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Weed it and Reap

The history of a gardener’s greatest enemy reveals a relationship deeper and longer than any plant root.

| Spring 2020

poppies
 Photo by Getty Images/Goja1

A weed’s ability to quickly colonize bare ground didn’t develop by accident. Most weeds evolved their “live fast, reproduce a lot” behavior over many hundreds of thousands of years. Before humans began working the earth, avalanches, fires, and animal activity disturbed the soil, opening up gaps that gave space for opportunistic weeds to germinate. At the same time, animals roaming the Earth ate seeds, which, once excreted in feces, rapidly germinated. The planet’s dense coverage of woodland, scrub, and grasslands, meanwhile, kept these plants in check.

About 12,000 years ago (during the Neolithic era), greedy plants won the lottery when humans first began to work the land. Weeds had a field day — literally. In the first steps toward formal agriculture, humans cleared vast areas to grow crops, inevitably becoming the first sentient beings to contend with weeds. Over the millennia that followed, as we felled more forests and created more fields, the weedy situation escalated.

Evidence suggests that many weed species have adapted to coexist with human activity, making it easier for them to exploit the land around us. Some weeds have increased both the speed at which they reproduce and the quantity of seed they produce. A matter of natural selection, those plants that happen to produce more seed faster than their relatives will eventually outcompete and become the dominant strain.



If there’s one weed in your garden that’s particularly annoying, it’s probably been living with humans for a long time, which has helped it to evolve into its current, bothersome strain. Every time we remove or dig out weeds, the strongest survive and regrow, contributing further to the “weedvolution.” It’s not the weed’s fault it’s so weedy — it’s ours.

The First Weeds

Fossils tell us that weeds existed millions of years ago, but since these fossils are the only early records we have, we may never know exactly when weeds first evolved. We do know, however, that some of the first successful plant groups were the spore-producing field horsetails and ferns, their descendants being today’s common garden weeds.



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