The Parable of the Betony

Sometimes, this whole gardening thing? It’s not about us.

When we moved into this house almost a year ago (a year!) I decided that the worst “weeds” in my yard were purple nut sedge and Florida betony. I spent countless hours digging the tubers and roots out by hand in my larger beds, pulling top growth constantly. I killed one established rose bush and two expensive golden rain tree seedlings with my vigorous weeding. Then we started sheet mulching, and though the deep sheet mulching suppressed the hated nut sedge, the Florida betony punched right through. There was nothing I could do except keep ripping out top growth- disturbing the sheet mulching layers would invite more weeds and grass to come through. One day my husband, ignorant of the war, commented “Those are pretty flowers, what are those?” when we were walking around in the yard, checking on the plants. “Florida betony.” I gritted my teeth, angry that I had overlooked such a big clump. “Aren’t those native?” says my husband, knowing that I am pro-native plants. I made some noise of assent and we moved on.

Our mild, cool winter caused many of my plants to start shooting and budding early. Then in February we had our first hard freeze, and everything in my yard that was starting to bloom was frozen back… everything except the Florida betony. The Florida betony exploded into rapid growth, blooming like crazy despite the frost.

And the next sunny day, those small purple flowers were absolutely covered in bees. Big bees. Little bees. Bees everywhere.

Florida Betony

Florida Betony (Stachys floridana) blossoms

So I left the betony alone in certain areas- around the front porch, along the edges of the food forest, around the duranta bushes that were struggling to come back after the hard frost in March. I realized that the Florida betony was the only plant of any number blooming in my yard. It was in fact, the major early spring food source for the bees until the citrus trees started blossoming.

I read this essay today by Benjamin Vogt, and this passage struck me as wonderfully Pagan:

Gardening with natives is about giving up certain levels of ownership to your landscape. Life isn’t a battle royale with nature. Gardening with natives is about sharing, about living with the world and not in it; with the world and not against it; with the world and not apart from it. Bridging the gap. It’s about taking a leap of faith that you are this planet’s faith given momentary form, bound to its rhythms, and when you struggle to remake or ignore those rhythms everything seems intangibly off kilter — we suffer higher food prices, eroding shorelines, dirty water and air, new bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

I had been battling Florida betony without learning about it first. I was acting out of harmony with the land, and out of harmony with permaculture principles too, which state “Observe, then act.” I was reacting without fully observing, without fully learning, like the person who kills the spider out of fear. I thought I had learned about Florida betony last year by learning the human uses- harvesting the roots, learning how to cook and eat them. 

floridabetonyroot

A particularly large Florida betony root, which tastes rather like Romaine lettuce and radishes

We name a plant, and then assign it value. “Weed”. That is our judgement against a plant. The plant itself is not bad or good. Our judgement assigns it value, important only to us.  This plant which I assigned the value “weed” and tried to eradicate has a significant role to play in my yard’s system. Now I have to learn how to live with it, how to design with it, how to incorporate it into the overall system I am guiding into being. This is an important reminder as I move towards Beltane and the season of explosive growth. I will slow down and observe the land mindfully and without judgement, living with the land.

The nut sedge, on the other hand, is still a weed!

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