[Commentary] The return of the weeds

Phyllanthus niruri (stonebreaker) inflorescence. Photo by Elmer Dimpeu.
  • Across the globe, the perception of weeds as nuisance plants is slowly changing as groups have started to embrace the role of weeds in larger ecosystems.
  • Typical Indian gardens, however, do not welcome weeds. On the other hand, exotic ornamental species that are not typically found in India are preferred.
  • Weeds can be considered ‘pioneer plants’ that can quickly establish in degraded or poor quality areas.
  • They are the first generation of tough plants in the natural development of complex ecosystems, writes Shobha Menon, founder of the NGO Nizhal, in this commentary.

Amidst the chaos of the pandemic, a new revolution is on across world scenarios. Rebel botanists ‘chalked’ up street graffiti to highlight the flora growing in the cracks of paths and walls in cities across Europe, while botanists’ network Tela Botanica, led the Sauvages de ma rue (“wild things of my street”) campaign in France. And London-based French botanist Sophie Leguil’s  ‘More Than Weeds’ campaign changed perceptions of urban plants in the UK.

But how are the seemingly invincible ‘weed’ species looked upon across India?

Landscape horticulturist, K. Harieesh feels, “The archetypal Indian gardens I’ve come across veer toward a ‘western’ mode and ‘weeds’ are definitely not welcomed in a typical landscaped area. Exception probably is a state like Kerala, where a naturally diverse and ‘weed’ inclusive landscape continues to be accepted as beautiful.”

Rues Dr. N Parthasarathy from the Department of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, Pondicherry University, “Across India, rapid urbanisation, road widening, etc, and the proliferation of exotic ornamentals simply means traditional knowledge about native plants is vanishing. Cosmetic landscaping is a money-spinner, and many precious wild plants are decimated. But why we should reach a ‘jallianwalabagh’ stage before we wake up to mistakes, is beyond understanding!”

Actually, ‘weeds’ could be referred to as ‘pioneer plants’. When soil nutrients are lost through wind and rain, it is these species that quickly establish themselves, and lessen erosion through the presence of their roots, as the first generation of tough plants in the natural development of complex ecosystems.

Cleome viscosa, the Asian spiderflower, which can be used for a variety of medicinal purposes. Photo by J. M. Garg.

Dr. S. Aroumougame, an ethnobotanist with many years of experience in grassroots work, confirms “By disrupting the indigenous connect we are separating key plant species from microorganisms and other fauna they support, and finally with the human being who needs their services in some form.”

That we have caused plants to become ‘weeds’, through ‘our reckless treatment of the earth’, is author Richard Mabey’s voice for these species in his book ‘Weeds, The story of Outlaw Plants’.

Says Harieesh, talking of “weeds” that deserve more attention in Tamil Nadu, using the common Tamil names: “Urbanisation and insensitive gardening has been responsible for the loss of many rare plants. An ecosensitive landscaping plan could include both a landscaped area as well as a biodiversity-friendly garden. Generally seasonal, wild plants like keezhanelli (Phyllanthus niruri; stonebreaker) are seen from June to January months, and the thumbai (Leucas aspera) from August to January. Likewise many others like thuthi (Abutilon indicum; Indian mallow), kuppaimeni (Acalyphaindica; Indian nettle), and others. A barrier hedge like aavaram (Senna auriculata; avaram senna) or agathi (Sesbania grandiflora; hummingbird tree) can line an elevated lawn, which can drain into the non-lawn area during monsoon. Institutions could help by showcasing a patch or two of vanishing wild plants. Sixty years ago these plants were commonly looked on as herbal remedies, like karisilankanni (Eclipta prostrata; false daisy), or naikadugu (Cleome viscosa; tickweed).”

The karisilankanni (Eclipta prostrata), for instance, produces 17,000 seeds from one small plant. A very common ‘weed’ of rice fields, sugarcane fields and coconut plantations, it is widely used in Ayurveda and considered to be the best remedy for the hair, an excellent treatment for a range of skin disorders, and as a liver tonic. A leaf decoction of Naikadugu (Cleome viscosa) is used as an expectorant and digestive stimulant to treat colic and dysentery, as an external application to treat wounds and ulcers, relieve rheumatism and to treat herpes infections.

Read more: Medicinal plants as an ecosystem service

‘Weeds’ have for long been lumped together as the category of ‘plants we wish weren’t there’. Recognizing and learning about their roles and functions, they could be viewed in a more appropriate sense. Veteran botanist, Dr. P. Dayanandan, formerly Head, Department of Plant Biology, Madras Christian College, says, “Generally in urban areas with space constraints, people like to grow flowering plants or ‘useful’ plants. When you get out of the city, you see a more inclusive mindset. There, the ‘weeds’ don’t need ‘saving’. Even in the fields, they are pulled out only when they ‘compete’ with the rice plants!”

Some exotic wild ‘weeds’ include the comfortably settled in Croton sparsiflora and Tridax procumbens. Studies by pollinator researchers have revealed that many wild urban ‘weeds’ rank highly for the quantity of nectar and pollen their flowers provide, often much higher than a variety of other plants. The  Lantana camara is an exotic invasive species, which enjoyed by birds and other animals, and so the seeds are spread over large distances.

Dr. Parthasarathy feels, “Many attractive medicinal wild plant species that are considered ‘weeds’ can translate into alternate livelihood options. Link demand from alternate medicine practitioners to supply of these species in urban areas, and we can both improve economy and remove distress to our already threatened forests! Conventional landscaping concepts like clerodendron or duranta hedges can be replaced by wild species like Tephrosea purpurea (wild indigo), Senna auriculata, Justicia adhatoda (Malabar nut), or aloe vera with a judicious interweaving of popular exotics like coleus or anthurium. We could use asparagus (Asparagus racemosus), Indian sarasaparilla (Hemidesmus indicus), the balloon vine (Cardiospermum halicacabum) for the creeper effect.”

When can these forgotten wild species begin to be seen and celebrated by the urban Indian?

Tephrosia purpurea (wild indigo), an alternative to exotic hedge species typically used in landscaping. Photo by J. M. Garg.
Tephrosia purpurea (wild indigo), an alternative to exotic hedge species typically used in landscaping. Photo by J. M. Garg.

Shobha Menon is Founder, Nizhal, a Chennai-based NGO that connects local communities for tree conservation in urban areas. When she is not firefighting for tree friends, she likes to write!  


Banner image: Phyllanthus niruri (stonebreaker) inflorescence. Photo by Elmer Dimpeu.

Exit mobile version