Someone defined a weed as any plant that’s growing in the wrong spot. I think most would agree it’s also any plant that is generally hated. Yet there are some who sing the praises of such as the lowly dandelion, an introduced plant originally intended as a consumable and a boon to the first bees of spring. And a few years ago I read an article advocating for letting the detestable creeping charlie take over your lawn so as to obviate the need to mow and enjoying its spring flush of purple blooms. (I wonder whether the writer ever had to contend with creeping charlie also taking over the rest of the garden.) Garlic mustard is another plant that’s not unattractive, but spreads too aggressively for my taste.
Probably a few sentences have been written discussing the difference between a weed and a wildflower. I have to admit to a certain acceptance for what some may regard as “weeds.” Over the years, I’ve decided to welcome all comers that look at least a little attractive because (a) they’re low/no maintenance, (b) they’re hard to eradicate, and (c) they’re free. Most do tend to proliferate, so it’s important to pull them out where they don’t belong. But if there’s space available, some of them can very nicely fill in what would be an otherwise empty spot. This perhaps causes some of you to cringe, especially those who don’t have the luxury of acreage to abandon to the whims of nature.
In the wide angle photo taken this May, there are yellowrocket (Barbarea vulgaris) and reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) in the foreground, Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) in the middle, with white hemlock parsley (Conioselinum chinense) in the background … all weeds or wildflowers as you will. In the fall, most of this area is taken over by goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), which does tend to spread rampantly, but is fairly easy to pull by hand. I guess it qualifies as a weed, depending on where it’s growing, though the late season pollinators would disagree. Hemlock parsley looks a lot like Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), which is another wildflower I allow, and both have a habit of looking pretty cruddy when they go to seed. The answer is a quick topping with hedge trimmers.
By virtue of their willingness to run amok, wildflowers create discord for those gardeners who prefer combinations of flowers that are color coordinated. But white seems to fit in almost anywhere. For that reason I welcome daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus) and white campion (Lychnis alba) along with the cultivated flowers. In the image of the cottage garden, the spots of white are daisy fleabane. If you want a neat and orderly garden, wildflowers can sabotage your best laid plans. As one of my favorite Dolly Parton songs: “wildflowers don’t care where they grow”.
Wild chicory (Cichorium intybus) has been well behaved on my property, but it’s not uncommon to see it blooming in large drifts along country roads. It actually has an interesting backstory, as do some other “weeds” originally introduced for food or medicinal purposes. Each chicory flower blooms only to mid-day, although the plants produce flowers pretty much all summer. While this Old World wildflower/weed has sometimes proliferated to become a plant pest, it is also cultivated for its food uses; the roots can be roasted and ground as a coffee substitute or additive. Young leaves may be used in salads. Emulating the late Ewell Gibbons, some day I might work up the courage to give it a taste test!
Obviously, you’re not likely to find any of these at your local garden center. Certainly there are some plants that are truly detestable; many gardeners face never-ending tasks of weeding a wide variety of herbaceous thugs. They’re always there. Perhaps the definition of a weed versus a wildflower is cast in Jello rather than cast in cement. Many of you are probably saying “I know a weed when I see it.” I guess I do too. Call me a pushover for anything that looks sort of pretty.
I made a sign for one of my garden plots that says “Pay no attention to the weeds – if you look, it only encourages them”.