And to Adam he said, Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree, of which I commanded you, saying…
It is the law of nature that plants should be diffused as widely as possible wherever the circumstances are favourable for their growth and welfare. For this purpose they are provided with the most admirable contrivances to maintain their own existence, and to propagate the species. But man interferes with this law in his processes of gardening and horticulture. His object is to cultivate beautiful or useful plants within enclosures, from which all other plants are excluded, and where an artificial soil and climate have been prepared. He wishes to separate from the struggle of the elements, and from the competition of other species, certain kinds of flowers or vegetables which are good for food or pleasant to the eye. In this he is only partially successful, for into the plot of ground which he has set apart from the waste common of nature a large number of plants intrude; and with them he has to maintain a constant warfare. These plants are known by the common name of weeds, a term which, curious enough, is etymologically connected with Wodan or Odin, the great god of the northern mythology, to whose worship in former ages, in this country, our Wednesday, or Odinsday, was specially dedicated. Any plant may become a weed by being accidentally found in a situation where its presence is not desired; but true weeds form a peculiar and distinct class. They are at once recognized by their mean and ragged appearance; their stems and foliage being neither fleshy nor leathery, but of a soft, flaccid description, and by the absence in most of them of conspicuous or beautiful blossoms. A look of vagabondage seems to characterize most of the members of the order, which at once stamps them as belonging to a pariah class. In the vegetable kingdom they are what gipsies are in the human world, and the same mystery surrounds them which is connected with that remarkable race. Like the gipsies they are essentially intruders and foreigners; never the native children of the soil on which they flourish. They may have come from long or short distances, but they have always been translated. There is no country where they are not found, and everywhere they have to encounter the prejudices which the popular mind invariably entertains against foreigners. There is one peculiarity about weeds which is very remarkable, viz., that they only appear on ground which, either by cultivation or for some other purpose, has been disturbed by man. They are never found truly wild, in woods or hills, or uncultivated wastes far away from human dwellings. They never grow on virgin soil, where human beings bare never been. No weeds exist in those parts of the earth that are uninhabited, or where man is only a passing visitant. The Arctic and Antarctic regions are destitute of them; and above certain limits on mountain ranges they have no representatives. To every thoughtful mind the questions must occur, "Have the plants we call weeds always been weeds? If not, what is their native country? How did they come into connection with man, and into dependence upon his labours?" No satisfactory answer can be given to these questions. As a class there can be no doubt that weeds belong to the most recent flora of the globe. Their luxuriant and flaccid look indicates their modern origin; for the plants of the older geological ages are characterized by dry leathery leaves, and a general physiognomy like that of the existing flora of Australia. Indeed, the flora of Europe during the Eocene period bears a close resemblance to that of Australia at the present day; so that in paying a visit to our southern colony, we are transporting ourselves back to the far-off ages when our own country had a climate and vegetation almost identical. The flora of Australia is the oldest flora at present existing on our globe. Our weeds came upon the scene long subsequent to this Australian or Eocene vegetation. In our own country they form part of the Germanic flora which overspread our low grounds after the passing away of the last glacial epoch, driving before them to the mountain tops the Alpine and Arctic plants, suited to a severer climate, which previously had covered the whole of Europe. They came from Western Asia and Northern Africa. They made their appearance in company with the beautiful and fruitful flora that is specially associated with the arrival of man, and spread from the same region which is supposed to be the cradle of the human race. In this way they are co-related with the Scripture account of the fall of man. "Cursed is the ground for thy sake; thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee," was the sentence pronounced by God upon man's sin. We are not to suppose from this circumstance that these noxious plants were specially created then and there for the express purpose of carrying out the punishment of man. They were previously in existence, though they may be said to belong very specially to the human epoch; but since that mournful event they have received a new significance, and are bound up with man in a new moral relation. Most of our weeds possess all the characteristics of a desert flora; special adaptations to a dry soil and arid climate. And the reason why they find a congenial home in our gardens and cultivated fields is because the soil of such places is made artificially like the natural soil of their native country. Our fields and gardens are divested of all unnecessary vegetation, and drained of all superfluous moisture, and thus are possessed of the dry, warm, exposed soil, to which the provisions for drought with which weeds are specially furnished are admirably adapted, and where in con. sequence they luxuriate and overcome other plants less specially endowed. They follow in the train of man, and show a remarkable predilection for his haunts, become domesticated under his care, not merely because of the abundance of the nitrogenous and calcareous substances to be found in the vicinity of human dwellings and in manured fields and gardens, but chiefly because he provides them with the dry soil and climate in which they can best grow. It is an essential qualification of a weed that it should grow and spread with great rapidity. For this purpose it is endowed with marvellous contrivances in the way of buds and seeds. A very large number of our weeds, such as the thistle, groundsel, dandelion, colts-foot, scabious, daisy, ragwort, are composite flowers. The apparently single blossom is in reality a colony of separate blossoms, compressed by the obliteration of their floral stems around one central axis. In most of our weeds the floral parts are small and inconspicuous. The reproductive act is so arranged as to economise material and to exhaust the vital force as little as possible, and the organs concerned in it are reduced to the simplest forms consistent with efficiency. Most of the species can be fertilized by the wind, which is always available, or by the help of insects that have a wide range of distribution and are abundant everywhere. In consequence of this floral economy, the vegetative system acquires a greater predominance in this class of plants than in almost any other, so that the life of the individual is carefully preserved even amid the most untoward conditions. A weed, by reason of the strength of its vegetative system, is able to stand extremes of heat and cold, and to recover from the roughest usage. It will hold on to life in circumstances which would prove fatal to most other plants; and in this way it can abide the most favourable time for the development of its blossoms and seeds. Nay, it can propagate itself as well without blossoms as with them. Many of our weeds form long creeping stems, giving off at every joint buds which will produce perfect plants, and greatly extend the area which they occupy. That weeds belong to the most recent and specialized flora of the world is evident from their wide distribution and wonderful powers of colonization. In our own country they number about two hundred and thirty, and constitute about a seventh part of our native flora. We are constantly receiving accessions from the continent, along with the seeds of our cultivated plants. In company with the wheat and barley that can be cultivated in India down to the tropic zone, because they can be sowed and reaped during the coldest quarter of the year, have been introduced a crowd of the common annual weeds of our country, such as the shepherd's purse, the chickweed, the spurge, and the corn-pimpernel, which also run through the cycle of their lives in the winter quarter. Half the weeds of American agriculture have been imported from Europe; and of the 2,100 flowering plants of the Northern United States, 320 are European. Australia and New Zealand have sent us no weeds, and America only a very few. The solution of this mystery, as Dr. Seemann clearly proves, is not to be found in any consideration of climate, soil, or circumstances. It is a question of race. The present flora of the United States and of Australia is older than the Germanic flora which now constitutes the principal vegetation of Europe. It is very similar to, if not absolutely identical with, that of Europe during the Miocene and Eocene epochs. America and Australia have not yet arrived at the degree of floral development to which Europe has attained; consequently plants coming to our country from Australia and America would not come as colonists, with a new part to play in it, but as survivors of an older flora whose cycle of existence had ages ago run out there. Our system of the rotation of crops is based upon the fact that the soil which has borne one kind of harvest will not produce the same next year, but requires another kind of crop to be grown on it. And Nature in her wilds carefully observes the same law. Whatever our weeds were in the original state, they are now like the corn which man sows in the same field with them, endowed with habits so long acquired that they will part with their life sooner than abandon them. The original wild plant of the corn — if there ever was such a thing, and this admits of grave doubts — from which our corn was developed, may have been able to propagate and extend itself freely independent of man; but we know that without man's agency, the corn, as it is now modified, would perish. It does not grow of its own accord, or by the natural dispersion and germination of its seed. Left to itself, it would quickly disappear and become extinct. The one condition of its permanency in the world, of its growth in quantities sufficient for man's food, is that it be sown by man in ground carefully prepared beforehand to receive it. The same rule would appear to hold good in regard to the weeds which, in spite of himself, he cultivates along with it, and whose persistent presence makes the cultivation of the soil so difficult to him. We know them only in an artificial condition as abnormal forms of original wild types; and as such as they are incapable of continuing themselves without man's help. Left to grow in soil that has reverted to its original wild condition, they would soon be overpowered by the surrounding vegetation, the grasses and mosses, and in a shorter or longer space of time they would inevitably disappear. I have seen many ruins of dwellings in upland glens from which the nettles and all the weeds that once grew in the field and garden plot have utterly vanished, leaving only a dense thicket of bracken, or a lovely smooth carpet of greensward, to indicate among the heather that man had once inhabited the place. We are bound, therefore, to believe that so long as man cultivates the ground, so long will these weeds make their appearance, and in striking correlation with the primeval curse, compel him in the sweat of his face to eat his bread. When he ceases to till the ground, they will cease to grow in it.
(H. Macmillan, LL. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;
WEB: To Adam he said, "Because you have listened to your wife's voice, and have eaten of the tree, of which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground for your sake. In toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.