A Weed By Any Other Name

Originally published on MSNBC.com

A Weed by Any Other Name
Ilga Jansons

 A weed is “A plant whose Virtues have not yet been discovered.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“Why those things are just weeds,” sniffed a woman quietly to the man at her side as they inspected my rock ledge of fritillarias, “How can they let them go wild in this lovely garden?” I happened to overhear my Open Garden visitors wincing at the lowly forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica) which bobble about in my spring garden. I’m certainly pleased that my erudite visitors were enchanted by Fritillaria pudica in bloom, but also saddened that they discounted both the sweet delicacy of the tiny forget-me-not blossoms and the rhythm of their undulation through the garden. I have come to the conclusion that often, ‘Weeds are in the eye of the beholder.’ 

Some plants get the appellation weed because they seed easily and are not at all fussy about their growing conditions. Others propagate vegetatively through underground runners and can sneak into unwanted locations and may be impossible to irradiate unless you remove every inch of root. Others are weeds because of their lanky habit or unkempt appearance. Don’t get me wrong, some of these are very serious garden pests that you do not want rampant in your flower beds or if their freewheeling ways extend beyond the garden, are virulent environmental pests. These can be a menace to native habitat and agriculture. But you can utilize lots of what some may call ‘weedy’ plants very effectively in the garden.  

In the spring, I use the aforementioned forget-me-nots to camouflage the aging leaves of early and mid spring bulbs. By the time the forget-me-nots are going to seed and succumbing to powdery mildew, the bulb leaves are maturing. I just pull the whole lot out to make way for summer groundcovers, hostas, annuals, or whatever my fancy has decided for that particular location. The fern-leafed corydalis (Corydalis cheilanthifolia) and C. flexosa add, not only yellow and blue blossoms, but also lovely contrasting foliage to the later daffodils and tulips. Both seed themselves quite casually, but not too aggressively in my garden. 

I used to wage war on Geranium x oxonianum ‘Claridge Druce’ seedlings showing up everywhere. Now I spot the errant seedlings into a pot and save them for ‘frontier gardening’ along the boundaries of my woods, in the gravel and rock along the edge of my driveway and by the road. They seem inured to hardship, undemanding, and shade out some of my serious weed encroachers while I build up soils and make more permanent plans for those locations. 

Being an inveterate plant collector, my garden has patches that have fallen under the spell of plant lust. A lovely nursery plant has lured me into buying it, only to find itself plopped into a bed temporarily. Pretty soon, I have a random patchwork that could use some unification. This is where a generous self seeder is in order, especially for large areas of patchwork. You can knit the view together with a recurring rhythm of the same plant in many locations. And self-seeding is about as carefree and inexpensive as you can get.  

The effect of the white tossing heads of feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) has done a lot to help make my plant collection look more like a garden. The little flowers sparkle in the sunshine and glow in the moonlight. The golden leafed form (T.p. ‘Aureum’) is especially handsome and there is a plethora of named varieties with double button flowers in white and yellow. What’s more, a tea of the flowers is purported to help migraine headaches. Just remember to cut them back to the ground after their first flush of bloom and they’ll be there again for summer handiwork. 

Annual poppies are another great self-seeder to add repetition with their casual ramblings to the garden. Peony flowered Papaver somniferum is an especially great highlight. Their tall glaucous leaves and stems are topped with stunning color possibilities in maroon, burgundy, red, or mauve. You can buy seed packets sorted by color or let nature surprise you. I walk around my garden with seed-filled pods and shake them helter-skelter in my sunny beds, generally delighted with the results. When a seedling does show up in a misbegotten place, given their plentitude, I don’t feel guilty in its destruction. 

The tall, magenta punctuations of rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) are another filler that I use on my long driveway. They cavort quite well with the geraniums and act as a place saver crowding out less attractive weeds. Being biennials, I sometimes use their first-year furry, gray leaves in one location and then either transplant them to fill a problem area for their second year, or simply tear them out before they bloom. The alert, purple heads of Verbena bonariensis have a similar upright blooming habit. It’s always exciting to see where they have chosen to roost each year, especially since they bloom later in the season.  

My favorite self-seeders fill in spaces where aggressive and unwelcome weeds would gain a foothold—remember: Nature hates a vacuum. But allowing self-seeding plants a relatively free hand in your garden can be a dangerous thing if you are not vigilant. For example, the policy I have with Viola labradorica, a prodigious seeder, is that during spring cleanup I weed them ALL out. If I weed out every plant I see, I usually have just enough later in the season. Welsh poppies (Meconopsis cambrica) can be a menace if you allow too many to go to seed. Just snap their spent flower heads each time you walk by to discourage too many seedlings. They are hard to weed out after becoming established with their long, tough taproot, so extra youngsters are mercilessly extinguished. Remember, a weed is: ‘A plant growing in a place where it is not wanted,’ even if you planted it! 

Early and thorough spring weeding is my answer to weeds and exuberant self seeders.  The old adage of ‘One year seeding, seven years weeding.’ is usually an exaggeration for self-seeders, but especially true of noxious weeds. It is one of the reasons they have become environmental pests. For example, the common weed, curly dock (Rumex crispus) sends out nearly 30,000 seeds, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) sets about 50,000 seeds, and a single common mullein (Verbascum  thapsis)) nearly a quarter of a million seeds per plant! What’s more, mullien seeds are viable for nearly 40 years! 

Sometimes an ‘easy’ plant may also be or become a serious weed in a particular region. Generally, these are plants that have ‘escaped’ from gardens, agricultural products, or other introduction methods and are overly competitive, poisonous, or destructive of habitats. It is very, very important to know the difference. If a non-native plant is excessively rampant in your area, it may be classified as a noxious weed. In my zone 8 Pacific Northwest climate, herb-Robert (Geranium robertianum) is on the hit-list, so finding hybrids ‘Celtic White,’ for instance, in a catalog was a bit shocking. Finding a mention that Hypericum perforatum is ‘ideal for a wild garden’ when it is a Class C mandatory controlled plant in our county, was another eye opener. You do need to distinguish ‘easy’ plants from noxious ones.  

A weed has been described as ‘A plant from outside the garden that ends up inside the garden.’ In our globetrotting world it might well be reversed, ‘A plant from inside the garden that ends up outside the garden.’ It is estimated that north of Mexico, between 1/5 and 1/3 of all plants in North America are NOT native. However, differentiating between native and non-native plants is not always the answer, either. Some non-native plants are ecologically benign while some native plants have become serious weeds when human intervention alters the landscape through building, agriculture, or overgrazing.

We humans alter our environs and nature constantly. We have even been described as the ultimate weed species. If you don’t want to be the person who introduces the next disastrous equivalent of kudzu into your neighborhood, be sure and get the latest information about local noxious weeds from your Department of Natural Resources or Extension Service and utilize safe self-seeders to help you elbow out the bad-guys.


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