Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Honored Weeds

Moonseed vine with Virginia creeper
My favorite definition of a weed: A plant growing in a place that humans find inconvenient. The more plants I learn to identify, the fewer weeds I have to worry about. Pokeweed grows along the roads; its berries can used as a natural dye. Moonseed vine peers out through the Virginia creeper and poison ivy. Its leaves are shaped like delicate maples, its seeds like crescent moons. Almost every place I’ve lived as an adult has been overrun with with garlic mustard. I didn’t know what it was for years. No sooner did I figure out its identity than recipes began coming my way for garlic mustard pesto, quiche, mayonnaise, potato salad, and even pineapple upside-down cake.

Sometimes I create my own weeds. Columbine has occupied one of my sidewalks. Wild white violets take over shady spots and migrate into flowerpots. They’re taller than I remember them from my childhood lawn, probably because I can’t bear to mow them down. Lemon balm intends to conquer the known world.

Shade is one of the hazards of gardening under trees. I consider “invasive” a recommendation when I’m choosing new plants. Daylilies were among the first flowers we planted when we moved here. We transplanted spreading ditch lilies, not named hybrids, and foolishly put them directly under walnut trees. It turns out that daylilies are among the plants that flourish despite the toxic effects of the juglone produced by walnuts. We lucked out that time.

Someone asked me if there were gods of weeds, like Flora who brings flowers and Demeter who helps grain to grow. The Greeks don’t seem to have made much distinction where weeds and deities were concerned. Demeter also wasted the fields, filling them with tares and thistles, while she searched for her kidnapped daughter. Rome was a little more garden-conscious. Robigo and Robigus were deities of mildew and grain rust. The Romans placated them every year at the Robigalia festival. The Goddess Ops, from whose name we have the word opulence, was worshiped as Ops Runcina, destroyer of weeds. My daughter calls her the Goddess Oops, lady of happy mistakes. I'm learning to appreciate her abundant gifts.

White violets
My friend Maggie lives near the river. After a flood destroyed her home, she struggled to rehabilitate her small house. The river took down old trees and planted new willow groves in her woods. It was the next spring before she had time to think about the garden. The mud had been solid as concrete all winter, but weeds began to emerge early. She set a circle of stones around a clump by her door.
Her children worried about her. “Mom, you do know those are weeds, right?”
“These plants split stone to sprout here,” she told them. “They deserve honor.”

Monday, May 14, 2012

County Roads

If you live on an unpaved road, you develop fellow feeling for your neighbors. It’s not the same as a neighborhood, more like a mutual complaint society about maintenance and a secret delight in watching the year unfold along the roadside. We open our car windows to breathe the scent of wild plums in April. Horseback riders and joggers inhale the fragrance of dogwood, sweet rocket and wild roses in May.

Wild plum
Maintenance is fairly good, but of course we all complain when it’s slower than we would like. Most roads seem to be graded once a week. This can result in a line of boulders in the middle of the road for a while — the closest we get to a center stripe. Snow removal depends on conditions all over the county. It doesn’t always get us to work on time. School cancellations are based on the state of the bus routes.

Rough-leaf dogwood
Last fall a crew from the county lopped overhanging trees — a long overdue procedure undertaken because of complaints from the school bus drivers. A week after the mail carrier noticed that the lane was getting muddy, more rock appeared on the road. Residents don’t get that quick a response.

Even the nearest blacktop is a bit primitive. Some of us call it a paved dirt road. The folks in a hamlet just off the blacktop decided to pave their main drag several years ago. It’s only about a mile long, but the asphalt heaves and buckles and cracks all year. Drivers swerve across it randomly, avoiding potholes and washboards. There’s a warning sign just before the crest of the last paved hill. A local wit edited it with press-on letters.

Elderberry and day lilies usually line the ditches in June, but this year they’re starting early. A utility crew cut a swath of small trees and underbrush beside my stretch of the road last year. Mother Elder has reclaimed it all. Her frothy white fronds are budding among poke and ragweed. The witch of the woods is back.