Pioneer Species

Pioneer Species

Several years ago I was visiting a friend’s farm to observe his cattle grazing operation and ask a few questions.  During our walk through the fields we came upon a plot that featured quite a good deal of ragweed growing among the desired vegetation.  I asked him about the weeds and his plan to eliminate them, stating that I had a similar problem at home.  He looked at me, and with the corners of his mouth just barely turned up (which for this guy is a full blown, beaming grin) he said ‘John-Scott, those aren’t weeds.  Those are pioneer species.’

Pioneer species.  Now that is something I hadn’t heard before.  A plant that pioneers the way for other plants.  Greenery that settles the soil before domesticated society arrives.  What a thought!  Words are incredibly powerful, and the connotations that come with them affect our perceptions and actions on a daily basis.  Say the word ‘weed’ while discussing the smallest urban garden to the largest field of corn, and everyone gets themselves into a dither because the undertone of the remark implies something annoying and out of place.  The word itself often shifts our minds into removal mode, and our thoughts will not rest until the plant is gone.  By replacing the negativity of the word ‘weed’ with the positive connotations of ‘pioneer species’ we are better able to evaluate the situation and cultivate an environment in which our domesticated species can thrive.

Studying the fundamental purpose of pioneer species is key to understanding wild plants and how to deal with them in our lives.  The best analogy that helped me understand is as follows (these are not original thoughts; I am recapitulating what someone else has concluded): Compare the soil surface to our skin.  When skin is wounded our bodies rapidly respond by building a shielding scab to cover the damage while new skin regenerates.  Scabs aren’t pretty but they are amazingly effective at keeping us safe until things return to normal.  Similarly, when the soil becomes wounded – either through de-vegetation, nutrient depletion, or any other number of things – nature needs a scab to quickly cover the wound and shield it from the elements until things return to normal.  Enter pioneer species.  Nature maintains a latent seed bank that explodes to life when a wound occurs.  Fast-growing, aggressive, adaptable, and ridiculously productive plants irrupt to collect sunlight, cover the soil with protective leaves, sink roots into the depths and hold soil in place before it washes away into a river.  They aren’t always pretty, but they establish themselves quickly and are amazingly effective at keeping the soil safe. 

Here is the part that really intrigues me: if pioneer species are a protective layer, what are we doing when we call them weeds, kill them, and continuously work to eradicate the wild plants?  We’re ripping off a scab!  Will our wounds ever heal if we wake up each morning and tear off a scab?  No.  But our bodies will relentlessly attempt to re-cover the sore, no matter how long we pick at it.  Exposed, de-vegetated, nutrient deficient, and biologically inactive soil is a vulnerable wound that desperately needs roots to hold it in place, plant shoots to protect it from the elements, and fungi, bacteria, and earthworms to massage the soil back to a healthy state.  Nature will continuously attempt to cover it with a scab, no matter how many times we spray, mow, and grumble about the no good weeds growing where we don’t think we want them.  Unfortunately, a vast majority of our land is a bare wound with no scab, and our soils are running down the ditch during each rainfall event as a result.

We’ve established that pioneer plants exist in this world to serve a crucial purpose far beyond that of annoying and disrupting growers across the country.  Interestingly, by diversifying our farms and incorporating managed livestock grazing into our production systems, we may be able to minimize incursions of nontraditional plants much more effectively than the current seek-and-destroy technique. 

Our cows will often enter a new paddock and seek out the wild plants before turning to the growing grass.  Ragweed?  They eat it all.  Dogbane?  A favorite.  Milkweed?  Devoured.  Autumn Olive, wild mint, Burdock and Queen Ann’s Lace are not immune to consumption.  I’ve even watched in amazement as a cow casually picked and crunched on thistles.  Plants the cows don’t enjoy get trampled, leaving a trail of detritus that feeds the soil in the herd’s wake; organic accumulation on top of the soil encourages an explosion of microbial life to consume the refuse, bringing the soil back to working condition and incorporating fertility without chemical inputs.  One would do well to work out a cropping rotation that incorporates livestock for weed control and fertilization.

Very often the first step towards tremendous progress involves changing our minds.  By freeing ourselves from established paradigms we are able to view old problems from a new angle and create solutions that have lasting benefits into the future.  It’s time we perceive weeds differently and focus on solving the cause of the problem instead of futilely attempting to cover up the symptoms.  Let’s heal the soil instead of ripping off a scab!  The result might save our farms and our pocketbooks.