This spring I brought in a variety of weed samples for a workshop I was teaching and asked attendees to match weeds with their names, which were printed onto labels. One young woman picked up a buckhorn plantain and admitted she didn’t know its name, just that kids shot it at each other on the playground. Several others laughed and nodded. I just cocked my head in confusion and scrunched my eyebrows. Later on, she demonstrated for those of us that didn’t understand. Plucking a tall stem, she wrapped it around itself creating a loop encircling the upper portion of the stem. Sliding the loop quickly up the stem against the bud caused the bud to shoot off the stem with an impressive speed and trajectory. I marveled. Who knew?

I showed by bestie, who was equally impressed, taught my children this newfound skill, but when I mentioned it to my husband, he looked at me as if I told him grass was green and the sky was blue. He assumed I learned this as, surely, all children do. Just as they learn the alphabet and how to tie their shoes.

This weed does not grow where I lived as a child. I’ve now asked many, MANY people if this is something they did as a kid. Frankly, I’ve been a little obsessed. Maybe more than a little. As far as people who grew up above the Georgia fall line, with very few exceptions, it is a resounding “yes!”. I’ve asked folks who relocated here from my part of the state and received responses that mirrored my own: cocked heads and furrowed brows. For out-of-state folks, it’s a toss-up.

Buckhorn Plantain, Plantago lanceolata L.

I am told that buckhorn plantains are best to shoot while they are still in bud. They will “shoot” at this stage as well, though when they are finished flowering, as most of them are at this point in the season, the trick doesn’t work. Photo by Chris Evans

At the Extension office I receive questions about weeds, it is part of the job. Most often the question is, “how do I get rid of it?”. Or maybe, “is it toxic?”; a valid concern if you have livestock. But, I also get identification requests to see if certain weeds are edible, or medicinal, and once this year someone wanted to know the name of the beautiful purple wildflowers blooming throughout their backyard. That one made me grin. But until now I’ve never really considered what might be the greatest virtue of the humble weed, the value of weeds in children’s play.

The more that I think about it there are many weeds that fit into this category. Who hasn’t sent a wish on the wind along with dandelion seeds? When I’ve asked about the plantain trick, whatever their answer, many folks have gone on to talk about making daisy chains from clover or using blades of grass for whistles.  On my playground, we didn’t shoot buckhorn plantains, but we did throw sweetgum balls at each other during recess. For my father-in-law, it was maypop pods. My granny told me about making “houses” with rooms outlined with pine straw during her school days, and I’ve seen my cousins do the same. I’ve seen middle school children mesmerized by throwing maple seeds in the air to watch them spin down like nature’s helicopters. I remember myself as a young child pulling stem after stem of bahia grass seed heads in the churchyard while standing next to my parents, waiting on them to finish visiting. The sensation of running your pinched fingers down the stem to pull back the scales that hold the small, flighty black seeds is very satisfying. My children use leaves gathered from the wilder parts of our backyard to construct parachutes, or to use as plates for parties held for dragons and ninja elves. They bring me exquisite bouquets, lovingly curated. From our collective childhoods, there are weeds with tricks, weeds for throwing, weeds for building, weeds for touching, and weeds to be placeholders for objects in make-believe games. The more I talk to people about it the wider the catalog of uses becomes.

I wonder though, will this childhood knowledge be lost? Or become less ubiquitous? Parents may teach their children tricks like shooting plantain weeds, but it is not usually information shared adult to adult. If you meet someone who has just moved to the area you might direct them to good restaurants, maybe tell them about neighborhood parks if they have kids, or invite them to your church. Cool tricks with local weeds are just not on the list. Most people living in our area did not grow up here; some of them are bringing this knowledge with them, but not all. I’ve lived in North Georgia for fifteen years now, know this non-native weed on a first-name basis, and had never encountered this novelty.  Beyond that, many yards are managed; weeds eradicated and no natural areas remain when kids do go outside to play. Apart from this weed in particular, I wonder how many other regional weeds have tricks that entertain children. How many in our country? How many across the globe?

In a world that is so global and as our regional character becomes less distinct, this hidden piece of regional childhood knowledge feels like a treasured heirloom. No one grows weeds on purpose; a weed by definition is just a plant out of place. Ranges may change and weeds may be imported or exported as invasive species, but they are confined to where conditions support their survival. I suspect, and hope, that kids playing with weeds is somewhat of a universal childhood experience. But, what those plants are depends on where you live. Every environment has its own anthology that children share with each other, secret societies of childhood formed to the boundaries of ecosystems. I’m very grateful to have been inducted to this piedmont society as an adult away from my childhood chapter on the coastal plain.

As adults, maybe we should value the weeds and the spaces they grow in. Our current attitudes for weeds may be focused on grown-up concerns and those childhood joys relegated to fond, but dusty memories. But let’s keep these spaces and preserve them for our children, so they can take up their role in turn as guardians of these delightful secrets. And maybe grown-ups, you could even show a neighbor or two how to shoot buckhorn plantains.

What weeds did you play with as a child? I want to hear your stories.

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