Weeds versus ruderals

Chris J. Durden drdn at mail.utexas.edu
Fri Dec 14 12:48:00 EST 2001

You are quite correct Nick. My dictionary is most derogatory about weeds. 
The naturalists and ecologists of my youth had no such reservations about 
using the word weed to describe any organism, plant or animal that was an 
opportunist, capable of colonizing a newly vacant niche in a disturbed place.
    Ruderal (growing in waste places, along roadsides or among rubbish) is 
a much more appropriate term, but who in America recognizes this word on sight?
    In spite of our anthropocentric view of weeds they are perhaps our most 
valuable plants as the vanguard of protective vegetation, colonizing 
eroding slopes in the earliest stages of succession - Aspen and Birch of 
the North, *Bauhinia* and *Cecropia* of the South. We owe them a great debt 
too. Our cultivated foodplants were selected from weeds.

    Perhaps it would be more polite to refer to the Monarch as a "pioneer" 
species. Remember though that Adam Osborne said "the pioneers are the ones 
with the arrows in their backs". A large part of the butterfly fauna uses 
weeds as foodplant and is part of a pioneering community. Unfortunately in 
our parks, preserves and wildernesses we attempt to stay "the hand of 
Nature", put out fires, lament and restore the effects of wind and flood. 
The flora and fauna that suffer are the members of the legion of weedy 
pioneers. As my daughter once said "Wildlife Management is an oxymoron". I 
am all for the preservation of "old growth" (a remarkably butterfly-poor 
set of habitats) but we should not lose or homogenize "new growth" along 
the way.
................Chris Durden

At 11:32 AM 12/14/2001 +0000, you wrote:
>I don't think I have heard - until now - of animal species being referred 
>to as 'weedy species' (i.e. associated with 'weeds'). As I understand it 
>(and according to various dictionary definitions) the term 'weed' applies 
>only to plants, and refers to plants growing where we (humans) don't want 
>them. In practice, or in most peoples minds, this refers to generally 
>short-lived herbaceous plants of disturbed habitats. However trees can 
>also be considered as weeds (e.g. Birch (Betula spp.) growing (sometimes 
>in profusion) in a conifer plantation). As an ecologist I think a much 
>more useful (and neutral) term for these plants is the term 'ruderal'. The 
>Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ecology defines ruderal as: "a plant, or 
>applied to a plant that is associated with human dwellings or agriculture, 
>or that colonises waste ground. Ruderals are often weeds which have high 
>demands for nutrients and / or are intolerant of competition."  Perhaps 
>"early-successional species of disturbed hab!
>itats" would be a good way to describe them. Ruderal is a much more 
>neutral term and does not have the connotation of something being 'bad', 
>unwanted or regarded as rubbish or as a nuisance. Here in the UK we have 
>some rare 'weeds' whose continued existence here is being actively 
>promoted through conservation measures.
>Mr J Nick Greatorex-Davies
>(Butterfly Monitoring Scheme co-ordinator)
>NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
>(Formerly the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (ITE))
>Monks Wood
>Abbots Ripton
>Cambridgeshire PE28 2LS  UK


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