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The 142-Year Project — Complete With a Secret Treasure Map — to Study Weeds

“Gastropod” digs deep to learn more about society’s least lovable plants

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A closeup on a dandelion plant with one yellow bloom, growing between the cracks of a cement sidewalk. Floki/Shutterstock

When doing a word association with “weeds,” it’s likely that mostly negative connotations come to mind: allergies, invasive, the stupid plants ruining my garden. But as it turns out, there’s no actual scientific definition of what constitutes a weed.

“There’s no objective botanical description of weeds. It’s a cultural description,” renowned nature writer Richard Mabey tells hosts Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber on this week’s Gastropod, which is all about much-maligned weeds and their effects on (and as) food sources.

Mabey, who wrote a book called Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants, continues,“Basically, a weed is a plant that somebody doesn’t like. All kinds of definitions have been prescribed to weeds. One of them is it’s a plant that no one’s found a use for yet. The most useful one is simply a plant in the wrong place, which is quite an unemotional, objective description.”

Weeds, however, can endure our hate, much like they can endure pretty much anything (which is why the agriculture industry uses such hardcore herbicides to keep them away). And there are indeed weed-enthusiasts out there. Take, for example, William James Beal, a professor and botanist who kicked off a seed experiment at Michigan State University nearly 150 years ago that is still continuing today.

In 1879, Beal filled 20 bottles with seeds of nearly two dozen weeds, including clover, ragweed, and common mallow, and buried them in a secret location on the Michigan State campus, marking them on a map that only he had access to in order to protect them from tampering. He dug up one bottle every five years and tried to germinate the seeds in the bottle, in order to figure out how long these weeds could remain dormant in the soil before sprouting up to bother a new generation of farmers. When Beal was ready to retire, he passed the map and information onto a new guardian—and this tradition has continued up to the present. (The time frame between bottle unearthing events was later stretched to every ten years, and now every twenty years.) Today, four Michigan State botanists have access to the map.

Last spring, on a chilly Michigan morning before sunrise, Dr. Marjorie Weber, Dr. Frank Telewski, and a few other select members of the botany lab layered up to dig up one of the bottles, a full 142 years after it was first buried. Listen to Gastropod now to find out: Did any of the seeds germinate? And, along the way, you might just end up with a newfound respect for these hated plants.