Embracing Invasive Plants in a Modern World

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Excerpted from Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives, by Timothy Lee Scott, with permission from Inner Traditions Bear & Company (c) 2010. The following excerpt can be found on Pages 1 to 6.

There was a time, now 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, and each of these living beings had a place. But with the invention of the crop, people began to discriminate between the different plants and chose to keep some and remove others. A plant that did not serve human needs or that 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 was passed down through the generations, and such thinking is pre-dominant 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 our side, waiting for those favorable times to cover the exposed soils that we continually create. With ever-changing genetics of form, function, and transmutation, weeds have evolved to withstand the punishments that humans unleash upon them.

Kudzu growing in the wild.
Photo by Jon Person/Courtesy Flickr


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, ornamentation, and scientific curiosity, and because this practice has continued to the present day, we humans have been complicit in and have encouraged the spread of plants. Nowadays, the common plants we see throughout our meadows, countryside, and city streets–such as plantain, mullein, St. John’s-wort, burdock, chicory, coltsfoot, fennel, and daylily–are alien species that did not grow here until the first Europeans arrived. Both a Native American and Chinese name 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, but instead of complaining about this plant, the indigenous herbalists made good use of it as medicine–for it was needed. I do not know if the first such plant arrivals would have been considered invasive some five hundred years ago, but they certainly were foreign, just like the knotweeds and loosestrifes of today. Over time, though, these plants have found an ecological niche in a dynamic equilibrium among the different species within the landscape.

Within their niche, all plants serve ecological functions for their environment. Mullein, for example, blankets the land where fire has cleared forests. In this, 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 a kind of earth balm that eases and covers with its leaves the internal burns and helps regenerate new growth–which it also happens to do for human lungs.

Forests are the lungs of the earth, you know.

Therefore, all colonizing plants offer medicine; some provide food for human, animal, and other inhabitants, some protect the land after improper clearing and use, some renew degraded soils, some cleanse the waters, and some break down and clean up toxins and pollutants in the soil and air. These plants are here for a reason. They are here to serve essential ecological functions and they are here for us to use as medicine.

But there are the rampant, freaky plants from faraway lands,
those with loud, annoying voices that scream throughout the world.
They stand up and say, “Here I am,” with an arrogant smirk,
and they go about spreading the Good Word cheerfully.
People can put up with the voices for only so long.
If they do not dampen their own volume,
human conditioning resorts to force to make them stop.
But what if these voices actually say 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.

I consider the land I live on a sanctuary for the plants that live here too. I have established and protected woodland gardens of endangered native species such as ginseng, goldenseal, blue cohosh, bloodroot, and pink lady’s-slipper and have for a number of years been a member of United Plant Savers, which is an organization dedicated to protecting North American medicinal plants in danger of extinction. I have the honor of working with the plant world every day. I run an established herbal apothecary and practice as an herbalist, wild-crafting many of my own medicines, gardening, and even wrestling with invasive species on my own land. I feel a deep love for my surrounding landscape, and I am committed to keeping it beautiful.

The spark for this book was ignited many years ago, when my wife first imparted to me the idea that there is no such thing as a weed. From then on, I’ve tried to follow the assertion of Ralph Waldo Emerson: a weed is “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” I first wrote an article to vent some of my frustrations about this one-sided paradigm. I gnawed and tugged on the article for almost a year, having never before experienced the passion of writing it imparted to me. I began talking about it, and I shared with others what I succumbed to as a finished article. The feedback was encouraging; many wanted to read more. I thought, “Huh . . . this could be a book.”

So I sought out others who have done this before. I could find only bits and pieces of my ideas in others’ writings–no comparable books focused on the medicinal and ecological benefits of these persistent plants. I arranged a deal with myself: I would send out some book proposals to publishers, and if anyone wanted me to write the book, then I would have to write it. The universe responded with a few nibbles and then a big bite. I had to keep to my word to write this book, and I have set out with high hopes and deep convictions.

I am here in defense of these plants, and I am set to demonstrate that the population of invasives is wrongly convicted. I lay out the evidence that these plants serve essential ecological functions and actually benefit the environment, with prospects to strengthen local economies and with their ways of stimulating our health and healing disease.

I have been fortunate to be exposed to the work of quite a few dedicated people defending pandemic plants. They all provide a piece of the puzzle and have varying takes on invasives, setting the foundation for this work. I am comforted by the wild and raucous people who defend invasives: the ecologists, herbalists, journalists, farmers and gardeners who take a stand by questioning the science, politics, psychology and ecology of invasive plants. The herbal medicine world has the greatest camaraderie with these widespread plants, with the strong healing remedies they provide, and some individuals are pressing buttons in the permaculture discussions by offering alternative perspectives of exotic species, where native plants are considered of prime importance. We, who speak of these plants without malice, are like weeds and outcasts in a way, living on the outskirts of civilized thought and expressing a multitude of voices that represent the wild fluctuations of Nature. Yet no one has put all of these pieces together to create a deep, multifaceted, ecological view of invasive plants. This book is my best attempt at doing so.

All the technical information was stolen from reliable sources and I am happy to stand behind it.–EDWARD ABBEY

Noxious weeds. What made so many of us hate these plants so much? Sure, I can understand their annoyance. I myself have done battle against blackberry and poison ivy. Yet when did this aversion to nature taking its due course cut so deep into our collective psyche? Who has propagated the idea of the noxious weed and created this war? And why? I wish to know.

In our modern world, it seems as if all of us (humans, plants, animals, microbes, etc.) are meandering around, looking for a place to settle down–some move here, others there, and a few are unaccommodating to those that are nearby. We all have taken root where conditions are right and have become a new expression of growth, unique in our circumstances of life, with never before the means to attain these potentials. This present time on the good planet Earth marks the birth of something new: a global mosaic of intermingling forms and colors with changes to the landscape, and a group of plants erasing the scars of the Industrial Age.

Whether we like them here or not.

It spread beyond England very speedily. Soon in America, all over the continent of Europe, in Japan, in Australia, at last all over the world, the thing was working towards its appointed end. It was bigness insurgent. In spite of prejudice, in spite of law and regulation, in spite of all that obstinate conservatism that lies at the base of the formal order of mankind, the Food of the Gods, once it had been set going, pursued its subtle and invincible progress.–H. G. WELLS, THE FOOD OF THE GODS

Buy Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives.

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