From Weed to Wal-Mart
sponsored by Coleman Farms
The more adventurous growers at the Farmers' Market sometimes have customers point to an item on the stand and say "I have that in my garden, I thought it was a weed." The reply tends to be "Well, it's a weed if it's growing where you don't want it". A mixed example is the prolific Arugula: a crop the first year, a weed the second.
Some local weeds are truely wild, like poison oak or artemesia, but probably the majority of local garden weeds are something like arugula, naturalized escapees from food or fodder imported by Europeans. Mustard, dandelions, many of the clovers and most of the grasses are this kind of weed. Some of these, though weeds, have recognized culinary and even medicinal uses.
In the pre-agragrian world all plants were created equal. Some might be edible, some useful for building or making textiles, some medicinal, some poisonous, most simply there, and the user - plant, animal or human - chooses according to need. It would be the very rare exception that a plant would be eradicated simply for being itself: "herbicide" depends on the ideological antithesis of "crop"', and so, on the development of agriculture.
Where did agriculture - that is, crop plants - come from? Well, from weeds. There's a milkweed with elongated slightly hairy bitter leaves that you may find along country roads or on the edges of more diverse gardens. This is wild lettuce, Lactuca serriola, which was developed by selection and crossings some millenia ago, probably in the eastern Mediterranean or Near East, into something less bitter and more readily edible, and, by Classical times, into something we would recognize by sight and taste as lettuce.
Most of the produce or fruit you find at the market will have followed a similar path, sometimes longer, as in the case of Maize, whose wild progenitor differs much more from the product we know than the wild from the domestic lettuces; sometimes shorter, cherries or chiles, for example, have a number of obvious wild cousins producing edible fruit. It's a path that began in the world of botanical egalitarianism and ends in Wal-Mart.
There are some exceptions, the true dandelion, for example, or purslane, and some mushrooms, which have been left behind in that innocent world whence, if we choose, we can gather and eat the wild plant. It's plants like these that are typically considered weeds, not because they're useless, but because they're successful self-propagators, always popping up where you're trying to grow something else.
It's purslane on the stand that is most often taken for a weed. Once a customer who had grown up in China saw purslane on a vendor's stand, raised his eyebrows and asked "You sell that?" The vendor admitted that they did. He said that in China it grows all over, and they feed it to pigs, except when food for humans is scarce. "That is the last thing you run out of. After that, you eat bark." He was given a couple of bunches to keep memories alive.
Disclaimer: this article does not imply a Wal-Mart endorsement of weeds, or vice-versa.