Is plant a weed? De­pends

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - DEB­BIE ARRINGTON

Is this a weed?

I’ve heard that ques­tion count­less times from other gar­den­ers, usu­ally ac­com­pa­nied by a photo or sprig of green­ery. I’ve asked it my­self on sev­eral oc­ca­sions as I pulled er­rant plants out of paths and gar­den beds.

The an­swer is al­most al­ways the same: It de­pends.

Any plant in the wrong place can be a weed, an of­ten deroga­tory term that cov­ers a huge spec­trum of an­nu­als, peren­ni­als, shrubs and trees. A plant can be an un­wanted weed in one spot, but de­sir­able in an­other. Of­ten, the worst weeds are plants that es­caped their orig­i­nal gar­dens and pros­pered in every­one else’s land­scapes. (The po­lite term for these gar­den thugs is “in­va­sive.”)

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been dis­cov­ered,” philoso­pher/poet Ralph Waldo Emer­son once said. So, as I’m pulling un­wanted plants, I try to think of their pos­si­ble virtues.

Take the dan­de­lion, the scourge of many a lawn. This fa­mil­iar peren­nial in­vades sod and quickly spreads. But this daisy cousin is ac­tu­ally a nu­tri­tious green, packed with vi­ta­mins, iron and an­tiox­i­dants. Peo­ple have eaten dan­de­lions for thou­sands of years. It may be the health­i­est ed­i­ble grow­ing in your gar­den.

It’s be­lieved the Pil­grims first brought dan­de­lions to Amer­ica, not as un­wanted hitch­hik­ers but as a medic­i­nal herb. Its roasted roots were used as a sub­sti­tute for cof­fee. Its flow­ers be­came wine.

But grow­ing in the mid­dle of a pris­tine lawn, those virtues are for­got­ten. Dan­de­lion is back to be­ing a pesky weed.

This sum­mer, I have sev­eral beau­ti­ful weeds grow­ing in my gar­den. I didn’t plant these “vol­un­teers,” they just grew.

And be­cause I’m a cu­ri­ous gar­dener, I usu­ally let them grow and flower un­til I can at least de­ter­mine their iden­tity and at­tributes. Maybe they have virtues not yet seen.

My fa­vorite of these cur­rent mys­tery plants is a large an­nual with bril­liant, lightly veined pink flow­ers. Sprouted be­tween two planter boxes, it stands at least 4 feet tall and wide, loaded with hun­dreds of large and showy blooms. The bees love this un­ex­pected ad­di­tion, so that gave it an im­me­di­ate virtue. It also makes an at­trac­tive cut flower in bou­quets.

What is it? A tree mal­low or satin rose mal­low, a Mediter­ranean an­nual that some­how found its way to mid­town Sacra­mento, Calif. It’s a cousin to hol­ly­hocks and hi­bis­cus, but also to com­mon mal­low (a no­to­ri­ous weed).

Other “weeds” grow­ing in my gar­den in­clude a gi­gan­tic Queen Anne’s Lace (or wild car­rot), dozens of Cal­i­for­nia pop­pies plus as­sorted cos­mos and cal­en­du­las. With mul­ti­ple curl­ing branches, a large Mex­i­can prim­rose looks like a green oc­to­pus with each arm hold­ing clus­ters of yel­low flow­ers.

Sprouted among let­tuce, the strangest vol­un­teer is pur­ple nigella, an an­nual with dis­tinc­tive flow­ers and seed­pods that look like spiky bal­loons. With fern-like fo­liage, it can be a charm­ing cot­tage gar­den flower, but quickly claims new ter­ri­tory as its own. That du­al­ity in­spired two nigella nick­names: “Love in the Mist” and “Devil in the Bush.”

Like flow­ers, the beauty of weeds must be in the eye of the gar­dener.

TNS/Sacra­mento Bee/DEB­BIE ARRINGTON

Nigella, a “weed” among the let­tuce, has two nick­names: Love in the Mist and Devil in the Bush.

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