If a weed by the standard Webster’s definition is “a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth,” then what’s a #WeedNotWeed? By the standard Humane Gardener definition, it’s a species deemed a weed by humans but relied heavily upon by wildlife. Some of these native plants need little introduction, having finally revealed their long-neglected beauty thanks to a growing interest in bee and butterfly gardening. Others are still commonly saddled with stereotypes, appearing most often in derogatory lists of “weeds” created for large-scale agriculture. This ongoing Humane Gardener series, #WeedsNotWeeds, highlights both the native plants in the limelight and those in the still-maligned-light.
Last week I walked my street for more than a mile without ever seeing a bee.
While that may seem unremarkable at a time when stores are already stocking Christmas decorations, to me it’s a sign that something’s amiss. That’s because I’ve dedicated a few minutes of most autumn afternoons to photographing more animals than I could count on our little plot of land: bumblebees, mining bees, sweat bees, pearl crescents, orange sulphurs, common buckeyes, Eastern-tailed blues, wasps, syrphid flies, monarchs, common checkered skippers, and creatures I cannot yet name:
There were a few signs of life around the rest of the neighborhood when I went on my walk: a funny-faced pit mix who likes to pretend she’s tough stuff behind her invisible fence; a squirrel peeking around from behind a tree to ensure I wasn’t after his walnut; a flock of geese overhead; birds in the roadside canopies harmonizing with the perpetual cricket chorus; and a man on a large mower that leveled his front yard while he went along for the ride.
All in all, it was pretty quiet for a mile-long stretch, a silence I’ve come to expect. I’m familiar with the lack of plant diversity—and the resulting dearth of what could be abundant animal life—on the turf-dominated landscapes throughout our town. In the past the barrenness has so discouraged me that I’ve sometimes forgone some much needed exercise. But now, determined to get my head on straight after a neck injury this summer, I’ve walked up and down the road so much that I suppose I’ve grown a little to used to the unnatural solitude that grass and pavement force upon us.
It was the sound of buzzing bees that brought me back to my senses and made me realize what I’d been missing on my journey. In front of the only other plant-filled property on our long road were bumblebees, sweat bees, and orange sulphurs—a whole community of animals much like those in my meadow. With few grass blades in sight, my neighbor Wayne’s yard is a refuge, much like mine, for species still searching for sustenance even as we humans begin retreating inside to our TVs and fireplaces.
My own gardens haven’t always been such a rich refueling station for animals as the seasons change. A few years ago I noticed butterflies and bees zipping around our property, presumably searching for flowers, after almost everything had gone to seed. Desperate to help them, my husband and I started planting more native fall blooms—swamp sunflowers, smooth asters, New England asters, goldenrods of every size and stripe. But even more beneficial to our wild inhabitants is what we have stopped doing altogether—namely mowing the field behind our house. Now that broomsedge, purpletop grass, and other native grasses are beginning to take hold, they put out a natural welcome mat for all sorts of uncultivated fall flowers, including late-flowering thoroughwort, more goldenrods, and especially frost asters that sprout throughout the meadow. I no longer have to worry about whether we have enough to feed the migrating monarchs or the tattered but still flying fritillaries or the gourmand bees who feed their young pollen only from certain fall-flowering species but turn their proboscises up at everything else.
You don’t need a two-acre expanse to create such opportunities for our wild friends. In fact, small yards in cities can support abundant life, especially when native plantings connect these habitat fragments across the landscape. On my property, the patio, roadside, and container plantings offer their own kind of buffets.
These flowers won’t be here for much longer. This morning I awoke to a freeze warning, in effect until 9 a.m. By now many of our tiny friends are retreating to their winter hiding places. But I’m still planting this week for those who are left—and the many more who will visit throughout the next season. In some areas of the country, it’s not too late to add life-sustaining native trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers to your yard. And though the stores are now filled with traditional spring bulbs like daffodils and tulips, those flowers won’t do anything for the specialist bee who emerges just in time to gather pollen only from the flowers of spring beauties or the one who takes pollen exclusively from violets to feed her young. Even generalist foragers like bumblebees, who visit a wide variety of blooms, will likely have better luck with natives like Dutchman’s breeches and Virginia bluebells than with plants sold en masse at big box centers. Not only are many still treated with systemic pesticides that can contaminate pollen and nectar; some highly bred plants have had nutritious floral resources largely removed for the sake of extra petals and other aesthetic characteristics pleasing to human eyes.
One day I hope to walk my street and hear the sounds not of lawn mowers but of busy bees visiting their favorite flowers lining the driveways, the front walkways, and the roadsides. Last month the Natural Resources Defense Council predicted a major shift away from lawns over the next 10 to 15 years. But we don’t have to wait that long. We can act now, one property and neighborhood at a time, planting the seeds of a flower revolution wherever we go, starting with our own front yards.
You can find native plant sales and nurseries in your area by checking out the website of your state native plant society. If you don’t live close enough to a nursery that sells native plants, search online for sources like Izel Plants, one of my favorites in the mid-Atlantic, or Prairie Moon Nursery in the Midwest.
Much gardening advice—even from animal-friendly corners—revolves around strategies for tricking mammals out of a meal in some way: planting “deer-resistant” plants, coating leaves of coveted species with unpalatable powders, or adding impenetrable fencing around the whole garden. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying these methods, they’re often implemented in a vacuum, without accounting for the barren spaces that exist just outside the typical vegetable or flower patch in American suburbia. How refreshing would it be if we gardeners spent as much time focused on what species to plant for animals as we do on how to subvert these hungry creatures in our midst?
Resistance to deer, rabbits, and other wild visitors is often futile anyway, as mammals diversify their menus based on availability. It’s easier and more rewarding to reject the dominant paradigm of herbicide-laden turfgrass in favor of creating or preserving natural areas for wildlife grazing. This strategy of sharing the land has certainly been effective on my property: Throughout the seasons, my husband and I watch rabbits and deer foraging much less often on the species we planted than on the grasses, perennials, and groves of tree saplings seeded by wind and birds all over the former lawn and at the woods’ edge.
The reason for our success comes down to simple arithmetic: When there’s enough to go around, we can all enjoy nature’s gifts. When we vastly deplete our natural resources, converting more than 40 million acres of the national landscape to turfgrass and paving over much of the rest, we leave little left for wild animals to eat, hide, nest and rest in.
For the ecologically minded gardener with an interest in taking a pass on grass, it can still be difficult to find relevant and appropriate information about some of our most common plants. Many state agencies, universities, mainstream gardening organizations, and pesticide companies are narrowly focused on maintaining monocultures of agricultural crops, golf courses, and the bland suburban lawn. Any species that get in the way are treated like pimples on the face of a 15-year-old, zapped with chemicals or popped out of the smooth green mirage.
Humane Gardener’s ongoing #WeedsNotWeeds series highlights some of the species victimized by this mind-set, at the expense of the animals who depend on them. Some of the plants featured are easily found at native plant nurseries; others are more likely to sprout on our properties and inspire the inevitable question: “Is this a weed?” Here’s a more life-affirming inquiry when puzzling over plant IDs: “Is this a native plant that can help other species?” More often than we’d think, the answer is yes. In the second installment of #WeedsNotWeeds, I’m highlighting a tree, a vine, a grass, and two flowering herbaceous species that satiate and shelter our wild friends.
Nimblewill/Nimbleweed (Muhlenbergia schreberi)
For years I pulled this plant, assuming it was Japanese stiltgrass or some other invasive species. My attitude was not helped by the general opinion among gardeners and farmers that this grass native to much of the U.S. and Ontario is “pesky,” “troublesome,” “a pest in lawns,” and “very aggressive in areas where it’s not wanted.”
That last description, found on the site of a Wisconsin lawn care company, begs the question: Is nimblewill “tame” in areas where it is wanted? The answer seems counterintuitive, even ridiculous: Yes, where nimblewill is seen as desirable, as in my yard now, it’s not aggressive at all. It’s simply part of a larger community of native plants, some more reserved and others with equally vigorous tendencies. And far from damaging wildlife habitat in the manner of Japanese stiltgrass, nimblewill actually creates it, providing food for grazing deer, insects, and birds.
Horticulturally, there is also much to recommend this plant. Because it’s content in moist, shady or partly sunny sites, it can even be used to stave off stilt grass. Ironically, one site that suggests numerous methods of killing nimblewill also features a photo illustrating its major botanical asset: It stays green during summer droughts when everything around it shrivels to brown.
Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina)
“You’ll probably want to chop those down,” our kind neighbor said of the tall sumacs spreading near a row of pine trees he’d planted along our shared property line. “They’re poisonous. I’ll come over with my chainsaw and help.” Not knowing any better when we first bought our house, and wanting to be good neighbors in return, we obliged.
Something didn’t sit right with me, though, and a few years later I learned that those tall trees hadn’t been poisonous at all. They just had the misfortune of sharing a common name (and family relations) with a plant in a different genus: poison sumac, or Toxicodendron vernix. It would have been far more neighborly of us, at least for the wildlife species in our community, to leave that stand alone and let it colonize the empty corner of our backyard. The fruits of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) feed about 300 songbird species and serve as an emergency food source in the winter. Animals also take cover in the beautiful canopies, squirrels and rabbits like the bark, and deer graze on the fruits and stems.
For people, this tree provides sustenance and beauty, its berries flavoring drinks and its graceful, palm-like leaves dramatically setting off the large red fruit clusters. It doesn’t need any coddling; the bareroot plants I ordered online grew tall and fast, spreading into an overlapping canopy visited by seemingly all the birds in the neighborhood. Planted at the woods’ edge, two of the trees leaned too far toward the sun and fell last summer, but the downed wood was quickly visited by nest-builders and woodpeckers foraging for snacks. With the help of our bird friends spreading the berries, we now have two more staghorn sumac groves sprouting behind our patio and in our front yard, their fuzzy thin trunks a welcome sight this spring.
Fleabanes (Erigeron philadelphicus and Erigeron annuus)
A biennial native to most of the U.S. and Canada, the flowers of Philadelphia fleabane resemble those of an English daisy variety I grew from seed when I first began gardening on this property 16 years ago. Not surprisingly, English daisies are considered invasive not just in parts of the U.S. but also in the lawns of their homeland (sound familiar?).
Fleabane, of course, has long been similarly outcast in its native territory, including in my own yard at one time. Only after I grasped the irony of removing a native that wanted desperately to grow for the sake of planting a nonnative of questionable value, I stopped propagating English daisies and started letting the fleabanes show their pretty little heads to the world. The bees and other tiny pollinators now join the party, finding nourishment in the early-blooming flowers when little else has awakened yet.
Daisy fleabane, or Erigeron annuus, is a similar species that’s also widespread in the U.S. and Canada; Erigeron pulchellus, or robin’s plantain, is another in our yard. All three feed grazing deer, rabbits, and other mammals. In my friend Steven Yenzer’s yard, fleabane is even tastier than the nearby corn to this little fellow:
Virginia Copperleaf/Three-Seeded Mercury and Rhomboid Mercury (Acalypha virginica and Acalypha rhomboidea)
When a colleague asked me to identify this plant growing in his garden several years ago, it took me longer than it should have to find the answer. Three-seeded mercury is one of many native species that seems to straddle a kind of no-man’s land on the Internet, with information about animal dependencies available only on wildflower and naturalist sites. Though mourning doves, sparrows, greater prairie chickens, and other birds are said to eat the seeds of these Acalypha species, that relationship appears to mean little to lawn service companies, one of which warns homeowners that “proper lawn mowing and watering habits” are not enough to eradicate Virginia copperleaf—and that those methods are merely ” a supplement to professionally applied herbicides.”
That advice is unnecessary, to say the least, as this annual is easily pulled. And why yank it? Turning a rusty orange late in the season, the plants add fall color in the ground layers. They also feed deer, so when they showed up beneath my winterberry hollies where birds feast in cold weather, I let them spread.
Native to the Eastern U.S. and Canada, Acalypha rhomboidea and Acalypha virginica can be hard to tell apart, but the latter has hairier stems, narrower leaves, and more lobes on the bracts that surround the inflorescence at the base of the petioles.
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
If I could choose only a few plants for my property, Virginia creeper would make the cut. That’s partly because the vine tops another animal-friendly list—the top five highly recommended plants for birds migrating along the Eastern corridor.
Producing blue berries rich in nutrients and antioxidants needed for long avian journeys, Virginia creeper provides habitat for many permanent residents, too. Its leaves and stems feed deer, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and sphinx moth caterpillars, while its thick growth welcomes small animals to take cover and nest.
Often confused with poison ivy, the deciduous vine is easy to distinguish by its five leaves. (See these great tips for identification help.) It adds lush beauty to fences, walls and tree snags; as a groundcover, it controls erosion on shady slopes and fills in barren spaces—even, as I saw on a road trip this summer, in median strips of highways cutting through our nation’s largest cities. If there were a botanical version of Survivor, this plant would surely make the final round.
What are your favorite #WeedsNotWeeds? While many of the plants featured in this series are native to a broad swath of the continent, others are exclusive to the Eastern region. I’d love to hear from folks outside this area about their experiences with maligned native plants that sustain our wild friends!
Humans have devised a good bit of verbal trickery to justify abuse of our surroundings. If we’re tired of a certain kind of animal—or simply don’t like the looks of him—we label the whole species a “pest.” If we think a particular plant is too independent-minded for the boring cookie-cutter aesthetic standards of our corporatized culture, we call it a “weed.”
Even the official definition of “weed” is entirely arbitrary: “a plant that is not valued where it is growing,” Webster’s tells us, “and is usually of vigorous growth; especially : one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants.” I won’t be the first or last to point out the irony of such a description sprouting from the minds of a species that has taken over the planet faster than any plant ever could.
If animals had a say in the matter—if they could write their own assessments of their surroundings—what would they tell us? We’ll never know for sure, but based on our observations, we can be certain that the flowers and trees we often treat as trash are treasures for wildlife. Some of these native plants need little introduction, having finally revealed their long-neglected beauty thanks to a growing interest in life-sustaining gardens. Others are still commonly saddled with stereotypes, appearing most often in derogatory lists of “weeds” created for large-scale agriculture.
In an ongoing Humane Gardener series, #WeedsNotWeeds, I’m going to highlight both the native plants in the limelight and those in the still-maligned-light. Here are five to get us started.
New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)
A plant frequently sold by native nurseries, the gorgeous ironweed wouldn’t normally top my list of species in need of defenders. But it didn’t take much research to learn why it was ever dubbed a “weed” in the first place: Cows and horses find it unpalatable, so it has an easy time spreading in pastures where farmers would prefer to grow grazing plants. But butterflies, bees, and birds need to eat, too. To provide a nonstop buffet from late summer into fall, add native ironweeds to your garden. In my meadow, ironweed thrives and reseeds among Joe Pye weed and native sunflower species.
As its common names imply, this native plant colonizes burned or disturbed sites. In my yard, it has appeared in an abandoned vegetable garden, sprouting in the shadow of volunteer goldenrods. Though the tiny composite flowers are hard for us to discern, they’re delicious to bees large and small, as well as to wasps and flies. This isn’t so much a species you purchase—I’ve never seen it sold except in dried form for medicinal use—as one you let bloom where it plants itself in naturalized areas. For help with identification at different stages, check out these Name That Plant photos.
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)
Jewelweed never fails to remind me of my own ignorance—and of the fallibility of human language and perspective. Its spectacular flowers are a magnet for hummingbirds; bees and butterflies also visit. Unfortunately for those animals, when we moved into our home 16 years ago, I saw jewelweed growing along the back fence and insisted on removing it. As I extolled its beauty even while yanking it out, my husband tried to stop me from my militancy. But eventually he joined in after I showed him the name of the plant. Neither of us realized back then not to trust labels.
Though it grows throughout much of the U.S. and Canada in shady, moist areas, jewelweed has not come back in my yard. Last summer while walking up the street, I saw it repatriating a lot where a developer had clear-cut an eighth of an acre before abandoning his project a few years back. Sadly, by the time of my next walk, the jewelweed had been mowed down. The next time I see it there, I will collect a few seeds—a great way to give the population a protected home while also ensuring my new plants are already adapted to local conditions.
Smartweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum)
If you ask a duck, mourning dove or goose whether this is a valuable plant, they may be too busy nibbling to respond. Smartweed seeds also feed bobwhites, ring-necked pheasants, rails, mice, muskrats, raccoons, fox squirrels, and dozens of other species. Birds and other animals seek cover among the leaves. Last summer, after digging up turfgrass to plant native river oats (Chasmanthum latifolium), I discovered smartweed and Japanese stiltgrass moving in together around the edges. I trimmed down the stiltgrass to keep it from seeding and let the smartweed continue to proliferate. We’ll witness the next stage of this experiment when the weather warms.
Horseweed (Conyza canadensis)
You can’t keep a good “weed” down. Some populations of this native plant have developed resistance to herbicides, including glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Roundup. The spraying of glyphosate on Midwestern corn and soy fields has been implicated in losses of the monarch butterfly’s only larval host plant, milkweed—which, like horseweed, grows in pastureland and on roadsides and disturbed sites.
It turns out that horseweed is also a friend to the monarch, providing an important nectar source during fall migrations. And it feeds butterfly and moth larvae, including beautiful caterpillars in the Cucullia genus. I like to think of horseweed’s persistence and refusal to stand down in the face of giant chemical companies as Mother Nature’s conspiracy to fight on behalf of all these interdependent species.
Though I’ve seen even native plant enthusiasts cast aspersions on this plant for its supposedly aggressive tendencies, it doesn’t persist indefinitely, instead gradually giving way to perennials. When horseweed popped up to keep my new Virginia roses company last summer, I cheered it on—and so did the monarch I saw visiting the plant in late summer. Viva la revolución!
What are your favorite #WeedsNotWeeds?
(Jewelweed photo by Will Heinz; all others by Nancy Lawson.)
There isn’t anything shy about wild bergamot. It likes to take up space. It doesn’t just bloom where it’s planted but flourishes wherever it feels like spreading or seeding itself. No matter if you’re a carefully coiffed rosebush or a scruffy patch of coneflowers, Monarda fistulosa is content to plunk down next to you as if it’s known you all its life.
And that’s why the animals and I love this pollinator powerhouse. Though its adaptability has earned it the dubious title of “aggressive” in some circles, I view such labels with suspicion. Appropriate when describing, say, a driver going twice the speed limit, the word is loaded with bias when enlisted simply to denigrate the things we didn’t prescribe: the woman who dares to express an opinion when she wasn’t asked to, the dog who growls to protect his food from a wayward cat, the plant that grows in new directions we couldn’t have foreseen.
It’s true that many plants are aggressive outside their home ranges; it’s why we now have long lists of invasive species we should never put in our gardens. But plants native to a given area are subject to natural checks and balances, including other jubilant natives competing for space and tiny nibbling creatures.
“Abundant” is how I would prefer to describe my beloved bergamot, also known as bee balm. Originally purchased 14 years ago to satisfy my own taste for wild beauty, one seed pack from Seeds of Change has created a perennial feast for the many animals in our yard. If ever there were an alternative nectar source to the invasive, nonnative, inappropriately named butterfly bush, wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) fits the bill—and the beak and the bee tongue.
But don’t just take my word for it. Let the animals in these photos persuade you. And don’t miss the video encore below!
Can you count the number of butterflies in this video? (Please excuse the human intrusion at the 18-second mark; I decided not to edit the sound out so you could enjoy the magic of long-missed insect and bird song.)
An inventory of our photos has revealed that this species is a celebrity in our yard, attracting legions of six-legged fans and two-legged paparazzi. Because of its star quality for wildlife, I’ve mentioned it so often it deserves its own name in lights. With spring officially three weeks away, these are great plants to put on your shopping list. Here’s why.
Why do I love Joe Pye weed?
How could I not? One year dozens of butterflies at once fluttered about a single plant. (I tried getting an official count but lost track at 37.) I didn’t originally buy Joe Pye for its animal magnetism, though. All I knew was my friend Sally adored it, and that was enough. Sally had moved away, so any reminder of her warmth was a welcome sight in my garden.
Why do wildlife love Joe Pye weed?
Animals love the plant for the same reason I love Sally, a woman so kind and full of life she borders on the magical. A generous and dynamic host, Mr. Pye welcomes insect diners at all life stages. He draws adults to his flowers while feeding 41 species of caterpillars who eat his leaves. In the fall his seeds nourish hungry birds. His strong stems bend in the wind, but they don’t break. He is a lifesaver, just like Sally, who has rescued and comforted countless numbers of pets, wild animals, and humans during her long career in animal welfare.
What nonnative plant can Joe Pye replace?
I’m glad you asked! If you have butterfly bush, remove it and plant this instead. Buddleia may appear to be helping butterflies, but it’s all a mirage. Unlike Joe Pye and many other natives, butterfly bush doesn’t support any caterpillars and invades habitats that do. Having had experience with both plants in my garden at the same time, I can also say that, given the choice, the butterflies much prefer Joe Pye. It’s not even a contest.
Where should you plant Joe Pye weed?
I have several species of Joe Pye in somewhat randomly chosen spots, and all have thrived. Though the plant is generally listed as sun-loving, Maryland heat can be so relentless that in my yard the most prolific Joe Pye thrives in a spot with a little afternoon shade. Joe Pyes also supposedly need moisture, but in my experience they can hold their own in a range of water levels once established—and it takes little time for them to put down roots. In late summer, the plant’s flowers are so large and in charge they can weigh down the stems a bit. You can keep them more upright through mass groupings or surroundings of native grasses that act as natural supports.
Where can I get Joe Pye weed?
I’ve picked up many a Joe Pye at native plant sales, botanic gardens, and established retailers. One year I bought them at a native plant arboretum, another year at a native plant nursery, and a third year at a traditional nursery that has a small line of locally grown native plants. I’ve even found Joe Pye at a big box store, where once a few hand-labeled pots—possibly a local farmer’s overstock—showed up and sat untouched for a week until I rescued the whole shelf’s worth. You can also find online sources, but no matter where you live, it’s helpful to make sure the plants are native to your locale and can support local ecology. A new book by Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke, The Living Landscape,offers recommended species lists by region.
What should I look for in Maryland?
A number of species take the common name Joe Pye weed. Recommendations for the mid-Atlantic from Tallamy and Darke include Eutrochium maculatum, Eutrochium fistulosum, and Eutrochium dubium; I’ve also seen Eutrochium purpureum on regional lists. You may find the genus listed as Eupatorium instead of Eutrochium;taxonomists have attempted to revise the classification in recent years to separate the whorl-leaved Joe Pyes from their opposite-leaved relatives, the bonesets. (Two boneset species in my yard, Eupatorium serotinum and Eupatorium perfoliatum, are also pollinator magnets.)
What is your experience with Joe Pye? I hope it is like the one in this video.
The first time she visited my garden, my sister-in-law Mika left me with a gift: a new way of looking at old names for revered flowers and, more broadly, a fresh awareness of the role language plays in garnering respect for other living species.
“What do you call these?” she asked as we passed a profusion of pastels fronting the vegetable garden. “In Japan we call them hyakunichisou. It means ‘flower of one hundred days.’ ”
“That’s beautiful,” I responded. “We call it zinnia, and I have no idea what it means.” (A subsequent search online revealed that it’s just another in a long line of anthropocentric labels we assign our species, derived from the surname of European botanist Johann Gottfried Zinn.)
Upon seeing a cluster of cosmos bursting into bloom, Mika left me with another gem: “These are akizakura. It means autumn cherry blossom.”
The exchange reinforced my growing belief that what we call things matters. While I’ve often encountered arguments in both my professional and personal lives that titles aren’t important, it’s not a sentiment I share. We have language for a reason. When used appropriately, names help us understand where we fit into the world and reflect circumstance and perspective. When misused or manipulated, they can have broad negative impacts on those who can’t speak for themselves, whether they are victims of a modern war waged with “smart bombs” or casualties of a backyard battle fought with EPA-registered toxins carrying elegant labels like “Green Velvet” but spelling death for many critters in their path.
Even the word “turfgrass” is still associated with children and dogs and picnics and lazy afternoons on the golf course; we rarely hear it described as what it has really become: a wildlife-destroying weed that covers more land mass than any other crop. It’s invasive and imported, soaking up chemicals and wasting fossil fuels just to maintain its existence. Though the movement to curtail the obligatory lawn has gained traction in recent years, damage caused by our obsession with grass shows no sign of slowing.
Whether we think of it as truth in advertising or just accurate labeling, more honest names for our surroundings—such as Destroyer of Habitats and Mass Wildlife Killer instead of “grass”—would go a long way toward heightening public understanding. Some legacy descriptions of our most life-sustaining flowers, including Joe-Pye weed, butterflyweed and ironweed, carry a false notion of abundance not seen since the days of Lewis and Clark, when the nation was still flush with wild landscapes. But what gardener is going to want to pick up a plant at the store with the word “weed” on the label?
My Species of the Week carries a similar stigma. If I had the opportunity to rename the common evening primrose in a way that better reflects its value to the modern world, I would call it Moth Life Giver, Bee Brunch or maybe Goldfinch Candy, indicating the rich buffet every part of this plant provides to our wildlife.
Known at certain times in its history by more and less flattering names—from king’s cure-all to weedy evening primrose to hog weed to my favorite, the German “Nachtkerz,” or night candle—the common evening primrose is neither a true primrose nor as common as it should be. But Oenethera biennis does, in fact, bloom in the evening, providing nectar for nocturnal moths.
Growing along roadsides and in abandoned fields and disturbed areas, this species survives by following the path of so many other native plants: It finds a place no human seems to care about—at least not yet—and colonizes it until the grass mowers and leaf blowers and sod strips and poison solutions come by and casually knock it down.
Watching a goldfinch industriously drill into the seed heads on my patio last weekend, I was reminded of how this plant had ended up in my garden: with the help of my avian friends, who’ve given us many gifts around our property. At first skeptical of its intentions—it has an unremarkable basal rosette that doesn’t send up flowers until the second year—I had had enough positive experiences with native volunteers to keep my judgments in check.
When the plant matured the following year and finally flowered, I was glad I hadn’t pulled it. Native to most of the United States and Canada and long valued for its medicinal properties, common evening primrose feeds not only moths and birds but bees, caterpillars, beetles, small mammals and deer. It emits a sweet scent and brightens the night garden. It’s attractive to Japanese beetles—something that might keep some people from planting it, but I’ve found it to be a great deterrent, keeping the beetles away from nearly everything else. And it doesn’t seem to mind the damage, sending up more flowers as the old ones get eaten. This summer I even watched it endure a phenomenon known as nectar robbery committed by hungry carpenter bees.
As the feasting goldfinch last Saturday spent more than half an hour working her way around one plant, I was also reminded of the value of providing food for wildlife the way nature intended. Our humane backyard now feeds birds with the seeds of live plants that sprouted from other seeds that were planted by other birds, in a cycle that should be endless and self-sustaining in all of our communities.
But it won’t be if we continue to mow carelessly over the precious few native landscapes we have left. It’s time to start calling our decades-long attack on the environment what it is—a death march for wildlife—and stop relegating our native species to the margins of our existence, like so much litter on the side of the road. Common evening primrose and other such plants may be listed as abundant on species status inventories, but it wasn’t long ago that milkweed was abundant, too. The images of the American lawn as a place to play with loved ones mask the dead zones that lie beneath and the ripple effect on so many other species who have fewer and fewer areas to get the sustenance and shelter they need.
It’s up to all of us who care about animals and nature to stop believing in the mirage of words and sales pitches about what constitutes an appropriate landscape and start creating a new paradigm, one that restores the outdoors back into a home for all creatures. That means challenging the status quo and questioning the entire framework of our modern life that has somehow persuaded us to think of nature as being not in our backyards but always somewhere off in the distance. It means reconsidering even seemingly everyday words that haven’t changed for hundreds of years. And it means remembering to let the birds and others in the wild, rather than the toxin-filled garden shelves at the home improvement store, lead the way in our quest to plant the seeds of restoration.
Sometimes a wall has to come crumbling down for motivation to take hold. It’s even better if it’s during a driving rainstorm. And for good measure, make sure there is a waterfall of mud spilling forth just outside your back door, threatening to bury your whole house and take you with it, Pompeii-style.
Things often have a way of falling apart before you finally agree to let go of your passivity. It is probably at just that moment that it’s no longer a good idea to tell your husband that the unstable structure made of arsenic-laden railroad ties and keeping the weight of the planet at bay has a few more years left in it. It’s especially no longer a good idea when he is standing there with his iPhone video on continuous loop, providing you with up-to-the-minute, irrefutable evidence of his inevitable rightness.
Yes, he was right all along. It was true that the wall wouldn’t last forever. But for years I’d held out hope that if I and my beloved plants thriving in its shadow just willed it to last, it would be so. When we moved into our house, the area beneath this ramshackle structure, like most other areas of the property, was a wasted space, left to the devices of invasive wild strawberry and decaying pine needles.
Those pine needles, combined with the unintentional neglect of a previous homeowner who’d been mowing everything else to stubble and poisoning the renegades that didn’t obey, created in this narrow patch an unexpectedly rich soil that embraced whatever I planted there. A single ostrich fern purchased at my local farmer’s market grew into dozens. Phlox, swamp rose, goat’s beard and other shade-loving plants crept along the perimeters. White pines crowding atop the wall caught a disease and died, but the lone sassafras that volunteered to take their place turned into a grove and began providing food for the caterpillars of swallowtail butterflies.
The happiest plant of all under that railroad-tie wall was our golden ragwort (Packera aurea). Purchased as a singleton at the Audubon Society of Central Maryland, it took only a few years to colonize all the empty spaces of the garden and stray into the lawn. It was the first flower to open in the spring and the last groundcover to go dormant in the fall. Its yellow daisylike blooms were a welcome sight for awakening bees, and its leaves were deeper green, more natural and more manageably prolific than ivy, vinca or any other nonnative bane of our existence.
It was during the peak of my adoration for this species that the wall gave way, and I had to finally face the prospect of taking out all its progeny. Removing things from the garden is not hard for most people. For me, it’s become an act of destruction. I can’t exactly explain why. It could be the symbolic pressure I place on each plant that goes into the ground: You, milkweed, will now proliferate and save the monarch species. You, sassafras, will now grove into a robust habitat for swallowtails. And you, spicebush, will feed my catbird friends in perpetuity.
For the most part, I did not yet have such plant-animal associations for ragwort. I knew only that it was native and pretty and carefree. And despite its apparent tolerance for just about anything, the thought of digging it up by its roots, along with all my ferns, made me wary. What if it didn’t like the soil anywhere else? What if I didn’t lift it out carefully enough? What if I could never again recreate this accidental space that had become something so primeval, so deeply connected to the spirit of this place, that I couldn’t even envision another iteration of it 30 feet away? I’d seen so many creatures derive pleasure in this little patch of dirt, from my old dog who’d dug herself a den among the ferns to the groundhog who’d taken it over after she died.
I got over it. I had to. If I still wanted to have a house, the railroad ties were coming down. They would be replaced by a pretty but fortress-like prefab block wall. But before that could happen, my garden as I knew it would have to be ripped out, plant by plant, and plunked down elsewhere, randomly and in spots I hadn’t planned.
Resigned, I took those ostrich ferns and that ragwort and first planted them in a ring around an ash tree. It was my husband’s idea, and a good one. Ragworts are resilient characters, enjoying shade, sun and varying levels of moisture; they are content and easygoing and have to be pushed to extremes before they lose their cool and start to wilt. Under the ash tree, which leafs out late and goes bare early, the ragworts quickly spread and covered every bit of space not already taken up by the transplanted ferns.
Next, I planted more ragwort under a grove of chokeberries and a grove of red-twig dogwood. I put some in a dry spot under a deck, some under a lone spicebush in the backyard, and some in a new native wildflower garden, mixed in with the boneset and Joe Pye and butterflyweed. And then, eventually, when the new fortress wall was completed, I put some ragwort back in its original home.
I’d long thought about moving a few bits here and there and everywhere. But uprooting something that seemed to be enjoying itself so much where it was never felt right. It was the same reason I used to sit planted in our living room chair for hours under the sweet feathery weight of our ancient cat. But finally, when I no longer had any choice in the matter, that ragwort pulled me out of my rut and reminded me that transitions can be healthy. The status quo might be great, for now, but what if shaking things up could spread that greatness exponentially?
That’s not a new concept, but resistance to change is a powerful force. Once I overcame it, though, the effects were nearly immediate. Everywhere I put one transplant, it crept along and added dozens more in a matter of months. This meant I no longer had to contort myself under the dogwood and chokeberry groves to pull out the weeds—the ragwort was rambling right over them and doing the job for me. Natives came in, invasives were crowded out, and more early spring flowers for just-waking-up bees are proliferating in the shadows of larger plants now all over my property.
I believe in letting nature takes its course. But I also recognize the importance of occasionally helping it along in the direction it would like to go. In an age of rampant habitat destruction and unchecked invasive species, humane gardening is a delicate balance of willing ourselves to let things be and judging when it’s time to gently intervene. Maybe next time I’ll remember that before a mini mudslide jolts me into action. The bees feasting on golden ragwort next spring will be all the inspiration I need.
Like most things that used to pop up in my garden unexpectedly, the green giant I would eventually come to know as boneset was once cause for deep suspicion.
Its leaves were nondescript and thin, signaling a tenuous grasp on its circumstances. Among the zinnias and sunflowers and voluptuous native phloxes, this plant looked out of place at best and, on its worst days, like the lost soul at the seventh grade dance.
Whether inspired by some deep empathy for that feeling of not belonging or just a growing recognition that nothing is ever what it seems—or maybe a little of both—I decided to let it grow. And grow. And grow some more.
Until one day, my mystery plant finally bloomed. It was toward the end of a hot summer, when all the bright stars of the garden were waning and the tiny pollinators were running out of dining options. A composite flower, the species offered what so many others can’t: a last delicious stop on the breeding and migration highway.
Mostly the plant seemed to attract tiny bees and wasps, seemingly hundreds at a time. Within a few years, it made its presence known in almost every cultivated plot on our property—not so much in an intrusive way but rather in a manner that said, “I’m here, somebody loves me, and I don’t care what you think anymore.”
Once I’d identified the species as Eupatorium serotinum and Eupatorium perfolatium (I’m pretty sure we have both), I began to realize this was a rebel with a cause. As is too often the case with our natives, even its nicknames—boneset, thoroughwort, feverwort—were ill-fitting of its beauty and life-sustaining properties.
Perhaps these monikers made sense when the leaves were used to treat dengue fever. But now? They cast the species as so much litter on the side of the highway instead of a critical late summer and fall food for bees, wasps and butterflies. The plant is even a favorite of blue-winged wasps (scolia dubia), who keep Japanese beetles in check by laying eggs in the beetles’ larvae.
You’ve probably never heard that about this plant. In fact, you’ve probably never heard of this plant at all. And that’s because boneset has a branding problem. Attractive to some of the most stunning insects on the continent, it has an undiscovered inner beauty and a breathtaking appearance. But it is largely ignored.
Things may be looking up for this wild wallflower, though. Last spring at a favorite native plant center, Herring Run Nursery in Baltimore, I was heartened to hear someone approach a volunteer to say, “Excuse me, do you have any boneset?” Just before she was whisked away to the aisle of all things cultivated and appropriate, I invited the woman to my house, only half-jokingly, to dig up some of the many volunteer bonesets that had spread throughout the property.
And I would have followed through on the offer, had my fellow native plant enthusiast not done what most people do when confronted by something outside convention: laughed nervously without really looking at me and moved on, following the guide to the place where she could comfortably purchase a native plant in a plastic pot and go home. I can’t say I blame her. But I wish it were different. And I’ll keep trying to make it so by letting things bloom where they’ve planted themselves and inviting others to join, even at the risk of being a nerdy boneset in a field of zinnia-laden glam.
It’s easy to dismiss what you don’t understand. And even easier to malign it when fueled by peer pressure. That’s where I found myself shortly after meeting American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Though struck by its beauty—it was the most gorgeous specimen in the otherwise lifeless turf-covered property my husband and I bought 14 years ago—I couldn’t help but feel it didn’t belong here.
And that’s because it didn’t, not at that time, when the only plants in the entire two-acre backyard were two ash trees, a lone forsythia bush and a raggedy little rosebush, plopped down randomly amid the sea of poison-soaked lawn. Those didn’t belong there either. Nothing was in its place because there was little nature left.
Except this stunning plant for which I had no name. Turning to my books and magazines, I was happy to see it was a featured species in the latest issue of Organic Gardening. Unfortunately for the pokeweed and the animals in my yard, though, pokeweed wasn’t being highlighted for its virtues. Rip it out! the article said. Now, before it takes over everything, ruthlessly and in short order!
For the next 12 years, I dutifully murdered pokeweed wherever I saw it, pulling and digging and cutting its roots out of a fear-induced panic that if I let it go, even a little bit, it would swallow us whole by the end of summer.
You can probably guess where this story is going. Over the years, as I abandoned some of my many unkempt gardens to focus more strategically on a few, I noticed the pokeweed proving all of us wrong. Yes, it liked to plant itself here and there. It even liked to spread a little. But whenever it spread a lot, it was filling a void, a vacuum of little to no other life. When it stayed more tame, it was harmonizing with all the other natives I had intentionally cultivated.
As I learned more about the critical connection between native plants and native animals up and down the food chain, I realized that pokeweed was doing far more for the wildlife I wanted to help in my gardens than most of the other plants. The wide range of animals who dine on the berries of the remarkable pokeweed includes robins, mockingbirds, mourning doves, catbirds, bluebirds, cardinals, pileated woodpeckers, brown thrashers, cedar waxwings, foxes, squirrels, opossums and raccoons. Even the hardy plant’s delicate flowers feed ruby-throated hummingbirds and other pollinators.
As if that weren’t enough, pokeweed’s leaves are helpful to giant leopard moths, one of whom we saw for the first time this summer, probably because we finally had served up a favorite food with abandon.
Much advice about how to live in the modern world revolves around acting with intention and being mindful. Based on my experiences in the garden, I say sometimes we need to do the opposite. Let others act with intention instead. Give them room to grow. Don’t have a plan for every single detail of your life. Stop listening to the voices of the crowd. And watch what loveliness unfolds.