Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Weeds: The Superhero Gang of the Plant World

The lawn in our outdoor classroom is lush, thick and inviting.  It looks like a perfect sea of even, green grass.  Just look at it!  If you stop and really look, though, you'll start to see weeds.  They are stealthy and hidden, but they are everywhere!
A clover plant thriving in a nutrient-depleted patch.
Weeds, by definition, are plants that humans consider to be growing in the wrong place.  They annoy us in our lawns, we spend time removing them from our gardens, and when they grow amongst our crop plants, they reduce the amount of food that is produced, so they cost us food, time and money.

Still, I rather admire weeds.  If you look at them from the plants' perspective, weeds are the ones that manage to survive even after people have done everything they can to get rid of them.  To make our outdoor classroom, humans removed all the vegetation and reseeded with very thick grass to completely out-compete the weeds for sunlight and nutrients, but the weeds found a way.
Spring cress, false-strawberry and a dandelion battling their way into our lawn.
Weeds usually have some unique 'special power' (well, growing ability) that lets them grow in hostile habitats.  Some weeds, like the spring cress in the picture above, can grow when it's too cold for other plants, so they take off while the grass pauses for winter (plus they have exploding seed pods!).  Clover's super power is to produce a nutrient called nitrogen that other plants can't make, so it can grow in nutrient-depleted habitats.  Dandelions, are shape-shifters: generalists that can adapt to just about any condition (plus their seeds fly on the wind).   The spurge's power (seen below) is speed: the ability to grow and make seeds so fast they can live their lives before people notice them and kill them.
A spurge weed with milky sap - tear the stems and notice it oozes a white liquid.
Some conditions are too harsh even for weeds.  Notice the worn pathways in the grass where students walk.  There don't seem to be any grass plants or weed plants there.  Now we just need to find a weed whose special powers are to grow despite dozens of people walking on them every day!

Another reason I admire weeds is that they provide variety to the types of habitats available for other organisms.  The more types of plants that grow in an area, then the more types of insects and birds and mammals and other species you can have.  Variety of types of living organisms is called biodiversity.  A pure, uniform lawn is like a desert in terms of biodiversity, because it only has one type of organism.  Weeds increase the biodiversity of our outdoor classroom.

Do you think weeds are more likely to be found in the middle of the lawn or at the edges of it?  You can experiment to find the answer.  Use a small hula hoop as your measuring device.  Throw the hula hoop randomly onto the grass in the center of the lawn and count how many weeds are present in the circle.  Then randomly toss the hoop on the grass at the edge and count weeds again.  Do this a couple more times, and you should have your answer.  Now you just have to figure out an explanation for why you think weeds prefer one habitat over the other.

1 comment:

  1. Yay for the biodiversity of yard weeds. Also, many of them are edible. Holler if you'd like a school parent to help with any Spring yard-salad excursions.