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A Weed Is A Herb Whose Virtues Have Never Been Discovered*

Updated: Nov 19, 2020

“The wild gatecrashes our civilised domains, and the domesticated escapes and runs riot. Weeds vividly demonstrate that natural life — and the course of evolution itself — refuse to be constrained by our cultural concepts. In doing so they make us look closely at the very idea of a divided creation.”

― Richard Mabey, Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature

Golden Cassia by master artist and teacher Claire Souter — 2009

The Dream of the Golden Tree

When we let go of what we truly love, it returns in our dreams. And though sleeping, the heart is awake; until seeking what was thought lost — when found — endures…

“Ever since Genesis decreed ‘thorns and thistles’ as a long-term punishment for our misbehaviour in the Garden of Eden, weeds have seemed to transcend value judgements, to be ubiquitous and self-evident, as if, like bacteria, they were a biological, not a cultural, category.”

― Richard Mabey, Weeds, In Defence Of Natures Most Unloved Plants

Sometimes we fall in love with trees.

Is there some deeper and more profound meaning to the particular trees which take our heart and our breath away? I think so. I feel our reactions are nuanced by past and future lives as well as this one.

I have fallen for the massive liana-ed boughs of graceful sheltering Fig trees — big time — and the strong Pecan-nut and monumental Mango trees. I’ve loved the stark visual elegance of tall and straight Eucalypts standing resolute under razor-sharp blue skies, or a gorgeous ghostly forest of Snow Gums in a Blue Mountain mist.

My heart has soared driving up the long, deadly quiet and empty Queensland coast road through totally unexpected forests of swollen-bellied Baobabs.

I have to admit though, I was never really a naturally huge fan of Firs but I’ve grown to love them.

I’ve loved to pieces the scrubby-barked Tea-Trees nestled amongst carpets of the warm sunny faces of brave Flannel Flowers, and the fire-honed ancient strength of the gnarly Banksia with its waxy red brush of a flower…

But the wrenching golden beauty of the Cassia Fistula tree melted my heart with her wisteria way of weeping flowers gracefully from her many arcing branches.

It was clear the heart of my art teacher, master artist Claire Souter, had been touched in the same way — she had at least two wondrous renditions of the tree that did it sweet justice. I dug through photos online and off, and began my own painting in oils, of this cascading golden goddess.

“But it’s just a weed!” someone remarked in astonishment, as I brought in my pencil sketch drafted onto my canvas, ready and good to go.

“Why would you paint it? It’s a massive pest and we’re working hard here to eradicate it! But like Bamboo — it’s damned hard to get rid of.”

Bamboo? Really? I loved and adored Bamboo also, but a pest?

What goes on?

And this ‘Tree of Trees’ — also labelled thusly? Hmmm.

“Be a weed! A weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows!”— Doug Larson

A most stunningly beautiful and uplifting tree, the Cassia Fistula, or Golden Shower tree, I loved it so much when I first moved to the far northern tropics of Queensland, I just had to paint it, in oils.

And there the large painted canvas now resides — hanging on the white wall above the head of my large gold-leaf Thai statue of the enlightened almost life-size Buddha calmly sitting atop an old wooden cabinet amongst flower-scented candles, and copal, kyphi, myrrh and other aromatic incenses, in the peaceful creation space of my living/meditation place/study/studio.

Bernie H from the ‘My Tropics Garden’ blogging site, says “Cassia fistula has been classed as a weed in many states here in Australia … as it has become naturalised in some areas, spreading into the bushland. It can be seen in the bushland close to the houses in my rural suburb. Seems a shame to call such a striking tree … a weed!”

But there it is — the sacred has been classified as a weed. Some kind of sacrilege going on there.

Miss Cassia Fistula 2020 (Creative Fashion from Golden Shower Flowers) Siem Reap, Cambodia

Many plants considered Weeds are actually powerful Medicinal Herbs

“Weeds are not only plants in the wrong place, but plants which have slipped into the wrong culture.” ― Richard Mabey, Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature

I realised this many years ago when in my teens I studied a Natural Herbalism course, and it became apparent that many wondrous green things under the sun had a reason and a beauty not always seen by the deadly critical civilised eye.

Over the centuries many herbalists have sung the praises of these vilified herbs, and many were killed for their efforts, but still we cry.

Perhaps comparable to the shaman living on the fringes of the village, the herb not fully seen nor understood may in fact be one of the most powerful healers around. But the strong natural medicine of these herbs raised a terrible fear in the cold hearts of those seeking to control the unruly, the deep, and the brilliant. They tried to stamp them out. To crush them.

And yet we’re still here, come again — yes arrived here once more — to raise them up where they belong.

To let their true and hidden beauty and strong medicine be seen — and experienced — once more.

Here are but a few of the wrongfully vilified and their true medicine revealed in poetry or ancient almanacs from days gone by.

Amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus)

“Immortal Amaranth, a flower which once In Paradise, fast by the Tree of Life, Began to bloom, but soon for Man’s offence, To heav’n removed, where first it grew, there grows, And flow’rs aloft shading the fount of life.”

— John Milton

Burdock (Arctium minus)

“The burdock leaves are cooling and moderately drying, whereby good for old ulcers and sores…. The leaves applied to the places troubled with the shrinking in the sinews or arteries give much ease: a juice of the leaves or rather the roots themselves given to drink with old wine, doth wonderfully help the biting of any serpents; the root beaten with a little salt and laid on the place suddenly easeth the pain thereof, and helpeth those that are bit by a wild dog…” Culpeper also recommended the seed “to break the [kidney] stone and cause it to be expelled”.

— Nicholas Culpeper, British herbalist in the 1600s

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

“Widely known and despised as a weed, chickweed (Stellaria media) is also a nourishing salad green or potherb that’s available almost year-round in much of the country.”

Mother Earth Living

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

“I am born as the sun, But then turn into the moon, As my blonde hairs turn Grayish-white and fall to The ground,

Only to be buried again,

Then to be born again, Into a thousand suns And a thousand moons.”

Suzy Kassem, Hymn of the Divine Dandelion

Sheep’s Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

“Sheep sorrel is a native herbal plant related to the culinary species French sorrel and garden sorrel. Sheep sorrel grows wild throughout the U.S., producing leaves with a lemony, tangy flavor that can add tart flavor to fresh salads. A traditional component of herbal medicine, natural compounds in sheep sorrel may have significant health benefits.”

Joanne Marie

Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)

“When all thoughts Are exhausted I slip into the woods And gather A pile of shepherd’s purse. Like the little stream Making its way Through the mossy crevices I, too, quietly Turn clear and transparent.” Ryōkan

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

“What a time herbs and weeds, such things could talk. A man in his garden one day did walk, Spying a Nettle green (as th’ emeraude) spread in a bed of roses like the ruby red.

Between which two colours he thought, but his eye, The green nettle did the red rose beautify.

“How be it, “ he asked the nettle, “what thing Made him so pert? So nigh the Rose to Spring.”

John Heywood

“Everything on earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission. This is the Indian theory of existence.”

— Mourning Dove

“Weeds made the first vegetables, the first home medicines, the first dyes.”

― Richard Mabey, Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature

The Meaning of the Sacred Golden Tree in Thailand

ราชพฤกษ์ — Ratchaphruek, also known as “Khun” or “Rajapruek”

The delicate clusters of cascading yellowgold blossoms of the Golden Rain or Golden Shower tree (Cassia Fistula) is the beautiful sacred national tree and flower of Thailand.

To the Thai, her stunning yellow flowers symbolise royalty. She is native to the Asian and also the Indian subcontinent, from South Pakistan, and throughout India to Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

In Kerala, India, she’s the state flower; and also of profound significance to the Malayali people.

The Golden Shower tree’s amazing healing and medical properties are referred to throughout Ayurvedic literature as the ‘disease killer’ or aragvadha.

Yet in mainstream Australia

A weed. A pest. To be eradicated.

Detail of Sir Galahad from the larger painting : ‘XV. The Golden Tree’ by Edwin Austin Abbey

The Golden Tree and Sir Galahad

“Upon a hill at Sarras Sir Galahad made a Sacred Place and built a Golden Tree… and Joseph of Arimathea, with a company of red-winged seraphs, appears with the Grail, now at last uncovered. As Sir Galahad gazes upon it, crown, sceptre, and royal robe fall from him; he no longer needs them. Having beheld the source of all life and knowledge and power, the spirit of Galahad had achieved its end in life, and won release from the narrow confines of his body.” Chase

Claire Souter 2011

“Although they follow and are dependent on human activities, their cussedness and refusal to play by the rules makes them subversive, and the very essence of wildness.”

― Richard Mabey, Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature

“Weeds – even many intrusive aliens – give something back. They green over the dereliction we have created. Their willingness to grow in the most hostile environments – a bombed city, a crack in a wall – means that they insinuate the idea of wild nature into places otherwise quite shorn of it.

They are, in this sense, paradoxical.

Although they follow and are dependent on human activities, their cussedness and refusal to play by our rules makes them subversive, and the very essence of wildness.

Instead, the weeds are being read as a parable, a lesson that a monolithic, oil-based urban culture is unsustainable in the twenty-first century, and that there might be other, more ecologically gentle ways of living in cities.

Families too poor to buy fresh food are starting neighbourhood organic farms on the sites of demolished local blocks. Young people from all over America – musicians, Green activists, social pioneers – are flooding into the abandoned areas, keen to experiment with new patterns of urban living which accept nature – including its weedy frontiersmen – rather than attempting to drive it out.

As Julien Temple, director of the remarkable TV documentary Requiem for Detroit, has written: ‘amid the ruins of the Motor City it is possible to find a first pioneer’s map to the post-industrial future that awaits us all’.”


*Quote used in title: “What is a weed? A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson


Copyright 2020 © Julie Von Nonveiller Cairnes. All rights reserved.

I first published this in MEDIUM on Jun 1 2020

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