Battling weeds is a regular and often soul-sucking endeavor for just about anyone working to maintain gardens and landscapes. Just when we think we've gotten the upper hand, up pops some marestail or prickly lettuce or any of another 100 or so species that like to show up uninvited.
We can struggle quite hard to get a tomato or a native wildflower or a tree to grow where we want, while a dandelion seems capable of growing on the moon. Frustration is certainly warranted. And yet, perhaps our consternation can be softened at least a bit by recognizing that many weeds play an important ecological role or have other benefits and perhaps part of the solution is to just put up with a few of them. So if you're like me and looking for a good excuse to practice some benign neglect while benefiting the environment, here are just a few weeds to think differently about:
- Dandelion - The leaves of this despised little plant are edible and were prized by early settlers looking for something green to eat after a long winter. Dandelion flowers are also important as an early-season food source for many bees and other pollinators.
- Violets: Two of our most beautiful native butterflies, the regal fritillary and the spangled fritillary, are sustained by violets. With their pretty flowers and small stature, violets should be welcomed to the landscape, not sprayed away.
- Dutch white clover - Before the advent of modern herbicides, white clover was included in lawn seed mixes. This mowable little plant makes a great groundcover and helps add nitrogen to the soil, reducing the need for fertilizers. It also helps sustain a variety of pollinators. Embrace it.
- Milkweed - Much like a cat, common milkweed is a bit aloof and will honor us with its presence on its own terms. Due to its importance in sustaining the monarch butterfly, which has been fluttering with extinction in recent years, we should allow this plant to show up and do its thing here and there.
- Pink Smartweed - Smartweeds are native annuals that help sustain a wide variety of bees, butterflies and other insects. Because of their abundance and easy-to-grow nature, they are not much appreciated. Let's call them native wildflowers and start enjoying their presence more.
- Stinging nettles - Anyone who has walked through nettles bare-legged knows where the stinging part of the name comes from. Despite their itchy nature, nettles are one of the most important woodland plants for sustaining a wide variety of butterflies including charismatic species like painted ladies, red admirals and mourning cloaks. Young nettle greens also make a tasty substitute for spinach in just about any cooked recipe since they lose their sting when cooked. If you have stinging nettles on your property, consider that a good thing.
The list of other beneficial weeds includes species like lambsquarters, purslane, beebalm, groundcherry and just about every native wildflower out there. Although we shouldn’t be so cavalier as to suggest that weeds don’t need be seriously controlled, we likewise shouldn’t reach for the sprayer every time one shows up. We can at least start by knowing what the weed is and how problematic it might be.
Some weeds, like Canada thistle, leafy spurge and sericea, are very serious pests that should be rogued out immediately if encountered. Others, such as dandelion, are mostly a cosmetic issue that probably doesn’t warrant our distaste. Significant damage to non-target trees and other landscape plants happens all too often in the spraying of weeds, especially during the spring when trees and shrubs are at their most vulnerable. So please be careful with weed control and remember that part of the solution is to just relax and find value in some of our uninvited guests. Our trees and many of our struggling insect friends will appreciate it.
Nebraska Statewide Arboretum is a nonprofit that works toward sustainable home and community landscapes through initiatives in education, public gardens and the environment. Plant and landscape resources at http://arboretum.unl.edu.