Snaking along a pot-holed road on the way to our next surf spot in eastern Java, loaded up with our surfboards and bags in the racks of our motorbikes, I caught a glimpse of the unmistakable flower of Lantana. Enthusiastic to confirm it was Lantana and show it to my companions, I braked suddenly and pulled off the road. “I’ve found Lantana! I knew it would be here! This is terrific!”. My excitement wasn’t matched by my Canadian friends who almost came to grief swerving to avoid me, and who had become well and truly sick of my overzealous reactions to plants they’d never seen or heard of before. My manoeuvre and my excitement was particularly unpopular with Deano, a member of our convoy who was an Australian from Newcastle. Deano, as it turns out, volunteered many of his childhood weekends trying to eradicate Lantana from his uncle’s property in the Blue Mountains. He made his discontent clear, telling me “You almost killed us for Lantana! It’s everywhere! And it’s a bloody weed!”
I picked some branches with flowers so that I could show some locals, to see what they thought about Lantana, if they knew of any uses for it, or if they considered it to be a problem. I left these samples on the table in our guest house’s common area. I returned in the evening to find that it had provoked a discussion between Deano, our hosts, and a couple of our hosts’ family members who were visiting from their nearby farm.
The group displayed four broad attitudes towards Lantana: Deano hated it, outright; the local farmers found it to be a pest, but no more of a problem than a number of other plants that they must remove each season from their cassava plantation; the younger members of the host family were ambivalent to it, recognising it from the roadside but not considering it to be special in any way; and our host ‘mother’ who liked it and was at that moment considering planting it at the back of their property to create a colourful hedge that would separate the guest house from the neighbouring property’s dusty grazing paddock.
Deano was outraged that such a discussion could even occur, let alone that anyone might like Lantana and consider planting it. Throughout, he kept repeating “But, it’s a weed!” He kept looking to me for back up, but I was having way too much fun letting the discussion unfold – besides, I had not seen Lantana being a problem in this place and tended to disagree with him. Eventually, I explained that I consider the designation of a plant as a weed to be a contextual, interpretive and often personal exercise, one that depends on how people relate to a plant in a particular place. By this stage Deano had ‘googled’ Lantana and found that it had been introduced to Java, something he used aggressively to substantiate his classification. To this, I asked how long a plant needed to be in a landscape before it could be considered to belong or to become ‘unweedy’. Deano’s response, “a weed is a weed is a weed.”
The themes embedded in this reflection and in my previous blog – particularly that people consider plants differently depending on context, and that these reactions are often personal – have been comprehensively addressed before. Although nothing here is new, that these experiences came from my trip, with my friends, on my time, something that was consciously and purposefully not research and un-academic, crystallised the ‘everyday’ nature of the relationships between people, plants, and place.