Reprinted from The Environmentor, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 16-17.

Love the Weeds

Nasrudin Hodja loved beautiful flowers and longed to have a garden of his own. He dug up the sandy, rocky soil around his house. He bought expensive plants in full bloom, and cared for them as best he knew how, but in the merciless heat of an Iranian summer they all died. He bought and planted more; they died too. The only plants that survived in his yard were the ones that sprouted from seeds brought in by the wind, or by birds flying over. Those tough native or invasive plants grew and bloomed in their own scraggly way: weeds!

Nasrudin finally went to consult with the best gardener he knew. Together they looked at Nasrudin's dry, sun-blasted yard and the scruffy, dusty weeds that somehow thrived there.

“What can I do?” Nasrudin asked in desperation.

“I think,” sighed the gardener, “you should learn to love the weeds.”

Weeds to the Rescue!

A “weed” can be defined as something you didn't plant, that is growing where you don't want it. That applies as well to a rose bush in a corn field, as to a corn plant towering in a rose garden! But we usually use the term for hardy plants that volunteer in our lawns where we want only fine-leaved grasses, or in our vegetable and flower beds where we want nothing to share water and nutrients with the varieties we planted.

These volunteers, whether native or foreign, are often part of Nature's EMT squad. It's as if Nature hates to leave bare soil exposed to erosion or hot sun. They can spring up quickly and cover the bare spots! In fact, the seeds of many of them can lie dormant in the “soil bank” for years, only germinating when sunlight signals that their spot has been exposed. Weeds to the rescue!

There is a growing movement to turn our manicured lawns back into prairie. Instead of spending money on fertilizer and weed-killer, instead of spending summer days behind a lawn mower, we can let at least part of our yard grow up in native plants whose leaves feed caterpillars (baby food for song bird chicks), whose flowers feed pollinators, and whose seeds feed myriad winged and four-footed creatures. What's not to love?

Many native perennial and annual flowering plants can make as pretty a show in our flower beds as non-native imports. Already adapted to our local climate, they don't need pampering or extra water. Once established, they come back each year from their roots, or re-seed themselves without human help. Very helpful!

Even their dead flower stalks can supply visual interest to a winter garden. The hollow stems of some species provide shelter for overwintering pollinators. “Seedy-looking”? Of course! Those seeds give winter food to birds.

With a better understanding of the benefits of native plants, and even of non-native “weed” species that just want to be helpful, we too can learn to love the weeds.


Folktale: tales of Nasrudin Hodja are told throughout the middle east, from Turkey and Iran to Egypt (where he is called Goha). They were usually told as metaphors: for instance, a person who resents family interruptions might be reminded to have more patience and appreciate other people. Collections by Idries Shah include The Exploits of the Inimitable Nasrudin. I found Margaret Read MacDonald's retelling of this one in her Earth Care: World Folktales to Talk About.

Facts: Professor Doug Tallamy has lectured several times in Oklahoma. An entomologist, photographer, and author of very popular books, he exhorts people to grow native plants and trees instead of monoculture lawns. See free recorded lectures at