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Weed, Wild Flower or Garden Flower?

Contributed by Kerry Lake, Master Gardener

 
 

Bending over at the hips, or crawling on your knees in the garden, it is the weeds that are the focus of our labor now. Weeds in the garden once were considered harmful, even invasive. The thought was that weeds needed to be destroyed at any cost. Yes, we hate galinsoga, sheep sorrel, bindweed, and hiding under all the rest is that purslane. But being this ‘up-close and personal’ with our plants while weeding does have the benefit of seeing exactly what is going on in our gardens.

You’ve heard the saying ‘A weed is a plant in the wrong place’, but………..let’s take another look at some of our common weeds and some that could be named wild flowers, or even garden flowers. Maybe some of them aren’t so awful.

Galinsoga grows less than 6 inches tall and has white daisy-like flowers. The small native pollinators must like it since it is all over my vegetable garden this year. This plant is partial to rich, moist soil (aka our gardens this year).


Morning Glory, Hedge Bindweed, (Convolvulus sepium), creeps along the ground as well as any vertical support it can find, including other plants. Yet when blooming, we love it.


Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is another gift from the Old World. This plant can grow everywhere. It is an annual and dependent on seeds for reproduction, but broken off pieces will take root to start new plants. Portulaca grandiflora, also known as rose moss or sun moss, is an annual from Brazil. It likes hot and dry locations where other plants may not thrive. The narrow, fleshy leaves are slightly different from the P. oleracea.


Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) is a perennial native to the Northern Hemisphere and is another plant just as comfortable in the lawn, drainage ditches, or the garden. It spreads easily by slender running roots and as well as its brown seeds.

 

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, is one of the first plants to flower in the early spring, providing nectar for emerging native pollinators. Its habitat is in meadow, along roadside, and especially the lawn.  Dandelions have a long taproot, requiring a tool such as a scratch weeder for removal.  But wait until something else is blooming in the garden before you remove them, so that the emerging pollinators will have food just as winter recedes.  Besides, the spherical seed heads are so much fun to blow into the wind.  Don’t worry, birds will eat the seeds.


 

Clover is a legume from the pea family of Fabaceae, one of those plants that can fix nitrogen in the soil for future use, reducing the need for commercial fertilizers. White clover and red clover are cultivated, usually mixed in with rye, as fodder plants for livestock.  What about the clover that is in our gardens? This is Burr Clover, Medicago hispida, related to the agricultural crop of Alfalfa. Clover is a favorite food of bumble bees, another native pollinator who sadly, is fading from our landscapes.


 

Violets are another pretty spring flower for our native pollinators but also important in the life-cycle of the Fritillary butterfly.  Violets are from the Violaceae plant family, which has over 500 species, both perennial and annual.  Three varieties, the native round-leaf violet (V. rotundifolia), the arrow-leaf violet (V. fimbriatula), and the common blue violet (V. sororia) serve as the larval host plant in the spring for the great spangled Fritillary butterfly (Speyeria cybele) of the Nymphalidae family. The violet is also this butterfly’s favorite plant for laying their eggs for next year’s butterflies in August.  Let’s hold off on pulling out the violets in the garden in late summer, early fall.


Common Milkweed  

Milkweed has about 150 species within its genus.  Here in the New England, we are most familiar with the orange-flowered ‘butterflyweed’, Asclepias syriaca, which is a favorite place for the Monarch Butterfly to lay its eggs. Here the Monarch caterpillar feeds, absorbing toxins from the Milkweed, making it distasteful to birds.


Evening Primrose or Oenothera has been domesticated into a beautiful yellow flowering plant for the perennial bed. The intense yellow-colored flowers give a great show in the June and early July garden. Even Speedwell or Veronica started as a native ‘weed’.  As was Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium).  The native version can still be seen in the East and Midwest in pastures and along ditch banks.  I used to think the pink flowered Eupatorium was a different variety of Milkweed.


Cranesbill  

You can find Wild Geraniums or Crane’s-Bill (G.cowenii and G. maculatum), in the native plant category but also at the garden center. The native varieties can be found in open fields and sometimes in wooded areas.  We plant them in full sun at the edge of our garden beds. This is another great plant for attracting pollinators.


 Queen Anne  

Wild Carrot or Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), if allowed to get a hold in our cultivated gardens can be a nuisance to remove.  It is a native of the Old World but can be found throughout North America. Its lacy foliage and flowers are lovely wherever it grows. Queens Anne’s’ Lace is a bi-annual, blooming in its second year.  Our garden carrots are a relative of Daucus carota.


Another wild flower that can suddenly appear, and be a dickens to remove, is Soldiago or Goldenrod. It looks beautiful from afar in fields in the late summer. If you do want it in your garden, be ruthless in pulling in back to it ‘boundaries’ or it will take over. Pair Goldenrod with blue flowering Asters, Joe Pie weed (Eupatorium), red or orange Cone Flower (Echinacea).


None of the plants that I have listed here made it into Bill Laws’ book Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History; the story of plants that affected great changes in our human lives. None the less, this list of plants is important in our local eco system. They provide nectar and pollen for our native pollinators, seeds for birds, and sometimes a little un-hybridized beauty in our garden worlds.

Resources:

A golden guide to Weeds by Alexander C. Martin and illustrated by Jean Zallinger.

Peterson First Guides Insects by Christopher Leahy and illustrated by Richard E. White

Peterson First Guides Caterpillars by Amy Bartlett Wright

The Odyssey Book of American Wildflowers, text by H.W. Rickett and photographs by Farrell Grehan

New England Wildflower Society


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