Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Of Weeds and Native Legumes

Today I found a negative comment about permies from an bush regenerator. It relates to farm/garden escapee plants.

I posted a comment in defence of permies and why I think using the equivalent natives is an issue in the current legal environment.

I will also to expand on my ecoliving centre post here.

Here is Robyn Williamson original post.

We all know that seeds are the first link in the food chain and that nobody's getting anything to eat without them. We have a widely accepted definition of what permaculture is, but WHAT IS A WEED?


We all know that seeds are the first link in the food chain and that nobody's getting anything to eat without them. We have a widely accepted definition of what permaculture is, but WHAT IS A WEED? [For some answers to this I have relied heavily on "A Field Guide to Weeds in Australia" Rev. Ed. 1979 (Inkata Press P/L Melbourne) by Charles
Lamp and Frank Collett, who in turn have relied heavily on authors of various publications about the flora of Australia and the world.] The following is an attempt to shed light on the question and elaborate on the sound advice put forward by Russ:

On Wednesday, January 19, 2005, at 06:59 am, Russ Grayson wrote:

> Biologist Tim Low treated the Permaculture and weeds
> issue in a book published several years ago, probably
> influencing the perception of the link between weeds and
> Permaculture and taking it to people who otherwise
> would have remained ignorant of it. This, though, is what
> comes when you act in the public sphere, which is what
> Permaculture has done to a limited extent but which it
> will likely increasingly do as the accredited training
> takes it more mainstream. Permaculture organisations and
> teachers are going to have to repeatedly refute such
> assertions as those made by Low and clarify those
> made in the way that McMinn makes his. To ignore such
> allegations and to fail to publicly refute or discuss
> them does not make them go away. It merely confirms the
> criticism in the minds of readers. To adopt a policy of
> silence in today's media-saturated culture is to
> surrrender the argument to those making the allegations.

[Ignorance is the key word here]

> As always, critics should be asked for evidence - hard
> evidence, preferably, rather than circumstantial. To
> McMinn's credit, he had provided this.

As we have learned from permaculture there are no "answers" to problematic issues like "weeds", only solutions and/or useful suggestions. One way to answer a question however, is with another question, so we can begin by using words like what, where, when, who, why, how and finding out which plants are weeds.

Weeds are often defined as *plants out of place* or worse *a plant growing in the wrong place* such as an exotic in the Australian bush or grasses in a vegetable garden. To a wheat farmer, a weed could be anything growing in a wheat field that is not wheat. *A plant for which we have not yet found a use* is another description which is somewhat negative and certainly inaccurate in a permaculture sense
where every element in the design has at least 2, if not 3 or more functions. Every plant has its uses and functions even though humans may not be fully aware or choose to remain ignorant of them.

"Weeds" are most often the first plants to colonise disturbed ground, their roots bind the soil and protect it from erosion, their leaves shade and mulch the topsoil stabilising soil temperatures and preventing evaporation, they provide habitat for other organisms, their leaves transpire vapour which is part of the natural water cycle, their flowers produce nectar and pollen, etc., we can come up with a dozen or more functions for any plant before we consider what direct use they may be to humans. In practice, they are "indicators" of soil and climatic conditions and permaculturists observe them closely in order to "read" the landscape. They are also accumulators or "miners" of various minerals, e.g. chickweed accumulates copper.

A Field Guide to Weeds in Australia has photos and details of around 300 species with weedy potential including both exotics and indigenous native plants. Here are some examples that may or may not surprise you:

Yarrow - Achillea millefolium
Bird rape - Brassica campestris (a parent of "Canola") a.k.a. "colza" or coleseed oil, an industrial grade lubricant used as a fuel in lamps and in the manufacture of rubber
Tagasaste - Chamaecytisus proliferus (is this now called Leucaena?)
Good King Henry - Chenopodium bonus-henricus
Chicory - Cichorium intybus
Afghan melon - Citrullus colocynthis
Paddy melon - Cucumis myriocarpus
Couch - Cynodon dactylon
Nut grass - Cyperus rotundus (a native - arguably the world's worst weed)
Wild rocket - Diplotaxis tenuifolia (the last time I bought so-called 'Baby Rocket' it was about $20 a kilo - that's for the leaves!)
Fennel - Foeniculum vulgare (a weed or a feed, depending on your taste buds)
Topped lavender - Lavandula stoechas
Nardoo - Marsilea drummondii
Lucerne/alfalfa - Medicago sativa
Evening primrose - Oenothera stricta
Kikuyu - Pennisetum clandestinum
Cane grass - Phragmites australis
Plantain/ribgrass - Plantago lanceolata
Broadleaf plantain - Plantago major
Sago weed/small plantain - Plantago varia [a native of the Cumberland
Plain and Blue Mountains (rare), probably extinct since last time I looked the Cumberland Plain was covered with unsustainable housing developments]
Tussock grass - Poa labillardieri
Self-heal - Prunella vulgaris
Bracken - Pteridium esculentum
Sorrel - Rumex acetosella
Chickweed - Stellaria media
Buffalo grass - Stenotaphrum secundatum
Broughton pea - Swainsonia procumbens
NZ spinach - Tetragonia tetragonioides (a native, despite the common name, extends to oceania)
Salsify - Tragopogon porrifolius
White clover - Trifolium repens, and 8 other species of clover, including Subterranean clover - Trifolium subterraneum Cumbungi - Typha domingensis

You will note there are many plants listed that are useful as accumulators, food, fodder and first-aid e.g. bracken, an indigenous member of forest communities and healing plant, marvellous for ant bites. I was certainly surprised to see lucerne and "sub" clover in there. Apparently lucerne is considered a weed in irrigated vineyards
and citrus orchards of the Murray River system. Due to oestrogenic activity, "sub" is apparently troublesome in potato crops where it reduces the yield and slows down harvesting.

Therefore, the answer to "what is a weed?" depends firstly on who you are, and leads to the next question:

The greenkeeper or home gardener who weeds, feeds, waters, snips and mows his treasured lawn of couch, kikuyu, buffalo, or all 3 together, is often blissfully unaware that they are aggressive weeds of bushland, roadsides and other places (like community eco gardens), while they
consider anything with a broad leaf to be a weed of lawns and/or turf.

Corporate scientists, particularly geneticists, appear to consider anything that is not GE Canola, BT corn, rice, wheat, RR soya beans or cotton, needs weeding out and may even believe they can feed and clothe the world with these 6 plants. This is total nonsense of course. Of the billions of tons of biocides that are sprayed annually on these and other agricultural crops, approximately 1 per cent reaches the target organism.

Horticulturists are actively cultivating known weedy species for sale to home gardeners as "ornamentals", as we speak.

Bush regenerators think (rightly IMO) all exotics growing in bushland are weeds.

So everybody has a different interpretation of a weed, depending on where it is grown, where it originated, what plant it is, who is growing it and why. The classic case is Paterson's Curse [Echium sp.] which is called Salvation Jane by sheep farmers in arid regions of South Australia. Apparently it can sustain sheep through a drought, is
a source of great honey and the seeds have now been found to contain Omega 3 fatty acids. Another Echium sp. is a known cure for snakebite.

Evidence in the form of pollen profiles indicates that weeds are the creation of agricultural man.

It seems that only the English language has a specific word for them.
The Aborigines knew nothing of weeds until the arrival of white man.
The Chinese term for weed translates to something like "wild grass", the French say "mauvaise herbe" [bad grass/herb] and the Spanish "mala hierba" [ditto], plural [weeds] is "ropa de luto" [clothing of mourning]. Interestingly, Germans use the word "Unkraut" [the opposite
or antonym of "Kraut"] meaning anti- or non-plant. I would be interested to hear of any others.

The word "weed" is evidently derived from "woed", a corruption of Dyer's "woad", Isatis tinctoria which was used by warring medieval Britons to stain their skin blue.

Evidence of weeds goes back as far as Neolithic times (about 3000 BC) when the elm decline occurred and for a long time it was believed that this was due to climate change.

However, work by Iverson, Troels-Smith & Jorgenson (1949) examining pollen profiles in the mud beds of Danish lakes suggests the elm decline began when agricultural man fed elm branches to newly domesticated cattle and cleared forests in order to grow primitive cereals. Their evidence shows that the decrease in elm pollen was associated with charcoal layers. You guessed it. Neolithic man used
fire to clear the forests. Further experiments revealed that 3 men could clear 500 sq. metres in 4 hours using polished Neolithic axes.

Previously inconspicuous pollen grains began to appear above the charcoal layers, together with cereal pollens and the first weed to show up was plantain or ribgrass, Plantago lanceolata, qualifying it as the "first weed of European agriculture". The North American Indians
certainly knew where it came from and so dubbed it "white man's footprint".

Weeds are economically significant and inconvenient in agriculture yet agriculture creates them. The problem suggests the solution and we all know what that could be.

Russ wrote:
> Finally, there is the age of the guilty Permaculture book
> bearing the notorious list - it is now 30 years old,
> though I have not seen the most recent editions and it
> would be good to get feedback from others on this
> listserver as to the status of the list in these recent
> editions.

The word "weed" itself has such a negative aura that I don't even like using it. I try not to, but it just rolls off my tongue like waves on the beach especially when faced with acres of recalcitrant couch and kikuyu.

I suggest for a start that we come up with a new and more satisfactory definition of a "weed". Maybe something like: "an adaptable, vigourously recurring, dominant, aggressive and/or tenacious plant with non-ecological and/or anti-social behaviour and the disgusting habit of
reproducing itself sexually, bisexually and/or asexually ".

We may also need to prepare our own lists of potentially weedy species, classified into bioregions.

Any more ideas?



Robyn Williamson
PDC, Urban Horticulturist
Hon Sec, Fagan Park Community Eco Garden Committee
Local Seed Network Coordinator
mobile: 0409 151 435
ph/fx: (612) 9629 3560

(Note for Robyn W: Tagasaste and Leucaena are different species, they fill the same niche (tree fodder) in temperate and tropical regions respectively, Leucaena is frost sensitive.)

Here is Robyn Becket comment.

Hello Robyn,

I found your article very interesting.

I love to hate weeds. (The sort that invade bushland and my food garden) I think its interesting that for me and plenty of others weeding is a therapeutic activity. Perhaps if there were no weeds I'd just spend more time planting and watering and harvesting.

Also I am a bush regenerator, who tries to live holistically. I expect to be paid for some of my bush regeneration work, not all. My knowledge of permaculture design principles is limited, but I think I get the gist and with my knowledge of bush regen I can integrate the two. I do plan to learn more about Permaculture design, and watched the film at the Peats Ridge Festival.

I have visited Bill Mollison's place in N. NSW and didn't like it much.

Primarily there was a difference in ethics and from the people there at the time a defensive attitude about plants escaping from the farm and growing as ferals in the bush. I didn't like the attitude that it didn't matter.

My philosophy is that in providing for ourselves we shouldn't have a negative impact beyond our borders, and if we make a mistake in our experiments and plants escape we are responsible and must deal with them. We need to be aware of the plants likely to go feral and not use them.

At Bill Mollisons the tree Tipuana (I can't check proper name, I'm using a computer away from my books) used for nitrogen fixing was going feral. It is rapidly becoming a problem in bushland and has been hugely promoted by Permaculture practicioners.

I think it has been a huge mistake to promote Tipuana in Australia and the people who did should address the problems they have created. What amazes me is that the local native nitrogen fixing plants that would already exist on many properties are not acknowledged at all.

This message is getting a bit long, and I hope I'm not being too negative, but I'm glad for the opportunity. I'd be interested to see what you think about my comments.


Robyn Becket

Here is my reply comment.

Robyn B

While using local native nitrogen fixing plants would be great, I personal could not recommend them to anybody.

The problem is legal. The use of local natives in any (permaculture or not) system, risks these elements of the system being classified a 'remnant' vegetation, and all the inflexibility/problems with current 'anti-clearing' laws. This varies so much between the states.

The devaluation of land that occurs when isthe usage condition are made less flexible is real. The state government have drafted these law in such a way, that generally compensation is not available for the holder. So I in good faith won't use native legumes in my guilds/mass plantings etc. This is really a pit, a large region in the northern half of the eastern Australian grain belt has a leguminous native is one of it's dominant species, a farmers wont let is regrow and increase N levels for this reason.

This issue is stopping farmers from developing ultra long term crop/pasture/woodland rotation systems more suited to Australian dryland areas, than the current modified 'imported' practices.

What good are nitrogen fixing woodlands (to the farmer), if you can't clear it for rotate it back into crops. In PNG they have been doing 70+ year rotations for over 10,000 years.

Dumb politically driven law making usually generates some silly results.

With regards to permies not caring an about escapees, for me it's a matter of priorities. The centre of me attention currently (and for years to come I suspect) is Global Warming and Peak Oil.

What use is stopping directly human caused plant invasions, if the whole ecosystem disappears.

Global Warming is/will drive far more plant (and animal & diseases) invasions than invasions directly caused human plant prorogation. As climates change, the plant and animals move generally uphill and towards the poles. Greatly increase rates of invasion at most every ecosystem edge!

Now that I've finished my rant, in truth, I will use native legumes. But only in Zone 5 and parts of Zone 4 that will never be rotated into another Zone at some stage in the future. Get rid of the bad laws and I would use them in all zones.

Good leadership requires planning for change, good planning requires flexibility. Flexibility is undervalued by most.


Now I want to expend on my comments in two area.

One, what legal environment would I like to see. The problem is the the current set of laws is design to serve 3 master! 1/ Bio-diversity presivation, 2/Carbon freezing and 3/ City vote retension!

We all know what they say about serving two (or more) masters!

I outline where I think the law should be, in a post on the ABC's Four Corners forums and the "A-Team" story.

Where is the science that says what is needed to really preserve biodiversity?

This is politics.

If there was real science, there would be two sets of laws.

A 'Biodiversity Preservation Act' to do what the name says.

And a 'Biomass Act', with the aim of maximizing the net reserves of carbon while maximizing Biomass production for energy production, thus reducing the burning of Oil, Gas and Coal.

The 'Biomass Act' would replace the various anti-clearing laws, with all their faults.

When Global Warming & Peak Oil meet, something must give!

Any given piece of land would be subject to one to one Act or the other. It either being managed to preserve biodiversity OR mitigated Global Warming!

Note 'Carbon freezing' is a knee-jurk reaction, what is needed are systems that both store the large amounts of Carbon while cycling Carbon to mitigate Global Warming.

Also note in the same thread I question the Green Lobbies preoccupation with Hemp! As it's an annual crop, my knee-jerk reaction is that it should be less environmentally sustainable than wood chipping done right. See David Holmgren's "BIOMASS FUELS FROM SUSTAINABLE LAND USE: A permaculture perspective" page 2.

Someone needs to do the EMergy calculations for both.

Is Hemp a solution.

Or would it just be an Oil to Paper converter.

The problem the modern intense cropping is that about as much energy (as Oil) is consumed as is produced as embodies in the paper.

To get more embodied energy out, you need to go to use perennials, and the longer the perennial grows, better the energy input:energy output ratio.

This is why permaculture use lots of food forests, timber forests etc.!

Please note I was not the only 'Ned' on the forum that night, so only some 'Ned' posts are mine!

Two, the native legume I refered to above is Acacia harpophylla, commonly known as 'Brigalow'. The soil region where it grows is commonly called the 'Brigalow Belt'.


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