Unbidden, unwished-for, they appear: blossoms and tendrils alike awash in sunlight and rain — growing, grasping, greedily seeking to establish themselves in territory reserved for another.
Intruder, thy name is Weed.
As the eldest son of Swedish immigrant parents who met and married in this country, my father surely didn’t teach me the verse. It’s even less likely that my grandparents introduced me to it. Perhaps I heard the bit of faux-history-in-a-ditty on a playground, or from one of the Norwegians in town who wasn’t averse to a bit of ethnic humor.
But, in truth? I probably learned it from my mother. She never criticized my grandmother — her mother-in-law — openly. Still, a certain tension flared between them occasionally, obvious enough in retrospect to make me believe that a slightly peeved daughter-in-law just might have introduced her own daughter to this bit of oblique commentary on Swedish national character.
Ten thousand Swedes ran into the weeds at the Battle of Copenhagen.
Ten thousand Swedes ran into the weeds, chased by one Norwegian.
Over the years, I’ve heard a version of the saying that reduces it to a single sentence. Other versions expand the details, or add a change of direction, just for the sake of variety.
Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds
chased by one Norwegian.
Ten thousand Swedes ran out of the weeds at the Battle of Copenhagen.
Ten thousand Swedes ran out of the weeds, chased by one Norwegian.
For years, I assumed Norwegians had brought the couplets to this country from their former home. Centuries of conflict between Sweden and Norway certainly made it seem plausible. In an article titled, “Ten Thousand Swedes: Reflections on a Folklore Motif,” Peter A. Munch notes:
During about four centuries of Danish rule, with numerous wars between Denmark-Norway and Sweden, the Norwegians had become conditioned to think of ‘the Swede’ as the traditional enemy.
Folk tradition in Norway, even during the 19th century, was rich in tales about the alleged atrocities of Swedish troops campaigning in Norway during the Danish period, as well as heroic and clever deeds accomplished by Norwegians in their many encounters with the Swedes.
Norwegians migrating to America during the late 1800s brought this strong sense of identity with them, and took pains to reinforce it as they moved into homes next to their former enemy. Beyond that, says Munch:
There was a constant need to point out and emphasize one’s national identity over against other Americans, who were wont to lump Danes,Norwegians, and Swedes together as Scandinavians: a habit which annoyed the Scandinavians no end, especially the Norwegians.
Nevertheless, despite my assumptions and the history of national rivalry, the humorous jabs seem to have been born in the American Midwest. For evidence, Munch points out that the rhyming of “Swede” and “weed” has no counterpart in the Norwegian language, and the verses recited in America seem always to have been spoken in English.
Beyond that, whether the Battle of Copenhagen refers to a naval battle between England and the Dano-Norwegian fleet in Copenhagen harbor (1801), or the conquest of Copenhagen by the English (1807), the Swedes weren’t involved. As much fun as the rhymes may be for the Norwegians, they make far better poetry than history.
As a child, I didn’t care about the source of the rhyme or its historical accuracy. It was enough to laugh at the sound of it, and enjoy the thought of the weeds. I imagined them taller than fully-grown corn and just as thick: capable of hiding ten thousand Swedes as easily as our cornfields hid clutches of hide-and-seeking children.
Over time, I began to recognize that weeds come in all shapes and sizes. Much to my chagrin, I also discovered that their presence in our world isn’t universally appreciated.
Broadleaf plantain, whose seeds provided morning cereal or a nighttime snack for my dolls, was not on the approved list. The sweet-smelling clover that made such lovely bouquets was tolerated, but barely. The same dandelions that provided so many hours of pleasure — weaving garlands with friends, blowing away the fluff — seemed to evoke some deep, unreasoned animosity among the adults of the world.
Even my easy-going father wasn’t immune. The appearance of a single, plump, yellow blossom in the middle of our beautifully manicured lawn would send him running for the dandelion digger: a tool perfectly designed to dispatch the evil weed, taproot and all. Like those storied Norwegians at Copenhagen, when my dad set his mind to confronting the enemy, there would be no quarter given.
Ten thousand weeds confronted one Swede at the Battle of Lawn-Grown-Over.
Ten thousand weeds succumbed to the Swede, cut down by one lawn mower.
Sitting around the dinner table, as we argued the fate of the dandelions (Let ’em grow, and make wine versus Kill ’em all, and smile in the process), one truth became obvious: categories are slippery. Which is flower, and which is weed? Which deserves to thrive? Which demands destruction? Are all invasive plants necessarily weeds? What of native wildflowers that choose to bloom where something more useful has been planned — say, in the middle of the tomato patch?
In certain cases, the answer is easy. Water hyacinth, hydrilla, kudzu, and Johnson grass are not only invasive and destructive, they may be illegal.
People continue to plant it, thinking to confine its lovely flowers and sweet perfume to that nice trellis in the back yard. But they turn their backs, and before you can say, “Honey, where’d I put that machete?” the vine has blocked the door to the doghouse, covered up the camellias and is in the process of strangling the crepe myrtle.
A number of plants listed in guides to native Texas wildflowers evoke the same cautious ambivalence. In their Wildflowers of Houston & Southeast Texas, John and Gloria Tveten suggest that the “lawnflower would be largely overlooked if it were not, as the name suggests, a troublesome lawn weed.”
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center strikes a more conciliatory tone, saying, “Depending on your point of view, Straggler Daisy or Horseherb [Lawnflower] is a pest or a welcome, shade-tolerant groundcover that tolerates moderate foot traffic. If you have a shady lawn anywhere within its range, you probably already have it.”
As for the Native Plant Society of Texas, an article from their Trinity Forks Chapter newsletter suggests lawnflower as a good native substitute for traditional grass lawns that demand far more in terms of fertilizer, water, and weed control.
Prostrate Lawnflower (Calyptocarpus vialis)
Things do get complicated in the great outdoors. When I came across my first Purple Leatherflower vine, the Texas native was clambering over an assortment of bushes, shrubs, and debris at the edge of the Brazos River in East Columbia. I made a return visit to see if I could find more blooms, or perhaps some of its seeds, but found only a tidied-up space where the plants had been. Apparently, someone had resolved an internal debate by declaring the vine a weed, and pulling it out.
Purple Leatherflower, Purple Clematis bud (Clematis pitcheri)
Purple Leatherflower, Purple Clematis (Clematis pitcheri)
About a month later, amid the trellised blackberry vines at a picking farm down the road, I found another plant I’d never seen: the beach ground cherry. My buckets full, I plucked one of blossoms and carried it with me to the checkout counter. “What’s this?” I said, laying it on the counter. The girl helping me picked it up and turned it around. “Where’d you find it?” “Out in the blackberries,” I said. “The Kiowas.” “Oh,” she said, “it’s just a weed. All sorts of things grow out there, but we don’t pull them after the fruit starts to set.”
Beach Ground Cherry (Physalis cinerascens)
Through the whole of blackberry season, I kept looking for “just weeds.” Mixed in with the tomatoes, blackberries, squash, and zinnias were some of most striking wildflowers and fruits imaginable. Many of them, I’d never seen.
Sharp-Pod Morning Glory (Ipomoea trichocarpa)
Purple Passion-Flower (Passiflora incarnata)
Fruit of the Purple Passion-Flower (Passiflora incarnata)
Erect dayflower, Widow’s tears (Commelina erecta)
Philadelphia Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus)
Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis)
During my last visit of the season, in the midst of my berry picking, I noticed a woman with a camera down the row from me. Only a few inches from her subject, she hardly noticed my approach.
After she’d clicked the shutter, I asked if she was photographing blackberries instead of picking them. She laughed, and pointed to a tiny clump of primrose just at the edge of the row. “I came for these,” she said, before adding that she’d started documenting wildflowers on the farm more than two years earlier. During the season, she often visited two or three times each week.
“Lots of folks wouldn’t bother,” she said. “A few years ago, I wouldn’t have bothered. I used to think anything you couldn’t harvest was a weed. Finally, I figured out these so-called weeds are pretty nice, too.”
And so they are. They’re pretty, and interesting. Each of them has a history, and each of them is a part of our heritage. If we’re willing to get a little dusty, we’ll find they’re not intruders at all.