Monday, July 25, 2011

`Yes: Weeds'

Flourishing in the drought in empty lots and along the sides of roads are black-eyed susans, one of the first flowers I learned to identify as a kid. Their colors are autumnal, like marigolds, but any color is welcome when green bleaches to brown in the sun.

The Latin name, Rudbeckia hirta, is a history/botany/etymology lesson. The genus honors Olof Rudbeck the Younger (1660-1740), Swedish botanist and ornithologist, and his father, Olaus Rudbeck (1630-1702), the polymathic linguist, astronomer and professor of medicine. The genus was given its name by Olof’s student, Carol Linnaeus, deviser of binomial nomenclature.
The species name is from the Latin hirsutus, “rough, shaggy, bristly,” the root of our “hirsute.” The stems and leaves of the black-eyed susan are covered with coarse hairs called “trichomes” (from the Greek trikhoma, “growth of hair”). The flower’s “eyes” are not black but brown, even purplish when rubbed on the skin, as we did as kids making war paint. Dave Lull alerted me to an excerpt from Richard Mabey's Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants published recently in the Wall Street Journal:

“Houston has its own high puritan criteria. In that space-age city, bylaws have made illegal `the existence of weeds, brush, rubbish and all other objectionable, unsightly and unsanitary matter of whatever nature covering or partly covering the surface of any lots or parcels of real estate.’ In this litany of dereliction weeds are defined as `any uncultivated vegetable growth taller than nine inches’—which makes about two-thirds of the indigenous flora of the entire country illegal in a Houston yard.”
Offhand, I can’t think of a single plant, weed or otherwise, I want to see criminalized, except Brussels sprouts. I like Louise Bogan’s endorsement of weeds in “The Sudden Marigolds” (A Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan, 2005):
“What was the matter with me, that daisies and buttercups made hardly any impression at all…As a matter of fact, it was weeds that I felt closest to and happiest about; and there were more flowering weeds, in those days, than flowers in gardens…Yes: weeds: jill-over-the-ground and tansy and the exquisite chicory (in the terrains vagues) and a few wild flowers: lady’s slipper and the arbutus my mother showed me how to find, under the snow, as far back as Norwich. Solomon’s seal and Indian pipe. Ferns. Apple blossoms.”

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