Call of the Wild

My Weeds: A Gardener's Botany

by Sara B. Stein, illustrations by Ippy Patterson
Harper and Row, 229 pp., $19.95

There is a sense in which the average gardener is like the motorist who tools along year after year in blissful ignorance of what goes on under the hood of his car. If the mechanism works, well and good. If it doesn’t, consult an expert. Don’t try to understand it. That, at any rate, has been my way. Incurious, for the most part, about the private lives of plants except as they impinge on my plans for them, I haven’t often asked myself why milkweed attracts butterflies or whether garlic is immortal; and still less have I been concerned with the larger matter of the environment that surrounds me. All I know is that my soil is on the acid side, and full of rocks. I have, to be sure, had my occasional suspicions that more is happening out there than meets the eye—going so far as to speculate that a vine reaching out horizontally toward a holdfast might have eyes or even a brain, and that those who claim to have witnessed the power of prayer on beans may have something. But these wanderings have more to do with superstitious magic than with an interest in science, which I am not, as they say, good at.

For all these reasons, a book apparently devoted to weeds didn’t promise to exert a spell. In my view, weeds have been something to get rid of, not study. Weeds, the catchall term that Stein has chosen to describe all plants not currently under cultivation, are fascinating—far more various and full of quirks and disguises than their domesticated counterparts. Or at least they become so under the scrutiny of an insatiably curious mind.

Here I should say that this isn’t a how-to book. Though it describes some of the innumerable uses to which so-called weeds have been put over the centuries, it isn’t a guide to concocting dyes or wild salads. Nor does it disclose any secret for eliminating weeds from the garden. Sara Stein hoes and hacks and curses like the rest of us, with no more and no less success. The difference is that she asks questions as she goes along, and having asked them goes to books and neighbors and old records to find the answers. She wants to know her enemies: where they came from, how long they plan to stay, and what their personal habits are.

Though we all know how quickly an untended garden will return to what is called a state of nature, few of us, I think, realize that the state of nature is no more permanent than the garden itself. A garden is an interregnum, an artificially induced pause in the inexorable march of occupying armies. But so, too, is the landscape beyond it unless by some remarkable chance it happens to be a forest primeval or a virgin prairie. These are stable plant communities that have reached what is termed the “climax,” meaning that they will undergo no further transformation without…

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