What makes a weed a weed?

A Pondering Question

What makes a “weed” a “weed”? I often ponder this question, especially when spring arrives and the many new shoots begin to sprout up all around us.

One definition is “a weed is any plant of a wild nature that grows in areas controlled by humans, such as crops or gardens, and whose presence is undesirable.” Hmm. I am sorry, but as a nature lover, that definition just doesn’t seem good enough.

A characteristic that makes a “weed” a “weed” is “they produce a lot of seeds. Seeds that can sometimes survive for a very long time in the soil.” Hmm. So a trait we suddenly deem undesirable based on the specific plant, because not many humans I know feel that way about the seeds from flowers, like say a sunflower! 


So, basically, if a human doesn’t like something, apply a negative word to it and get rid of the culprit.

Critters often face this same dilemma. Take the mountain beaver for instance. The most primitive living rodent alive today. They are the only member of their biological family and have survived practically unchanged for 40,000 years. Notorious diggers just doing what they were created to do. Now build a house right next to where the mountain beaver has made his home, add a few humans and now we have a “pest”.  (Disclaimer: Except for this human who has never considered mountain beavers, or any other critter for that matter, to be a pest).

What makes a “pest” a “pest”? One definition says “a pest is any organism that spreads disease, causes destruction or is otherwise a nuisance.”

Okay, diseases aren’t great and either are toxic plants, but once again the rest can be left up to interpretation. If we take over a critter’s territory and they try desperately to survive doing what they do, is that really destructive behavior or being a nuisance? Just because we decide we don’t like it? I bet the odds are pretty high they didn’t like us moving into their territory and taking over everything. Who’s the “pest” now?!

Why am I fixated on this? I spent this morning with a neighbor digging up Poison Hemlock. A plant with beautiful lacey leaves, much like the leaves of a carrot of which it is related. A plant that was introduced from Europe as a garden plant due to its attractive flowers. Just so happens, Poison Hemlock has its name for a very good reason — it is one of the most toxic plants in the world!!!

It is believed that Socrates died by drinking an executioner’s cup of poisonous hemlock. But in the plant’s defense, it is only toxic if you ingest it. That goes for humans and animals alike. But if it is growing wild, doing what it does naturally, is it dangerous? Only if something ingests it. In our case, a neighborhood setting with little kids and a lot of dogs and critters didn’t seem like the ideal spot for this plant to take root. After consulting with the County website on noxious weeds, we thought it best to pull the few plants before they went to seed (probably millions of seeds!) spreading uncontrollably.

I didn’t enjoy this task. I never like to kill anything. I will catch a spider and relocate it outside. I even release stink bugs. So tearing a plant from its home is not something I take lightly. But we did it. As customary for me when approaching yardwork and trimming, I talk to the plants. Yes, I talk to plants and I am proud to admit it! I explained what we were going to do and why. Why this particular area just wasn’t the best place for it to put down roots. So technically, by that explanation, it was clearly a weed and we were just weeding.

After we were done I couldn’t help but wonder what Poison Hemlock was good for. Everything, and I mean everything, has a purpose. Surely, its only purpose cannot be to kill. Could it?

As I looked into this further, turns out Poison Hemlock is used to make medicine. Yes, of course! Plants have been used to develop drugs for eons. Approximately 70,000 species have been screened for their potential use as medicines. Forty percent of the drugs found behind a pharmacist’s counter in the Western world are derived from plants that people have been using for centuries.

The World Health Organization estimates that 80% of the world’s population (or 4 billion people) currently use herbal medicine for some of their health care needs. In the U.S., about 30% of the population use herbal remedies.  

What makes a weed a weed?

Poison Hemlock

As for Poison Hemlock, it is used for breathing problems like bronchitis, whooping cough and asthma. And are you ready for this? For painful conditions like teething in children! As well as swollen or painful joints and cramps. Now clearly there is a formula to the medicinal use of Poison Hemlock because simply picking part of the plant and ingesting it is deadly.

So please do not ingest any part of a Poison Hemlock if you happen to come across it. 

I think this helps show how everything has a purpose and brings value to life. Where humans make our mistake is not taking the time to understand the plant or critter. 

Granted, some circumstances cannot be avoided, but if we all had a little more tolerance of those things we don’t understand, the world would be a richer more diverse and congenial place.


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16 Responses to What makes a weed a weed?

  1. rick shea April 14, 2023 at 8:24 am #

    Well, now I am educated and appreciative of the good even a dangerous and toxic plant like the Poison Hemlock can contribute.
    You keep writing and I keep learning.
    Say hello to Clark for me when you next see him.

    • Karen B. Shea April 15, 2023 at 9:37 am #

      I say hello to Clark every morning. Seeing him is the tricky part! But his mounds are growing so he is definetly around.

  2. Tim Z April 14, 2023 at 9:38 am #

    An informative and interesting perspective on this worlds little mysteries! Things aren’t always what they seem until Karen investigates and gets us thinking!!
    Thanks Karen

    • Karen B. Shea April 15, 2023 at 9:34 am #

      Haha! Happy to set your mind to thinking!!! Thanks Tim.

  3. A. Zilinsky April 14, 2023 at 10:31 am #

    My neighbor, Mrs. Rocchi who works @ The Growing Place, says a weed is a plant that is growing in a place that you don’t want it.

  4. Patti Anthony April 14, 2023 at 10:36 am #

    I love this information you share about the poison hemlock. The fact that it’s so poisonous is scary. But it has a positive side too.

    • Karen B. Shea April 15, 2023 at 9:33 am #

      Thanks Patti! And thank you for being my handy dandy partner when it comes to weed control in the neighborhood. 🙂

      • Jeanne April 23, 2023 at 2:31 pm #

        Hi Karen
        Loved reading this. As long as I give you full credit as author, might you agree to me sharing this, or a portion, at a Downers Grove Garden Club Meeting? I love your spin and point of view! Thanks! Jeanne

        • Karen B. Shea April 23, 2023 at 5:34 pm #

          Hello Jeanne! Absolutely!!! I’d love to hear how your garden club views “weeds”.

  5. Heidi G April 14, 2023 at 7:16 pm #

    My definition of a weed (and I say this from a gardener’s perspective) is that it is a plant that grows really REALLY well. Whether I like the particular weed or not, I always kind of admire it’s amazing growing/surviving power! It’s humans that put “good” or “bad” labels on them

    • Karen B. Shea April 15, 2023 at 9:31 am #

      Yes! Aren’t humans great at putting labels on things. As for your definition, I’d have to agree. They sure do know how to spread themselves about!

  6. Shirley Sterner April 15, 2023 at 5:58 am #

    That is so beautiful.
    I wish I knew all of the natural remedies out there.
    I hope all is going great with you!

    Shirley Sterner
    from Boise, Idaho

    • Karen B. Shea April 15, 2023 at 9:29 am #

      Thanks, Shirley! I agree with you on the natural remedy part. So much information out there to absorb on these amazing plants.

  7. Patricia April 15, 2023 at 8:40 am #

    Karen, as usual you have enlightened me to a question I also had as a child. How could anyone call dandelions weeds, such a pretty yellow flower! When I was about 5 years old I remember proudly presenting a bouquet of dandelions to mom. She smiled, thanked me and put them into a little glass vase and placed them on the windowsill in the kitchen. One of our siblings, who shall remain nameless, saw them and said “you just gave mom a bunch of weeds”. Well… I thought they were the most beautiful weeds I’ve ever seen, still do!

    Thanks for answering a long time question so eloquently! Everything has a purpose or it wouldn’t exist.

    • Karen B. Shea April 15, 2023 at 9:27 am #

      I agree! And dandelions are so critical to our bee population. Your bouquet could be one of the reasons Mom loves yellow flowers so much!!!