Category Archives: #WeedsNotWeeds

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.

How to Fight Plants with Plants

What’s to love about native plants that spread like crazy? Everything! Enlist these hardy troopers to help reclaim habitat from invasive species.

Image of golden ragwort early spring pollinator
Pollinators, birds, and many other animals need food – and lots of it. Vigorous natives like this golden ragwort (Packera aurea) provide that. So what are we so afraid of? (Photos above and below by Nancy Lawson)

They were the last lonely leftovers: seven pint-size transplants I couldn’t even give away. Other beauties—boneset, coneflowers, bee balms, asters—had flown off the shelves of my cubicle wall, where a “Free to Good Home” sign invited friends and colleagues to give them a new spot in their own gardens.

But the golden ragworts, still small and fairly nondesImage of golden ragwort flowerscript, had a harder time selling themselves. It didn’t help that their name sounded like “ragweed,” the plant everyone loves to hate, or that I repeatedly responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” when asked: “Does it spread?” My fellow gardeners, trained to panic in the face of plants that refuse to be kept down, backed away in terror, eyeing the pots as they would a petri dish of ebola virus.

So it was that the remaining stash of this underappreciated groundcover—which feeds bees and shelters many other creatures—ended up back in my yard, though not in its rightful place in the ground. Putting the plants aside under some sassafras trees by our driveway, I intended to give them a better home, but life got in the way. As the leaves dropped and the snow fell and one season passed into another, there they sat, neglected and trapped in their plastic pots.

Image of golden ragwort and garlic mustard
Going head to head: The silver-tinged leaves of garlic mustard, an invasive species, once covered the ground layer beneath our sassafras grove. Some renegade golden ragworts took it upon themselves to solve the problem. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

That spring, though, the plants gave me an unexpected gift in spite of my poor stewardship. As I headed past the driveway to tackle the onerous spring ritual of removing garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), a persistent invasive species, I discovered the little ragworts had gotten a head start on the task. Refusing to be held captive, their roots had burst forth from the holes in the bottom of the pot and rambled fearlessly into the garlic mustard patch.

To understand what a revelation this was, it helps to know a little about garlic mustard. Originally from Europe and Asia, it’s allelopathic, releasing chemicals that inhibit the growth of other species. It’s a threat to forest understories in the U.S. and Canada and also to the West Virginia white butterfly, which seems to mistake garlic mustard for its host plant, laying eggs of caterpillars doomed to die on leaves they can’t eat.

Image of Eastern box turtle
When my husband was trying to get invasive grasses under control with his power trimmer, he searched first to see if any creatures were making their homes there. Sure enough, at least one, a young box turtle, was hiding in the vegetation, confirming my belief in gentle approaches to invasive species management in our yard. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

But in my yard, garlic mustard has finally met a worthy contender. Watching a habitat-harming plant succumb to an equally hardy native has opened my eyes to a more creative, life-affirming method of curtailing invasives on my property. Since it’s not in my nature to want to fight nature, I find the process of cutting, digging and pulling plants—no matter their provenance—a little heart-wrenching. And because I don’t want to support products that harm the land and the creatures who survive off it, I avoid herbicides. Besides, I’d rather not remove any vegetation that’s providing even minimal habitat if there are few other alternatives for nesting and food. Even my preferred, seemingly harmless method of laying down cardboard to kill grass has its consequences, potentially smothering the homes of native bees and other creatures nesting in the ground.

The idea of adding more wildlife-friendly plants while gradually removing less helpful ones, then, appeals to my sensibilities much more than declaring chemical and mechanical warfare to clear the land—and, in at least some cases, it can be more effective in the long term. Here are a few experimental methods that have proven successful on different types of sites, including my own.

1. Guerilla garden: Insert natives into patches of invasives.
Image of golden ragwort under sassafras
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Winning! By last spring, the sizable patch of garlic mustard had been mostly overtaken by the ragwort, which covers the ground with beautiful round leaves for most of the year  and produces flowers for several weeks in early spring. (Photos by Nancy Lawson)

Following the ragwort’s unexpected coup, I added more to the 12-by-12-foot garlic mustard patch and watched delightedly as it claimed the whole territory. And it took only three years—about the same length of time a similar experiment played out in the yard of Sue Barton, a University of Delaware associate professor and extension specialist. In her original attempts to eliminate Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum), an invasive species that crowds out other plants, she’d tried all the standard approaches—mowing, herbicides, replanting with low fescue, and pulling the remaining scattered interlopers that sprouted. Ultimately, the effort had failed. “It’s now just solid stilt grass,” she says.

Image of Stilt grass and ferns in Sue Barton garden
Ferns inserted into a patch of Japanese stiltgrass, which can produce up to 1,000 seeds from a single plant, quickly began to cast shade that prevented further stiltgrass germination in Sue Barton’s garden. (Photo courtesy of Sue Barton)

When she later confronted a second patch of stiltgrass in the backyard, Barton changed her approach, manually weeding out the space before planting a combination of native woodferns (in the Dryopteris genus) and Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium x ‘Branford Rambler’). By spring, the fall project had taken hold and the plugs were thriving. “But the stiltgrass started to grow, and so that summer, it was like a treasure hunt, looking for the little fern plugs in amongst the two-feet-tall stilt grass,” Barton says. She again weeded the stiltgrass out by hand, and in the third year, the 1,000-square-foot space had filled in entirely with ferns. Disliked by deer, the plants were also large enough to shade the ground and prevent further germination of stiltgrass.

“I don’t necessarily know that ferns would work in every situation—what works in one instance is not guaranteed to work another,” says Barton. “It’s just our best guess.”

2. Employ Defensive Linebackers: Practice preventive planting.

Some native plants can hold their ground even against the most impressive offensive lineup. At one Maryland site, Southeastern wild rye (Elymus glabriflorus) has been observed staking its claim in a garden otherwise overtaken by invasive Canada thistle. Proactively planning for this type of “competitive exclusion”—a term for describing species duking it out for the same resources—is the best way to ensure long-term sustainability in landscapes expected to thrive on their own, says Claudia West, coauthor of Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes.

Image of Wild petunia with syrphid fly
Does it spread readily, even aggressively? I’ll take it! After hearing that wild petunia is a vigorous grower, I knew I had to try it. The flower fly who came to visit the pot while I was at the nursery helped seal the deal. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

“I’m on a consistent mission right now to find highly aggressive and thuggish native plants,” she says. “I am looking for native species that have all the ecological value, that can outcompete some of the invasive stuff we’re dealing with.”

I’d rather have a very thuggish, vigorous native plant take over an area than have it covered in honeysuckle or autumn olive. … We’re looking for plants that can stand their ground. —Claudia West

In planting projects she undertakes as the ecological sales manager for North Creek Nurseries, West sometimes sneaks in tough native spreaders like wild petunia (Ruellia humilis) and native sedges—species that provide food and cover for wildlife who’ve evolved to depend on them. Though some of the plants won’t leave room for much else, the tradeoff is worth it. “I’d rather have a very thuggish, vigorous native plant take over an area than have it covered in honeysuckle or autumn olive, especially for landscapes that we know from the beginning will not receive a lot of care,” says West. “Think about all the storm water maintenance along highways. Think about parking lots. We’re looking for plants that can stand their ground.”

Image of monarda didyma
I’ve transplanted bits and pieces of this original bee balm – one of the first perennials in my new garden 17 years ago – all over our property. It has never let me (or the hummingbirds) down, filling in large spaces with its spectacular firecracker blooms just in time for the Fourth of July. Invasive species don’t even try to get near its dense clumps. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

It’s a useful strategy in many home landscapes as well, especially for gardeners with a heart and mind for helping wildlife but a property covered in turfgrass edged by invasive vines and shrubs. Preventing further encroachment of these plants in my own yard are mountain mint, blue mistflower, bee balm, elderberry, gray dogwood, Pennsylvania sedge and other stalwart defenders. Planted little by little over many seasons in areas where they can freely spread their wings—and roots and seeds—they’ve started to fill in previously barren or invasive-prone spots in our two acres.

3. Recruit Volunteers: Encourage self-starters.

“If I do nothing, what will happen?” asks pioneering landscape designer Larry Weaner in his 2016 book, Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change. While not advocating for a cessation of gardening, Weaner encourages readers to use the question as a guiding principle for creating an ecological landscape or restoring a degraded site. In other words, what native plants are already lying dormant in the land, waiting for us to stop mowing them down? What valuable seeds might migrate into the garden on the breeze or in the bellies of birds? Weaner has seen this strategy come to fruition in his planting projects, as when he added Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) to a client’s meadow and later saw it thriving in an adjacent lawn that a neighbor had let go—and grow.

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The joy of discovery: Watching what comes next is part of the fun of letting the lawn go. Above: Turfgrass turned into broomsedge, which then put out the welcome mat for purpletop grass, frost asters, and hyssop-leaved thoroughwort (below) that attracts common buckeyes and other butterflies who greet us on our mowed path leading to the compost pile. (Photos by Nancy Lawson)

Refusing to be held back, such unexpected visitors are an increasingly common occurrence on my property as well. Learning who they are and how they grow has been one of the great joys Image of Common buckeye on hyssop-leaved thoroughwortof gardening (or what I’m starting to think of as “un-gardening.”) Some are diminutive, like the blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) that came up singly in a patch of old turfgrass by our back deck. Others make themselves known with wild abandon, like the hyssop-leaved thoroughwort (Eupatorium hyssopifolium) that shot up high above an old bulb garden we inherited from previous homeowners, beckoning fall-migrating monarchs. An entire field of broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) and purpletop grass (Tridens flavus) graces our backyard where there used to be only mowed lawn, making way for more wildflowers—and eventually trees—with each passing year.

Image of Eastern red cedar in ground ivy
Serving up two invasives with a side of one valuable native: The ground ivy and Bradford pear seedlings were enough to make me want to throw in the trowel. But then I saw these little Eastern red cedars boldly making their way through the morass. We moved a few of the seedlings into more sunlight and surrounded the remaining ones with newspaper and leaves so they’d have room to grow. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Two summers ago, as I pondered how to address invasive ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) in the front yard, my husband stopped mowing there so the bees could feed on the plant’s early flowers and nest in the bare patches of soil between. By fall, when the ground ivy had continued to spread and I was still plagued with indecision, we discovered that nature had been thinking much more creatively. An inspection of the area revealed nine baby Eastern red cedars peeking up through the leaves, humbling me once again: The previous spring, I’d spent $30 on three diminutive plugs of the same species, and here were three times as many coming up for free. They were healthy and strong and ready to provide nesting, cover and fruit for many bird species, as well as food for foxes, rabbits, raccoons, and butterfly caterpillars who call that tree species home.

Ground ivy, the plant I didn’t want, was serving as a kind of nurse plant for the one I did—something that could only have happened when we’d stopped cutting everything off at the knees.

For more tips on working with nature in your garden, check out my new book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Wildlife Habitat, due for release from Princeton Architectural Press on April 18.

Featured image at top: A mountain mint (Pycnanthemum flexuosum) showed up on its own near a patch of golden ragwort. An Eastern tiger swallowtail signaled her approval. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

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:

Image of green sweat bee
Green sweat bees are among the many pollinators visiting frost asters in the fall.
Image of pearl crescents on frost aster
Pearl crescents are fanatic fans of the white blooms, which have sprung up on their own among the meadow grasses.
Image of chrysalis on frost aster
The plant also hosts butterflies and moths in the making; some spend winter in the chrysalis stage.
Image of bumblebee on smooth aster
Smooth asters near our mailbox draw dozens of bumblebees at a time. Flowers are critical to them late in the season, when new queens mate with males and build up their fat reserves in preparation for hibernation under the leaves. In the spring queens will emerge to start entire new colonies on their own.
Image of common buckeye in meadow
Common buckeyes are prolific at this time of year, seeking puddling sites and shallow flowers accessible to their shorter proboscises.
Image of common checkered skipper
In spite of their name, common checkered skippers were once uncommon where I live in Howard County, Maryland. Recently they have been spotted with greater frequency, though this year was the first time I saw them on my property.
Image of sleeping bumblebee
Male bumblebees sleep at night under the flowers that provide them with nectar during the day. Our goldenrods served as a Bee n’ Bee to dozens of bumbles in early fall evenings.
Image of syrphid fly on swamp sunflower
Swamp sunflower is a favorite of syrphid flies, an underappreciated pollinator.
Image of Eastern-tailed blue on blue mistflower
Eastern-tailed blues gather frequently in blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum), a long-blooming late-season food source.

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.

Image of typical neighborhood property
A typical property in my neighborhood offers virtually no flowers. Instead of the soft sound of buzzing bees, the streets more often vibrate with the noise of mowers and power trimmers.

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.

Image of bumblebee on New England aster
The bumblebees knew where the party was among the seas of turfgrass – in the roadside New England asters at my neighbor Wayne’s house.
Image of back meadow
Mowing a path lets us access the compost pile and the woodland beyond while allowing volunteer natives to proliferate undisturbed.

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.

Image of swamp sunflower garden
As summer wildflowers retreat, swamp sunflowers rise up to greet autumn’s hungry creatures.
Fritillary on frost aster in back meadow
An aging meadow fritillary spends an afternoon visiting frost aster after frost aster. This plant also supports about half a dozen specialist bees, who emerge in time to gather pollen only from their favored blooms.
Image of praying mantis
A quick shift of position gives away this otherwise invisible praying mantis.

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.

Image of smooth asters and black-eyed Susans
Even a small area – in this case a four-foot wide strip near our mailbox planted with smooth asters, black-eyed Susans, wild senna, mountain mint, golden ragwort, blue mistflower, coral honeysuckle, and staghorn sumac – draws many species of bees and birds,
Image of orange sulphur on aster
Orange sulphurs visit several aster species planted by the driveway.
Image of sweat bee on blue wood aster
Even though this blue wood aster by our patio is the first one I’ve ever planted, the bees have had no trouble finding the lone specimen.

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.

 

Give “Weeds” (and Animals) a Chance

Image of rabbit in grassMuch 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.

Image of deer in garden
Deer enjoyed snacking on twigs among the evergreen golden ragwort (Packera aurea) in our backyard this past winter, along with other plants coming up among the grasses. Because the whole area is filling in with both naturally occurring and cultivated native plants, there is plenty to share.

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)
Image of nimblewill
Grasshoppers have a difficult time in a world dominated by crop and lawn monocultures, but they are welcome in our yard, including in this nimblewill patch.

ForImage of nimblewill 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)
Image of staghorn sumac
Who needs exotic tropical plants that die each year when we have native species like these proliferating into beautiful perennial canopies? Countless birds and other animals use the bark, seeds, leaves, and stems of staghorn sumac.

“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_DSC0039 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. _DSC0074Animals 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)
Tiny pollinators enjoy the early spring flowers of fleabane.

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)
Image of three-seeded mercury and red-spotted purple
A red-spotted purple enjoys a visit to three-seeded mercury after a rain shower.

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.”

Image of three-seeded mercury
Three-seeded mercury shares space with mountain mint in my patio garden.

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)Image of Virginia creeper on gate fence

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.

Image of Virginia creeper on retaining wall
A tale of two habitats: Above, volunteer Virginia creeper vines began to take hold among sassafras, coralberry, and ostrich ferns near our new retaining wall last year; the red leaves in the center were starting to show the plant’s fall color. Below, the same species covered a chain link fence on a median strip of downtown Chicago’s Michigan Avenue last summer.

Image of Virginia creeper in Chicago

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!

Photos by Nancy Lawson; video by Steven Yenzer

 

#WeedsNotWeeds

Image of ironweed and skippersHumans 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)
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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.

Burnweed, Fireweed, Pilewort (Erechtites hieracifolia)Image of horseweed

As its common Image of burnweednames 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)

Image of jewelweedJewelweed 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)Image of Pennsylvania smartweed

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) DSC_0249

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.)