“What is commonly called a weed
has pushed, wriggled and writhed
through a fissure in the concrete pavement,
seeking sunshine, photosynthesis, survival.”
— Jeremy Gadd, “What is Commonly Called a Weed,” 2016
A few months ago, when I was just beginning my season of weeding, I came across a small plant in my front yard that had taken root in a flowerbed. I’d been moving along at a pretty fast pace, my gloved hand automatically reaching under the leaves of each weed, grasping around the central stem, and p-u-l-l-ing until I felt the satisfying release of roots from the earth.
But I broke my rhythm for a closer inspection of this seedling, which presented itself as something other than a common weed. Some kind of cucurbit, I thought, probably pooped into the yard by a turkey wandering through. Even though the vegetable plant didn’t “belong” in my flowerbed, I decided to let it grow so I could find out what kind of cucurbit it is.
In that moment, I elevated the mystery plant from a weed to a “volunteer,” thus saving it from the compost pile.
“Volunteer” is a rather odd name for a plant. We typically think of a volunteer as someone who provides services without monetary reward, but the Latin root “vol” also means acting out of willingness, or from one’s own volition. I couldn’t trace when the term “volunteer” was first applied to plants.
Like the less esteemed weed, a volunteer plant shows up uninvited. However, the cucurbit seed didn’t actually volunteer to grow in my flowerbed — the turkey pooped it there. If the seed had had any say in the matter, it would have asked the turkey to deposit it about three feet away, where the seedling would have caught more afternoon sunshine rather than the shade of a maple tree.
The cucurbit isn’t the only volunteer in my front yard. Like weeds, volunteer plants are opportunists, germinating and filling in bare patches of earth. When my annuals and perennials self-sow in their garden beds, I’m happy because this is a sign that the plants are thriving in their location and my garden is replenishing itself.
Yet every year, flower seeds from one bed migrate to other beds, particularly tiny or lightweight seeds that are blown by the wind or dispersed by birds: yarrow, coreopsis, verbena, Jupiter’s beard, goldenrod, sunflowers, feverfew, hollyhocks, foxglove, lupine and others.
Volunteers can also grow from seeds carried in from elsewhere on shoes and socks, or the seeds could be mixed in the compost. I dump my used seed-start medium into the compost pile, and every year a few seeds germinate and grow. Like weeds, these so-called volunteers wriggle and writhe, “seeking sunshine, photosynthesis, survival.”
The plants didn’t volunteer to grow in the compost, but once there, they know what to do. In this way, they are more like what we typically think of as volunteers — they offer their services with no expectation of reward. They might be permitted to grow and reproduce, or they might be plucked out of the ground like weeds and discarded in the compost pile again.
For gardeners, perhaps the biggest service provided by volunteer plants is that they make us pause a moment and consider what we value the most. When I spotted the cucurbit, I could have decided to remove it immediately because it wasn’t part of my garden plan and it looked out of place with my ornamental plants. Or I could have determined that the volunteer was fated to grow there, and I shouldn’t disturb nature’s higher plan. My decision to allow the plant to grow so I could study it further stemmed from what I like about gardening the most, which is learning something new each time I do it.
A few days ago, I saw the first emerging fruit on my cucurbit volunteer, and that’s when I realized I have a pumpkin plant growing in my front yard. This fall, hopefully I’ll have a pumpkin to put on my front porch. After that, the pumpkin will go into the compost pile, and the process of “volunteering” will begin anew.
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer.