays of wealth and leisure. They exalt what the suburban dream is all about. Only poor folk or sinners let dandelions bloom.”

The humble peanut butter makes an appearance in the book with its complicated history. It is quite a treat to find a common product that appears on supermarket shelves to have deep connections to our history with the land. A form of peanut butter was known to the Aztecs and the Incas. Peanuts caught the interest of our woodland foragers about four thousand years ago. The nuts traveled across South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Not just peanuts but the weed beggarweed latched onto clothes and cargo of the European sailors as a result of the Columbian exchange and reached the African coastlines. After arriving in America, peanuts were associated with African heritage as enslaved agriculturalists cultivated peanuts for consumption. Meanwhile, the beggarweed which also arrived via colonial voyages across oceans rooted and emerged as a primary forage crop across the Southern plantation estates. This is one of the many examples which feature a crop and a weed having deep roots in human bondage.

Weeds like dandelions and beggarweed have evolved in response to sophisticated biotechnology, chemical applications, and profit-driven industry and continue to do so even today. Cardina introduces the term agrestal practices for this phenomenon. It means weedy plants best adapted to agricultural environments survive to produce more, stronger offspring. But this selection is not natural or artificial selection but an evolutionary response to human agricultural settings. Organic practices like cover crops are being implemented to counter the harmful effects of herbicides but they aren’t nearly enough to create a dent in the chemically-driven revolution. In the end, Cardina’s book provokes the reader to think twice before taking out the lawn mower or weeding wildflowers from the gardens.

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