The weed


WHEN I first saw it, I could hardly believe my eyes: a variegated pink and green shoot about six inches high and a full inch across, packed with incipient leaves.

It was in the garden of my new old house, a garden which had been untended for years. Curiosity overwhelmed me: What was this monster plant? My neighbor did not understand my response at all. If he sees anything growing that he did not plant, he murders it, using all the chemicals and tools at his disposal.

The plant grew and grew. It was stunning, with cherry red stems and lime green leaves. Soon it was a six-foot bush. As a physical scientist, I was amazed that so much biomass could be 'f produced in one season. By the time it produced flower spikes, I had already begun searching the field guides for its identity, with little success. The white flowers were unspectacular but quickly produced deep red berries.

Then the fun really began.

As the berries began to ripen, the birds arrived. Soon the plant was the exclusive home of one catbird, who guarded it ferociously.

Every morning the catbird would wake me with loud "mews" as it warned off other catbirds and the local mockingbirds. The leaves hid the catbird well, and for nearly a month the plant and its berries were his (or her) exclusive territory.

Then, inexplicably, the catbird left.

The departure of the catbird left the plant and its burgundy berries up for grabs, and the opportunist who moved in was my resident mockingbird. The mockingbird had already established residence in a nearby holly, where there was plenty of food and a singing perch on an adjacent dogwood. Now this bird was set for life, or at least for many months.

And I still received my wakeup call -- a squawk or chip instead of a "mew," or, on special days, a cardinal imitation. A lot less shy than the catbird, the mockingbird arrogantly sat on the branches of the trees and the plant and scolded me daily for invading its territory. Occasionally I sassed back in my poor imitation of mockingbird chatter.

As I write, the mockingbird still reigns from a perch atop the dogwoods, announcing ownership of my yard to all other mockingbirds and anyone else who hears. The plant is looking a little ragged; the leaves are turning dry and brown, and bunches of the now-purple berries still cover the tips of the red stems.

It's midwinter, but I continue to greet the mockingbird every day. I expect we will greet the spring together, too, since my mocking friend has a plentiful and varied food supply.

What was this mystery plant, this impressionist collage of red, green and purple? The berries provided the final clue. It's pokeweed.

How sad that such a beautiful plant would be officially called a weed. It reminded me a jimson weed, which is a scourge to ranchers but is lovingly tended in gardens in eastern Canada.

My weed has provided me a summer's and autumn's and part of a winter's entertainment. It's been an alarm clock as well. I'll cherish it for many years, probably until a well-meaning neighbor decides to trim my garden for me.

Linda M. Sweeting is a professor of chemistry at Towson State University.

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