I fantasize about being a gardener—experienced, knowledgeable, with perfectly pruned roses, lush beds of lilacs, and thriving rows of herbs and organic vegetables.
The reality is, though, that I’m a lifelong city girl who knows next to nothing about plants. I haven’t had a vegetable garden since I was eight or nine years old. My few adult attempts at container gardening have generally resulted in impressively leggy tomato vines with little or no fruit, along with tufts of baby greens that ended up feeding only the local insects.
Still, I fantasize … and I haven’t given up hope that I might someday achieve a modicum of gardening success. But in the meantime, on my daily walks through the neighborhood—or in my all-too-often overgrown, ill-tended front yard—I have found myself captivated, not by the flowers and vegetables that require such care and expertise (though I stand in awe of my neighbors who are able to cultivate such marvels), but by the plants that nobody notices and nobody wants: weeds.
A new obsession
This spring, procrastination turned into fascination; what began as neglect grew into fixation and even a strange obsession. Early in March, I mowed half my lawn, then lazily decided to finish it another day. That day never came. Instead, I gradually began to notice and fall in love with the very plants I had been intending to mow down.
First, the onion grass (my kids used to chew on it when they were little): not only does it exude a deliciously pungent smell, it also yields a sea of exquisite, minuscule white flowers that excitedly nod their tiny heads in the morning breeze. And then there’s wood sorrel, whose happy, rounded green leaves make you do a double-take, thinking you’ve seen a four-leaf clover, and whose delicate pink blossoms open wide to the sun and fold up again in the evening.
Elsewhere in my untended yard, a strangely angular and spiky-seeming, yet delicately flowering weed led me down the rabbit hole of botanical research until I finally identified it as wild geranium—delightfully known as “cranesbill” due to the long fruit capsules that protrude from the blossoms and release their seeds on little spiral curls.
Teeth of a friendly lion
And then there are the dandelions—arguably the most famous and poetically lauded of all weeds. Dandelions are almost a cliché, as I discovered when I started noticing the level of public sentimentality they seem to enjoy. Yet there’s no denying their magic: from the name itself (dent de lion, “lion’s tooth”), to the vivid sunburst flowers, to the jaunty, zig-zag profile of the leaves (the reason for the name “lion’s tooth”)—they can even be served up as a delicacy, dressed with olive oil and lemon juice.
Best of all, though, are the seeds: as children, we’ve all gleefully puffed on the little white plumes that emerge from the dandelion flowers. Individual seeds spiral through the air on exquisite, tiny parachutes and travel abroad on the wind (and perhaps into the yard of a neighbor who is less enthusiastic about their presence).
Clichés are clichés for a reason: dandelions truly are the king—or queen—of weeds.
Solomon in all his glory
My enchantment with weeds has found its way into my art and has inspired a series of drawings and watercolors entitled Weeds & Other Treasures. The pieces are small, for the most part, like the plants that inspired them; yet my hope is that even in their smallness, they capture something of the marvelous complexity and dignity I have come to perceive in these tiny, overlooked creations.
In uncertain times like these (as I write this, we are still in the midst of the worldwide coronavirus lockdown), these little plants offer us a role model and an object lesson. Amidst the turmoil of natural and human forces beyond our control, don’t we sometimes feel as expendable as weeds? Don’t we often feel insignificant and even unwanted? Yet to me, the exquisite monumentality of every tiny wildflower—though it’s here today and gone tomorrow—speaks a different story: “even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these” (Matt. 6:29).
It’s May now, and most of the weed-flowers have begun to give way to summer greenery. Thankfully, though, there’s still an abundance of botanical magic to discover “in the wild,” right outside my front door. And for that reason alone, I still can’t quite bring myself to mow my yard.