too many words by laura lemay

The weed

We first moved into the house in November, when the yard was grey and damp and The Weed wasn’t growing. We had no idea what horrors were yet to befall us.

The Weed started to sprout in February, and within a matter of weeks took over the entire property. It grew up and over everything, in and out, over and under, twining around and through and over itself, four feet high where it had no support and twelve feet high where it did. And it grew fast, feet a day, sometimes if you turned around for a second it seemed like it had grown another couple feet. Cutting it, pulling it out, spraying it with chemicals only seemed to encourage it. It sprouted more leaves at the ends, and took over another part of the yard.

We tried to cut it back. It only laughed. We made do with just keeping the main pathways clear, so we could get up and out of the driveway without it trailing out and snagging the car on the way down.

In June, The Weed sprouted all over with beautiful purple pink and white flowers. The ocean of horrible weeds that blanketed everything in the yard was now covered in pink. So it wasn’t all bad, then. The flowers were almost worth it. Almost.

We didn’t know what this stuff was. I couldn’t find it in any of my books. I had a book, Flora of the Santa Cruz Mountains, but I had a hard time understanding it because it was written for botanists and I could not tell my inflorescences from my lemmas. This was a vine, it had flat leaves and purple flowers, and it went bloody everywhere.

I asked on the net, and everyone said, “Oh, you have the Dreaded Bindweed. You are doomed.”

I said, great, we are doomed. But I looked up bindweed (leaves pubescent, rarely glabrous), and found a picture of it, and discovered that while yes, we do also have bindweed, The Weed is not bindweed.

So what was it? Sometime in fall after the pretty pink flowers were gone The Weed sprouted seed pods. Seed pods that looked suspiciously like…. peas.

“Do you think maybe its sweet pea?” I asked Eric. But sweet pea has such a nice, sweet quiet reputation. An annual, sweet pea comes in zillions of colors, the result of easy hybridization and medieval fun with genetics. It didn’t seem to bear much relationship to the aggressive pink monster in our garden.

Sunset Western Garden Book to the rescue. There are two sweet peas, Lathrys Odorata, common annual sweet pea, and Lathrys Latifolius, perennial sweet pea. Comparing notes between the Sunset book and the Flora book (looking up all the words I didn’t understand, which was most of them), I was able to confirm that The Weed is, indeed, perennial sweet pea (the flora book calls it everlasting sweet pea. Ahahah). The Sunset book has an amusing description of the latter when kept in perspective with The Weed, and I quote: “Strong growing vine up to 9 ft. … Plants grow with little care. May escape and become naturalized. Use as a bank cover.” Ahahaha.

Knowing what The Weed was gave us little consolation. For the last few years I have tried to ignore the existence of The Weed, mostly trying to keep it under control. One of the nice things about the The Weed is that it is very green, it holds a lot of water, and its easy to uproot because its a long vine that doesn’t really grab on to stuff very hard. So you can harvest a ton of it in the late summer, shred it all, and have just enormous amounts of really great compost ready to rot over the winter. And the flowers were really nice for my bees. Whenever I went out into the yard when The Weed was in flower the bees would be out in droves, rooting around in the pink and purple flowers, digging down into the petals for the nectar inside.

This year, however, sweet pea is apparently having a cultural renaissance. It has suddenly come into style. I first started seeing pots of sweet pea in reds and blacks and light blues in the garden center in early spring, little delicate l.odoratas, really pretty plants. I laughed. While light blue sweet pea is really pretty, I really didn’t need any more sweet pea in my life.

And then Martha Stewart Living did an article about how cool sweet pea was in bunches, when displayed in antique silver urns on linen tablecloths, etc, etc. Oh my.

Then, finally, I started seeing bunches of sweet pea in the farmer’s market every week. Not even good sweet pea, just the same same pinks and purples we had, for $3 a bunch, and not even very big bunches! And they were selling out!

It had never even really occurred to me to pick the flowers. They were everywhere, the sweet pea was The Weed! And now it was selling for $3 a bunch! Whoa!

So of course, I went out and picked some.

I can pick a big bunch of sweet pea, say, $15 worth, in about half an hour. I’ll need more time if the sweet pea is twined in with poison oak, and a lot more time if there is a big stinging nettle hidden in the middle of it that I don’t see until its too late (note to self: do not pick sweet pea in shorts). The bees still like sweet pea a lot, and when one is holding a mass of sweet pea in one’s hands, the bees will really like one. Work quickly.

It occurred to me after I was done picking that I had never actually smelled sweet pea. It didn’t seem to have much of scent on the vine, I had never actually noticed anything exceptionally fragrant about it, so, Ferdinand-the-bull-like, I stuffed my nose down into the mass of flowers, and inhaled.

Ah. They smell wonderful. A very light, nectar smell, not at all objectionable, not at all strong. You have to get very close to smell them. But they are lovely. Just lovely.

Back at home, I found a glass to put the flowers in. Sweet pea is a comfortable, disorganized flower. It isn’t a regal flower like a rose, or a structurally beautiful flower like an orchid. It isn’t even a friendly happy flower like a sunflower or a marigold. Its a messy rumpled bed flower, an overstuffed chair flower, a muddy wet dog flower. It is not a flower that is arranged so much as fluffed. But the result is extremely pretty.

Not bad for a noxious weed.