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When is a rose a weed?

Food For Thought

For all the years since 1971 that I’ve lived at my present address, a single wild rose plant has survived at the edge of the gravel road that dead-ends at my house. Every year, it has bloomed in June or July and, every year, it has been mowed off soon afterwards by the county crew that keeps the roadsides trimmed so tall weeds and grasses don’t obstruct the view of drivers and cause accidents. I appreciate the need to keep obstructions from growing at intersections and access roads, but I’ve always thought mowing off everything that grows beside the road to be a bit of overkill. Couldn’t the blade be raised to spare one of the surviving specimens of our vanishing state flower?
I’ve thought of transplanting the rose to a safer location but understand it is illegal to dig up protected wild flowers. That makes me wonder if it isn’t also illegal to mow them off. In either case, it is now too late because the rose did not appear this summer, apparently surrendering to the repeated assaults of the mower blades.
There was a time when the shoulders and ditches of our gravel road constituted a pleasant and impressive display of the natural abundance of useful and decorative plants that seem to grow and thrive on their own in this part of the state. One could find mushrooms, asparagus, sumac, wild roses, raspberries, bittersweet, orange lilies, cat-tails, wild plums, pussy-willows, black-eyed Susans, wild grapes, elderberries, Queen Anne’s lace and quite a few other things. The ditches near my house used to be paved with violets in the spring and lush with raspberries, blackberries and little pink plums later in the summer. I enjoyed the distinctive shape of the stands of sumac and its brilliant color through the fall, and the cheerful little cedar trees add a bit of color to bleak winter days. Elderberries offered their lacy white parasols at the beginning of summer and tiny purple berries for the birds later on.
Aside from the mower, an even more evil method of weed control appears in the form of a truck with a big spray tank on the back. After its passing, the ditches and fence rows are filled with wilting, sagging plant life that curls and turns brown. This is often followed by a hooting, gouging machine that rips out young trees, established vines and berry bushes and leaves them withering and drying in the ditch until a crew eventually comes along and sets fire to the dead plants, leaving the ditches blackened and vulnerable to heavy rains that render them smelly puddles of mud and debris. In the spring, the ditches green again, but only with sprouting weeds whose seeds have survived the vandalism of the past summer and are now nourished by fertilizer-rich runoff from adjacent cropland.
I once asked a botany teacher for a definition of the term ‘weed’ and the closest he could come was it is any plant growing where it isn’t wanted. That’s a pretty useless definition, it relegates all plants to that category. It means a century oak tree, an exotic orchid, a cabbage plant and a dandelion could all be considered weeds– not by what they are but by where they are.
What we, as humans, consider to be weeds seems to hinge on their usefulness to us as either essential in the food chain that leads eventually to our dinner tables, or as decorations for our bodies, dwellings or landscapes. And our inborn nature, to consider the easiest way of doing things to be also the best way, made our attitude toward desirability somewhat Darwinian. We accept the notion of the survival of the fittest, we have found the most uses for the plants that grow best, with the least effort, in the place where we choose to reside. If wheat, for instance, grew only in mosquito infested swamp land, we would probably not be enjoying the bread, cookies, cakes and crackers we consume in such quantities today. Instead, the grass-family plant might be relegated to the same status as decorative pampas grass, or even worse, a mere weed.
Sometime, I’m not sure how long ago, I remember hearing about a plan to establish native prairie flowers and grasses along the roadways of Johnson County. So far, I see none of those things replacing the plants that once grew naturally along my road. I realize there are many, many miles of county roadsides and our little dead-end road isn’t of any great importance to anybody except those of us who live along it. On the other hand, if nobody’s planning to give us prairie grasses and wild flowers, wouldn’t we be better off with wild roses, asparagus, sumac, elderberries and wild plums than being left with devastated ditches where nothing grows but weeds?