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Weeds: An Appreciation
by [?]

A weed, says the dictionary, is “any plant that is useless, troublesome, noxious or grows where it is not wanted.” The dictionary also adds: “colloq., a cigar.” We may omit for our present purpose the harmless colloquialism, but the rest of the definition deserves to be closely examined. Socrates, I imagine, could have found a number of pointed questions to put to the dictionary maker. He might have begun with two of the commonest weeds, the nettle and the dandelion. Having got his opponent–and the opponents of Socrates were all of the same mental build as Sherlock Holmes’s Dr Watson–eagerly to admit that the nettle was a weed, he would at once put the definition to the test. “The story goes,” he would say, quoting Mrs. Clark Nuttall’s admirable work, Wild Flowers as They Grow, “that the Roman soldiers brought the most venomous of the stinging nettles to England to flagellate themselves with when they were benumbed with the cold of this–to them–terribly inclement isle. It is certain,” he would add from the same source, “that physicians at one time employed nettles to sting paralysed limbs into vigour again, also to cure rheumatism. In view of all this,” he would ask, “does it not follow either that the nettle is not a weed or that your definition of a weed is mistaken?” And his opponent would be certain to answer: “It does follow, O Socrates.” A second opponent, however, would rashly take up the argument. He would point out that even if the Romans had a mistaken notion that nettle-stings were useful as a preventive of cold feet, and if our superstitious ancestors made use of them to cure rheumatism, as our superstitious contemporaries resort to bee-stings for the same purpose, the nettle was at all times probably useless and is certainly useless to-day. Socrates would turn to him with a quiet smile and ask: “When we say that a plant is useless, do we mean merely that we as a matter of fact make no use of it, or that it would be of no use even if we did make use of it?” And the reply would leap out: “Undoubtedly the latter, O Socrates.” Socrates would then remember his Mrs. Nuttall again, and refer to an old herbal which claimed that “excessive corpulency may be reduced” by taking a few nettle-seeds daily. He would admit that he had never made a trial of this cure, as he had no desire to get rid of the corpulency with which the gods had seen fit to endow him. He would claim, however, that the usefulness of the nettle had been proved as an article of diet, that it was once a favourite vegetable in Scotland, that it had helped to keep people alive at the time of the Irish famine, and that even during the recent war it had been recommended as an excellent substitute for spinach. “May we not put it in this way,” he would ask, “that you call a nettle useless merely because you yourself do not make use of it?” “It seems that you are right, O Socrates.” “And would you call an aeroplane useless, merely because you yourself have never made use of an aeroplane? Or a pig useless, merely because you yourself do not eat pork?” There would be a great wagging of heads among the opponents, after which a third would pluck up courage to say: “But, surely, Socrates, nettles as we know them to-day are simply noxious plants that fulfil no function but to sting our children?” Socrates would say, after a moment’s pause: “That certainly is an argument that deserves serious consideration. A weed, then, is to be condemned, you think, not for its uselessness, but for its noxiousness?” This would be agreed to. “Then,” he would pursue his questions, “you would probably call monkshood a weed, seeing that it has been the cause not merely of pain but even of death itself to many children.” His opponent would grow angry at this, and exclaim: “Why, I cultivate monkshood in my own garden. It is one of the most beautiful of the flowers.” Then there would be some wrangling as to whether ugliness was the test of weeds, till Socrates would make it clear that this would involve omitting speedwell and the scarlet pimpernel from the list. Someone else would contend that the essence of a weed was its troublesomeness, but Socrates would counter this by asking them whether horseradish was not a far more troublesome thing in a garden than foxgloves. “Oh,” one of the disputants would cry in desperation, “let us simply say that a weed is any plant that is not wanted in the place where it is growing.” “You would call groundsel a weed in the garden of a man who does not keep a canary, but not a weed in the garden of a man who does?” “I would.” Socrates would burst out laughing at this, and say: “It seems to me that a weed is more difficult to define even than justice. I think we had better change the subject and talk about the immortality of the soul.” The only part of the definition of a weed, indeed, that bears a moment’s investigation is contained in the three words: “colloq., a cigar.”