Learning from Our Adversaries

by Ruth Pettis

This was going to be the summer when I finally moved all the crowded perennials, those impulse purchases from plant sales past that I’d stuck in whatever patches of dirt were available. This was going to be the season when I narrowed the walkway, brought in good soil, and opened up a new border bed. I was at last going to get started on my Master Plan. Some of these projects actually got started back in — when was it? — May?

But it was not to be. Various and sundry indoor commitments ganged up and imposed their own deadlines, so in the end the most I could do was to keep up with the weeds.

Maybe because the weeds got most of my outdoor attention this year, I find myself more mindful of their presence than usual. Take the bindweed, for example. (Please!) The insidious Convolvulus arvensis, which is now triumphantly poking up through the gravel path I’d carefully shoveled, sifted, and replaced over brand new weed barrier. Its roots dive much deeper into the ground than I ever intend to, so from the safety of its lair it can keep sending up replacements without breaking a sweat.

Then there’s the annual offensive against the blackberries, the omnipresent Rubus discolor — not that I want to be totally rid of it, mind you, especially not in late summer. But its shamelessly opportunistic incursions into the rest of the yard (not to mention my neighbors’ yards) have given it a very bad rep.

So the weeding, combined with the fact that, at 55, I am becoming intensely aware of the human body’s limitations (getting up off the ground is now a protracted exercise in logistics) have me wishing that medicinal botanists would open up a new field of inquiry:

What is it that keeps these garden thugs going?

I am convinced that deep within the bio-molecular, physio-genetic, neuro-chemical, iron-pumping, jack-hammering constitutions of these plants lies a formula for vitality and stamina that I wouldn’t mind taking a swig of now and then.

So, if there are any degree candidates in search of a thesis topic out there reading this, may I humbly suggest:

“A physiological investigation into instantaneous re-growth in Convolvulus arvensis.


“Augmentation of growth hormone generation in Rubus discolor in response to endeavors to eradicate it.”

Or how about looking into those eager colonizers of seemingly hostile habitats: Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), Common Plantain (Plantago major), High Mallow (Malva sylvestris), Shotweed (Cardamine hirsuta)? Or hormone production in “legitimate” shrubs people plant and then spend the rest of their lives cutting back: good ol’ English Laurel, Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii), Photinia, English Holly? The adaptive strategies of all those escaped mints and foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) loose in the wilderness? The biochemistry of the invincible Horsetails (Equisetum arvense), Climbing Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)?

There are many more. You can check the King County Noxious Weed roster at http://dnr.metrokc.gov/wlr/LANDS/Weeds/weedid.htm for more inspiration.

I tell you, there’s gold in thet thar’ noxious plant list. The elixir of life. Crack its code, and you might have a new wonder remedy, one that could abolish all manner of human frailties. Let’s call it: Vigorosity! (Pharmaceuticals beginning with V are doing very well on the Internet.)

I’m ready with the venture capital.

This article originally appeared in the newsletter of the:
Friends of the UW Medicinal Herb Garden
Summer 2002

Return to: Resume: Ruth M. Pettis