Horticulture and Forestry: Into the Weeds

May 28, 2020 by Maggie Herrick, Restoration Gardener

While we enjoy gardens for their beautiful blooms, attractive foliage, and fragrant blossoms, a variety I often find myself marveling and appreciating weeds I find in the landscape. Yes, it sounds crazy coming from someone who spends much of her time pulling weeds to prevent them from taking over garden beds.

 I know that they are often a nuisance. Some can be noxious and even invasive, but many of these opportunistic plants that we don’t think twice about ripping out, provide many more benefits. From supporting pollinators to indicating what conditions are present in the soil to just simply being pretty, these are worth a second look. I’m not advocating for letting your gardens be a free for all, but for maybe a bit of consideration that we don’t need to completely eradicate these underdogs 

It’s okay if you don’t agree with me, I can assure you I won’t take offense. In fact, it’s possible some of the plants present in your garden would be considered weeds in my personal landscape and I would remove them with no regrets (I’m looking at you liriope, English ivy, and nandina). Therefore, defining what is truly a weed can be tricky. It can be subjective and beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Let’s settle with agreeing that a weed is any plant we don’t want to grow where it has decided to grow. 

Here are common weeds you might see emerging right now and why they deserve some of your attention: 

Purple Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) 

pastedImagebase640

  • Member of the mint family - check out those signature square stems!
  • Support pollinators in early spring, especially bees and an interesting character called the giant bee fly. 
  • Their presence may indicate the soil has a neutral pH and high fertility. 
  • The name ‘dead nettle’ refers to their resemblance to members of the nettle family, but instead they do not sting like real nettles. 

 Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)  

pastedImagebase640 (1)

pastedImagebase640 (2)  

  • Often mixed up with its close relative purple Deadnettle, Henbit shares many of the same benefits including pollinators, timing, and spring blooms. 
  • Feed it to your chickens, hence the name ‘Henbit’. Note: only feed it to your chickens if it is from your yard and you know that no chemicals have been applied.
  • Hummingbirds visit this flower for nectar! 
  • Grows in a manageable clump and has attractive scalloped leaves. 

 Wild Violets (Viola spp.) 

pastedImagebase640 (3)-1

  • Native plants that are host to fritillary butterfly caterpillars and nectar source for bees. 
  • Adorable heart-shaped leaves and dainty purple flowers in spring. 
  • Prefer shady, moist sites but once established will tolerate drought. Why keep trying to grow grass in an area it doesn’t want to grow? Think, “Right plant, right place.” Let these beauties be your groundcover instead. 

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) 

pastedImagebase640 (4)

pastedImagebase640 (5)

  • Host for spring azure and falcate orangetip butterflies, as well as supporting bees and other pollinators. 
  • Perfect representative of the mustard family (Brassicas). They observe the characteristic four flower petals arranged in an X, noticeable seed pods protruding from the flower stalk, and sometimes a mustard smell to the leaves. This family also includes radish, cabbage, and broccoli to name a few. 
  • Witness one way a plant disperses its seeds when the mature seeds explode from their long, skinny pods. This is called ballochory and is exciting to see, maybe even put on some safety glasses just in case! 
  • Indicateyour soil may have poor drainage and may be continually wet. 

 Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) 

pastedImagebase640 (6)

  • Probably the most easily recognizable of weeds and a sign of spring. 
  • Provide pollen, nectar, leaves and seeds for a huge variety of wildlife over a long period of time. 
  • Create pops of color while supporting the soil by holding it in place and acting as a living mulch. 
  • They are dynamic accumulators, as their deep taproots tunnel their way through compacted soil the plant taps into stored nutrients and minerals in the soil that other root systems cannot reach.  
  • The presence of dandelions can indicate soil conditions may be acidic, compacted, and either poor or high fertility. 

 Bird’s Eye Speedwell (Veronica persica) 

pastedImagebase640 (7)

  • Beautiful flowering groundcover you can let grow between stepping stones and rock wall cracks. 
  • Early nectar source for pollinators and food source for other small critters. 
  • An interesting heart-shaped fruit containing the seeds develop after the flowers. 
  • Prefers rich, moist soil but will tolerate dry, poor soil conditions. 

Clover (Trifolium spp.) 

pastedImagebase640 (8)

  • Patches of clover provide endless entertainment when you are on the search for the elusive four-leaf clover. As a child, this activity kept me busy in the outfield during baseball games. 
  • They are nitrogen fixers, meaning they partner with bacteria in the soil and together capture nitrogen in the air and make it available in a form for plant growth. This is an example of a symbiotic relationship. 
  • Another great plant to use as living mulch.
  • High value to a wide range of pollinators and other wildlife as a nectar, pollen and food source. Honey bees especially like clover, demonstrating the close relationships we have with this plant and insect. 
  • White clover is the most recognizable species and you can likely find some in your lawn right now. Go ahead and send those kids outside to find a four-leaf clover! 

 Common Mallow (Malva neglecta) 

pastedImagebase640 (9) 

  • A member of the mallow family with relatives like Hibiscus and Hollyhock.
  • Host to several butterflies and moth caterpillars including painted lady, grey hairstreak, and common checkered skipper. 
  • Visited by many bees and other pollinators. 
  • Tolerates a variety of growing conditions, but especially loves dry and poor soils. 
  • Another dynamic accumulator, reaching deep into the soil to make nutrients available that other plants can’t reach. Use the “chop and drop” method with this plant by cutting pieces off and dropping them in other garden beds or your compost to distribute these nutrients. 

Chickweed(Cerastium spp. and Stellaria spp.) 

pastedImagebase640 (10)

  • Indicator that your soil may have a neutral pH, compacted, wet, or high fertility. 
  • Forage for many animals, including your chickens! They attract diverse pollinators and host plant for many butterflies and moths. 
  • Look for the Syrphid Fly hanging around chickweed flowers. They are one of my favorite insects because not only do they mimic bees with their black and yellow stripes, but their larvae also help control populations of bad bugs like aphids. 
  • Use a cover crop during the winter months to protect your soil and then mulch it in the bed when you are preparing to plant.