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