(CBS News) The dictionary definition of a weed: "A plant considered undesirable, unattractive, or troublesome, especially one growing where it is not wanted." (American Heritage Dictionary)
They insult us by their very existence. They bring out the killer instinct in us. We wage chemical warfare against them, and they win. This story is about the survival of the fittest and who might that be? No doubt about it: Weeds.
"This is an absolute enemy of the state; there's no question whatsoever," said Stanley Culpeper, a weed scientist with the University of Georgia, where his students call him "Dr. Pigweed."
The name of this menace - palmer amaranth, a.k.a. pigweed - an ordinary, manageable nuisance until recently, now a frankenweed.
"Some of 'em are 5 to 6 foot tall, and it's only about 70 days old," said Culpepper. "If you look closely inside, you may or may not be able to see it, but if you look closely inside, here's our cotton crop."
It was completely overwhelmed. The weed's march across the South has devastated cotton and soybean crops.
"If you're off a week, this plant will beat you," said Culpepper. "If you go to the beach and you shouldn't have, this plant will beat you, so it is war, and it's a war of survival because this plant will put us out of business."
As an example, Culpepper showed a stake he planted to measure one weed's height.
"Now you see my stake; that was at the top of that plant four days ago, all right?" Culpepper said. "So that's at least 8 inches in four days."
This relentless killer of crops was discovered eight years ago on a farm in Macon County, Ga.
"In 2012, we confirmed it in 76 Georgia counties, so we went from 500 acres to well over 2 million acres," Culpepper said.
How did it happen?
Ever hear of Roundup, yup that stuff that's advertised on TV.
Roundup, the commercial name for an herbicide called glyphosate, was marketed to farmers as a miracle weed killer. Monsanto, its manufacturer, genetically engineered cotton and soybean seeds so they were Roundup-resistant.
"Roundup used to be just a cure-all for everything," said farmer Harold Johnson.
Johnson farms 1,000 acres in Macon and neighboring Dooly counties. All he had to do was spray on Roundup. His Roundup-resistant crops lived. The pigweed died - until it didn't.
"Just all of a sudden, they would lay down, and then they'd stand right back up, and then it got to the point where they wouldn't even lay down," Johnson said.
The pigweed had genetically engineered itself and become Roundup-resistant too.
Now here's the terrifying part.
"This plant's gonna produce in excess of 500,000 seeds, one female plant," said Culpepper, "and if it survives, it produces a half-a-million seeds."
Desperate growers have deployed their own army against their enemy, like footsoldiers from another century, to hand-weed huge fields. And Dr. Pigweed has a warning.
"This plant has absolutely adapted to everything that we have done so far," Culpepper said.
New York City hopes Larry Cihanek's goats will have better luck against another weed gone wild, an invasive variety of a reed called phragmites plaguing Freshkills Park, an enormous former landfill on Staten Island the city is restoring.
The experiment: To see if the goats will eat their way through 2 acres of the stuff.
"A goat eats about 20 percent of its body weight a day in weeds, so that's a 65/70-pound goat, so that goat's gonna eat 15 to 20 pounds of food a day," said Cihanek. "We have 20 goats. The objective was to do it in six weeks, and they'll certainly do it in six weeks."
It turns out they love phragmites. Six weeks later, success.
Now kudzu, another weed, was actually brought to some places deliberately.
"It was touted, sad to say, by USDA about 100 years ago as being the next miracle plant, and it was brought over from Asia, planted along the embankments of railroad trellises," said Lewis Ziska, a weed scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "and somewhere along the line in the post-World-War-II era, it kind of got out of hand."
Boy, did it.
"It's about 8 million acres of it now in the United States," Ziska said.
There's so much of it, scientists are trying to turn it into a biofuel. (Really.) But kudzu is not just a bad joke - the weed that ate the South - kudzu is something a lot scarier.
"Now, 50 years ago, you would be hard-pressed to find kudzu north of the Potomac," said Ziska. "Today, it's pretty much everywhere north of the Potomac, and two years ago they found it for the first time in Canada, in southern Ontario."
Kudzu has become a map of climate change.
"One of the things that keeps a lot of these invasive species in check, kudzu included, has been really cold winters," said Ziska. "As the winters have warmed, what's happened is that slowly, kudzu is migrating northward. Kudzu does not have a political stake in climate change. It's simply responding to the change in temperature that's already occurring."
So can anything be learned from weeds?
"Between the sidewalk and the asphalt, it's able not only to grow, but to thrive," Ziska said.
Lewis Ziska takes us to the weedy parking lot behind his office.
"There's seven billion of us on the globe right now," said Ziska. "We're gonna have to feed those people. How do we do that with less water, less soil, less fertilizer and a climate on steroids, and yet, here you have this plant that's able to grow up through the asphalt, so, yeah, we can learn a whole lot from how this plant functions, how it does, and take those lessons and apply them to cultivated plants as a means to adapt."
Tama Matsuoka Wong knows she can't beat weeds, so she eats them.
She said lamb's quarters is a weed farmers will really work hard to get rid of.
"But it's very nutritious and as long as you're picking it the right way and cooking it," said Matsuoka, a lawyer turned weed forager.
She supplies edible weeds to a couple of the fanciest restaurants on the East Coast.
She pointed to one weed that she thinks almost anyone can find.
"When it's small, it's onion grass, but what happens is they get these aril bulbettes," she said.
They tasted juicy and garlicky, but delicate.
The backyard of her rural New Jersey home is a weed meadow.
Matsuoka's message: That one person's weeds are another's lunch, and they can be delicious.
Using recipes from her just-published weed cookbook, she and her daughter showed us, with a few of the weeds we picked: Creeping jenny, tomato and mozzarella salad, curried lamb and lambsquarters meatballs, and amaranth, onion and feta phyllo triangles. (No, not palmer amaranth, our old friend pigweed. A relative.)
(Scroll down to see some recipes from Matsuoka's book)
"But I would love to get some, you know, clean palmer's amaranth and try and see if it tastes the same as this one," Matsuoka said.
So maybe it could be transformed from enemy into friend.
And I know where she can find a lot of it.
Excerpted recipes from "Foraged Flavor" by Tama Matsuoka Wong and Eddy Leroux
Chocolate-Dipped Wild Spearmint Leaves
These chocolate-covered mint leaves have a fresh, wild flavor that sets them apart from other chocolate-covered treats. Serve as an after-dinner refreshment with tea or coffee.
1. Lay a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet that will fit in your refrigerator. Melt 2 ounces good-quality bittersweet chocolate (60% cacao minimum; not chips) in a microwave or double boiler, stirring until smooth. Let cool until it is just warm when you dip a finger in it.
2. Holding the base of a mint leaf with your fingers (or blunt tweezers), dip each leaf into the melted chocolate, wipe off the excess chocolate on the side of the bowl or pot, and then place the leaf flat on the parchment paper. Continue dipping the leaves one by one. When finished, place the baking sheet in the refrigerator to set the chocolate.
3. Spoon unsweetened cocoa powder in the bottom of a small lidded container. Peel each leaf off the parchment paper, place in the container, and cover the leaf in the cocoa powder, adding more cocoa powder in layers as you fill the container. Keep the container in the refrigerator and take out the chilled chocolate leaves just before serving.
Amaranth and Feta Phyllo Triangles
With more flavor than spinach triangles and packed with vitamins, these quickly became a hit in our house; we like this so much we double the recipe when we make it because no one can eat just one.
Serves 4; Makes 8 triangles
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
2 medium leeks, white and light green parts only, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
4 ounces (2 cups packed) amaranth leaves, roughly chopped
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, to taste
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (1 cup)
2 large eggs
4 (16 x 12-inch) sheets frozen phyllo dough, defrosted
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
2. In a large skillet, melt the butter. Pour off half of it and set aside. Add the leeks and garlic to the pan and cook over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the amaranth, red pepper flakes, 2 generous pinches of salt, and 1/4 cup water. Cook over low heat for 3 minutes, or until the liquid has evaporated. Remove from the heat and transfer to a medium bowl. Add the feta and eggs and mix to combine.
3. Lay one of the sheets of phyllo dough on a smooth work surface. Cut the sheet in half so it becomes an 8 x 12-inch rectangle. Lightly brush the top surface of the rectangle with the reserved melted butter, then fold it in half so it becomes a double-layered 4 x 12-inch sheet with the buttered parts on the inside. Divide the amaranth into 8 equal portions (about 3 tablespoons each).
Place one portion on the bottom left corner of the phyllo, 1 inch from the end. Fold the corner up over the filling into a triangle shape. Press down to seal. Continue to fold up the sheet as you would fold a flag. Press the end to seal. Brush the top of the triangle with melted butter and sprinkle with grated Parmesan, if desired. Transfer to a baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining phyllo sheets.
4. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the edges are golden brown. Serve warm or let cool and then freeze. To reheat, defrost on the baking sheet and then bake.
Curried Lamb and Lambsquarters Meatballs
Hurrah! Eddy dreamed up a ground meat recipe, one especially for meat lovers who may shy away when they see a lot of vegetables on their plate. The lambsquarters are mild and make the meatballs juicier. You can make these ahead of time and freeze them; defrost before frying.
Makes 15 large meatballs
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
4 ounces (4 cups packed) lambsquarters leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound ground lamb or beef
1 heaping tablespoon curry powder
1 large egg yolk
Vegetable oil for frying
1. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Saute the onion and garlic for 3 minutes, or until softened. Increase the heat to high and add the lambsquarters and 1 teaspoon salt. Stirring occasionally, cook for 3 minutes, or until bright green and softened. Turn off the heat and let cool.
2. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix the ground meat with the curry powder and egg yolk. In a food processor, blend the lambsquarters mixture for 1 minute. Stir into the bowl with the ground meat. Mix well. It should look greenish. Using your hands, roll the mixture into 2-inch meatballs.
3. To cook the meatballs, pour 1/2 inch of vegetable oil into a large saucepan and heat over medium heat. Season the meatballs with salt and pepper and brown them well on both sides for 5 to 8 minutes, or until they become dark outside but are still a little pink inside. Test one to make sure it is not raw in the middle.