With what arid arrogance we cut down bushes, pull up weeds, kill grasses, because they do not suit our fancy. "Just weeds," we say, with the absolute assurance that we, rather than God or Mother Nature, know what should be growing where we are.
I have always been a great advocate of weeds. I think they are the last true pioneers, resisting inevitable crushing under civilization's cement to the last possible moment, even popping up again where the conqueror's pavement has cracked. They do not give up the fight. We see a weed growing in a gutter, getting a new toehold on a cement foundation, seeming to draw nourishment from a rock, bravely entrenching itself in bricks to raise a family. I cheer them on. I think we do not know yet for what, but we need them.
Imagine my joy, my vindication for a view that some consider quixotic, when I read recently in Arizona Highways (October 1985), in an article by Carle Hodge, that one of the most unprepossessing of weeds, the creosote bush, produces an extract that kills human skin-cancer cells cultured in test tubes. It also killed tumors in mice similar to those in the bone marrow of humans. Now it is being tested on other animals. Who knows what human hopes a creosote bush may fulfill in the future?
Arizona people have long been drinking what they call "chaparral tea," brewed from creosote bush leaves to quiet arthritis pains. In industry, the acid in creosote leaves is used to preserve fatty foods, to stabilize lubricants and rubber and to keep metal from rusting.
The Indians, of course, knew all along that the creosote bush had magic. After all, according to legend, Hodge says, Elder Brother I'itoi used the black shellac that the scaled beetle secretes on creosote bush stems on the boat in which he survived the great flood, soon after time began. He beached on the peaks of the Pinacate craters in Sonora, Mexico.
"Creosote bushes offered a whole drugstore for a variety of afflictions, from coughs and chills to bruises, bladder stones and rattlesnake bites," writes Hodge. "Dried, the leaves were rubbed on rheumatic limbs. The Pima Indians chewed the gummy substance to ward off intestinal ills." And the shellac that I'itoi used waterproofed baskets, glued pots and affixed arrowheads.
The creosote bush, the Larrea tridentata , has its own reasons for producing its peculiar acid; it doesn't want to be eaten. It somehow manufactures a resin that affects plant-eating animals' digestive tracts, so they leave it alone. It likes to be left alone, too, in its growing habits; its roots dig deep for water, then come up again, according to Hodge, to "spiderweb outward just beneath the surface." Each bush is an oasis, supporting an inter dependent chain of insects--and insect-eating animals such as desert iguanas--that would die without the creosote bush.
And what of the heritage of this homely bush? It is far older than the giant redwoods, Hodge's story says. It grows from a center stem outward, making a giant ellipse, while the inside dies and rots away. The new bushes on the outside ring aren't seedlings like ordinary plant offspring, but are a vegetative spreading from the original plant; they are genetically identical--clones. About 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles, botanist Frank Vasek found a creosote ellipse 70 feet long and 25 feet wide--King Clone. Reckoning the growing speed to make a ring that big, Vasek determined it to be 11,700 years old, three times the age of the oldest California redwoods. Standing in King Clone, Vasek says he feels "reverent."
I would think so. And I would think we might feel the same way, looking at a weed as we might look at a child--unknowing of its possibilities, a little in awe of what lies unseen, of what changes it could make in the world.