Flower or Weed?

Queen Anne's Lace,

Queen Anne’s Lace, Daucus carota, growing in the wild

Would you consider this to be a flower or a weed?

This is a distinction I have always had trouble making.

I will often let volunteer plants  grow in the garden in order to discover what they will do.

Perennial Ageratum in our garden late last September.

Perennial Ageratum in our garden late last September, growing with Rudbeckia, another “volunteer” native flower.

That is how I discovered the perennial Ageratum which grows in our garden.  It is now an important part of our late autumn flower show.

But this year, I found some Ageratum seedlings growing in a pot used last year for tomatoes.  And I’ve left them alone to grow.

June 4 2014 ageratum 003

Self-sown perennial Ageratum growing in a pot where I grew a tomato vine last year.

I’ve added a tomato plant to the pot, but will leave one or two of the Ageratum in the pot when I thin them one day soon; expecting the bees visiting its flowers to pollinate the tomato, also.

Honeysuckle vine twining around an ancient native Yucca, Adam's Needle, in our garden.

Honeysuckle vine twining around an ancient native Yucca, Adam’s Needle, in our garden.

When Europeans began exploring North America in the 17th and 18th Centuries, they were delighted with the rich variety of new plants they were able to collect and ship back to Europe for cultivation.

European botanists had a keen interest in discovering new species  in the “new world” which would add to their collection of useful plants.

They hoped to find new foods, such as Pecan trees; new flowers, like Hydrangea arborescens; new medicinal herbs, like Echinacea; and new ornamental trees and shrubs for their gardens.

An Echinacea purpurea in our garden.  This is the species, which is native in our region.

An Echinacea purpurea, Purple Coneflower,  in our garden.  This is the species, which is native in our region.

They collected and exported hundreds of species to Europe, which were highly valued and entered the nursery trade there.

Of course, these voyages of exploration were sent out to all the newly colonized areas of the world.  And many of our favorite contemporary  plants came into cultivation in European and American gardens as a result.

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace

They did not ask, “Is it a flower or a weed?”  Each newly discovered herb, tree, shrub, and flower was evaluated based on its usefulness, hardiness, and beauty.

Over the years, we have all been influenced by the nursery trade to fill our gardens and pots with popularly cultivated selections.

Hybrid Echinacea cultivar.  This flower was offered for sale last weekend by Knott's Creek Nursery at our local Farmer's Market.

Hybrid Echinacea cultivar.  This flower was offered for sale last weekend by Knott’s Creek Nursery at our local Farmer’s Market.

Many of these are hybrids, or improvements to the original species.  Plants are hybridized to make them bigger, smaller, brighter, or more productive than the original.

Plants for sale at our Farmer's Market.  Hybrids are bred to be brighter, more disease resistant, and to have desirable qualities the native species may lack.

Plants for sale at our Farmer’s Market.  Hybrids are bred to be brighter, more disease resistant, and to have desirable qualities the native species may lack.  We also have been conditioned to choose exotics over native species in many instances.

We want day lilies which bloom all season, vegetables more resistant to disease, and dwarf fruit trees and butterfly bushes which fit into our gardens.

We are conditioned to purchase the “Proven Winners” plants we see advertised in magazines.

Hydrangea quercifolia, Oakleaf Hydrangea, is native to the Southeastern United States.  This is H. "Snow Queen," a cultivar which has improved on the species.

Hydrangea quercifolia, Oakleaf Hydrangea, is native to the Southeastern United States. This is H. “Snow Queen,” an improved cultivar.

And we sometimes forget the native “proven winners” which have grown beautifully and productively for centuries without intervention from man.

June 3, 2014 Parkway 060

I’m happy to see the new interest many gardeners are taking in native plants.  Many of us have come to understand the important role these natives play in the life cycles of species of animals we hope to protect.

As we see the dwindling numbers of Monarchs, for example, we realize that we need to plant their favored host plant:  Asclepias, or milk weed.

Asclepias incarnata, or Milkweed is the host plant needed by larval Monarch butterflies.

Asclepias syriaca, or Milkweed,  is the host plant needed by larval Monarch butterflies.

In fact, I’ve run into a bit of an Asclepias shortage this spring.  It has grown fashionable to plant these one time “weeds.”

For weeds they were, growing in the hedgerows when I was a child.  I have fond memories of playing with milkweed pods in autumn, freeing the downy little seeds to float away on the wind.

But no one I knew would even consider planting such a “weedy” plant in their garden.

June 3, 2014 Parkway 002

This was at the very beginning of the environmental movement, before naturalized gardening had become fashionable.

So every plant dealer I’ve approached this season has been out of Asclepias when I was there to purchase one.

This is a good thing, and I am happy to know that so many plants are going into the ground in our area.

A perennial, these will feed generations of Monarch larvae for many years to come, and should go a long way towards helping to restore the population.


But what of other native plants?

Queen Anne’s Lace, Daucus carota, a wild carrot,  has been a favorite of mine forever.  I love the airy effect of its blossoms in cut flower bouquets, and it is a beautiful plant growing in the bed.

Similiar to Achillea,  these drought tolerant and hardy plants attract many beneficial insects which can boost production of flowering vegetable crops planted nearby.

June 3, 2014 Parkway 021

The long tap root breaks up the soil to aid other more shallow rooted plants growing nearby.  This is a biennial plant, and has a variety of uses.  Yet, the USDA  lists it as a noxious and invasive weed.

I’ve been reading a fascinating book this season,  Native Plants of the Southeast, by Dr. Larry Mellichamp.  Dr. Mellichamp is a professor of Botany at UNC Charlotte and is also director of the Botanical Gardens there.


His book shares his love  and appreciation for  our native plants in the Southeastern United States.   It provides detailed descriptions, lush photographs, and useful cultural information for 460 different species of trees, shrubs, herbs, grasses, ferns, wildflowers, and vines.

Timber Press, of Portland, Oregon, has published this beautiful guide to the very best native plants for cultivation in our gardens.    Plants are rated for desirability and usefulness.

I’ve spent many hours studying this lovely book, and it has guided a number of the selections I’ve made for additions to our garden this season.

I recommend it to all serious gardeners in our region; especially those concerned with preservation of the many species of birds, butterflies, bees, and other small creatures who struggle to survive in this era of environmental change.

June 3, 2014 Parkway 048

Wild Allium growing in the historic district of Yorktown, Virginia.

So, flower or weed?

It depends on your perspective and the depth of your understanding.

It also depends on your goals as a gardener.  Each individual must make these judgements for himself.

There is beauty in every living creature.  As we look deeply enough to see the beauty of each creature in our gardens, our answers, and our questions, continue to evolve.


Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

June 4 2014 ageratum 010


About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

10 responses to “Flower or Weed?

  1. This is a beautiful post! The native plants of a region are oftentimes more beautiful than nursery varieties. If I had it to do over again I think I would encourage more of the flowers of the wild to take root. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you for the affirmation 😉 I am always amazed at the beauty of the natives- where they can be found. So much more interesting than the same popular nursery varieties over and over again… May all be well with you, WG

  2. some “weeds” are really lovely and when I don’t recognise a seedling I let it grow to see what it will become, what we call weeds are just wild plants !

  3. Great conversation about natives, old and new garden cultivars. Heirlooms are starting to get more recognition. Who says bigger is better anyway? Some of the older classics have great appeal.
    Glad to hear folks in your area are planting lots of milkweed.
    Like you, I love Queen Anne’s Lace and let them self-sow in the meadow. The USDA may list it as a noxious weed because it originates in Europe, but I can see why the colonist’s brought it here. It is beautiful in foliage and flower, and when I come across a dried head in winter dusted with snow, it captures my heart.

    • I”m so happy to hear, Eliza, that you are also a fan of Queen Anne’s Lace. I’ve collected them, fresh and dried for years. (Drove my mother nuts- bringing “weeds with bugs” into the house) There is such a charm to them. The colonists also brought our beautiful golden dandelions as food and herb- yet now we have neglected their use and want to eliminate them from our lawns. Isn’t it interesting how our views of things change over time? There was a fascinating Senate hearing we watched this AM on the environment- particularly on real effects of climate change. They discussed decreasing duck population and habitat change. I know it would interest you if you can find any information on it. Chaired by the Senator from OR-

      Best wishes, WG

      • Is the US gov’t finally waking up to climate change? Wouldn’t that be amazing! I dream of a world where we put the planet first and corporate interests last.
        I will look for information about the hearing. Thanks for mentioning it.

        • Absolutely. We were amazed. What it is taking, Eliza, is for the changes to show up in these guys’ own back yards. I couldn’t tell the political party of the Senators yesterday by listening to them (with one exception). They were almost all concerned- no longer in denial, and having to deal with the economic impacts in their own states. Considering that our world governments are for all practical purposes run by the corporations and the banks, it will take more tragedy and loss to bring about such a miracle, But I believe it is getting closer. Our native brothers and sisters actually understood that we are one with the planet- what effects the Earth also effects each of us individually. Best wishes, WG

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