With apologies to William Shakespeare:
What’s in a name? That which we call a weed would yet raise a stink.
At this point in my journalistic career, there seem to be somewhere out there some three, maybe four, fans of this column. That’s including myself. There used to be one more, but my mother died back in 1990 and that reduced by one the fan club enrollment. I still sometimes have opportunity to answer plant questions. Much of the time I am hamstrung by my lack of knowledge of plant pathology, for the greatest number of questions are about a sick plant.
Nonetheless, my heart is in it, even if my head is not, and my feeble comments on such and such a plant that is on life support are likely to miss the mark. I am not averse to warning my interlocutor of such a circumstance, and many times I am reduced to referring her (hardly ever a him) to a more learned authority. In the case of an “at hand” event, that is, when we are actually looking at the plant in question, it makes successful resolve of the situation a bit more likely.
And it is not always about sick plants. Sometimes we are in my questioner’s garden and she points to such and such a plant and asks, “Is this a plant or a weed?”
Well, duh, that can be answered with: both or one or the other. A weed is a plant, but a plant is not necessarily a weed. In other words, what she means is, “Is that a desirable plant or is it an undesirable weed?” A weed is best described as a plant growing where it is not wanted. A 50-feet sweetgum tree growing a foot from a house foundation is indeed a weed. Of even more import, it is a weed of giant potential for more destruction than any Johnson grass or even the malicious mulberry weed that sullies and might eventually overwhelm your favorite flower bed if left unchecked. The tree could some day wreak rack and ruin on your dwelling, whereas the mulberry weed has only enough insidious power to destroy a flower bed. Then there is the ever present question of how to get rid of, say, chickweed, said Johnson grass, said mulberry weed, or any other of numberless nemeses that are born to destroy, or at least die trying.
The answers are as plenteous as are the weeds. Relief comes in many forms, from herbicides to hoes and on down to nimble fingering out such as the lamented mulberry weed. Taking the last first, mulberry weed, which has become rampant in this area in the last few years, is immune to hoeing, but not to herbicides. However, the vicious habit of mulberry weed is to sprout in the most inconvenient places, namely tight against a desirable plant.
A shot of herbicide can lead to poisoning the desirable plant as well as the mulberry weed. Another problem with mulberry weed, and others of like habit, is that they start to set seed when very small. Blast out a tiny mulberry weed with a herbicide, and if it has already set seeds (very likely) those seeds will sprout, either immediately or not until the next growing season when they have the grievous habit of not germinating all at once, but over a full season from spring to fall.
So, what is the answer? You don’t want to hear it, but the only recourse is pricking out seedlings when they are very small, no more than three inches tall, and are, at that stage, likely difficult to be seen among your desirable plants. And one season of eradication, even if it were possible, won’t suffice. It would take two or three seasons of virtual elimination to come to anything like a permanent solution. No, we must needs to make a lifetime occupation of it, miserable as it is.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.