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Dear Friend and Gardener

Life Among the Weeds

Mystery weed from my garden

Mystery weed from my garden

What is a weed?

A friend recently gave me a branchy stem of a plant with fine alternate leaves she has growing all over her garden. She asked if I could identify it. She didn’t know if it was a “real plant” or a weed that she should be pulling out. Off hand I couldn’t identify it and turned to my Weeds of the Northeast by Uva, Neal and Di Tomasso and still could not definitely identify it, but I thought it might possibly be an aster. Later when I was watering my hellstrip filled with daylilies, astilbes, yarrow and more, I noticed a plant sticking its head up through a clump of coneflowers – and it looked just like the slightly wilted plant my friend had given me!

When I went up to the Benson Place in Heath to pick up my order of blueberries I was admiring a bed of large plants, few of which I recognized. Meredith Wecker and Andrew Kurowski, current owners of the Benson Place, explained that the bed was designed as a pollinator bed. They identified the enormous elecampane with its shaggy golden flowers all a-buzz with bees, the anise hyssop and the tall blue vervain. And there in the middle of a clump of flowers was the plant I had been trying to identify. This plant was everywhere!

I  asked what it was. Meredith and Andrew looked at it and said, “Oh, that’s just a weed.”  I had made no progress in my researches.

Another very tall mystery plant - a weed?

Another very tall mystery plant – a weed?

I have  another mystery plant, which I am sure is a weed, but not exactly sure which weed. Next to our front porch, in the shade, we have been watching a single plant with large deeply cut leaves growing taller and taller. We thought the foliage looked thistle-like but there are no prickers and so far no familiar blossom. In fact, now that it is eight or nine feet tall what appears to be a flower head is kind of droopy and is not yet blooming.

On our ride to the Benson Place we drove on a dirt road edged with all manner of  – dare I say it – weeds. And among them were plants similar to my front porch weed, although not quite as tall.

My son says his lawn is full of weeds i.e. violets. Our lawn in Heath was full of weeds i.e. dandelions. Lots of weeds i.e. wildflowers like chicory grow along the roadsides. I like violets and dandelions and chicory. Why would anyone consider them a weed?

The definition of a weed is very difficult. My comprehensive book, titled Weeds of  the Northeast, gives excellent descriptions and photos of hundreds of weeds in their different growth stages including the seed stage. Violets, dandelions and chicory are all included. So are creeping thyme, wild strawberries and the low growing English daisy. What makes all these plants weeds?

They are all rampant growers and spreaders, but others seem to be called weeds because they are growing where the gardeners and farmers don’t want them to grow.  Sometimes you find out a plant that you chose and planted is a weed. While I was leafing through my weed book I noticed the pages devoted to field horsetail, Equisetum arvense. I like the horsetails with their leafless green bottle-brushy stems that I saw growing by the roadsides in Heath. They are also called scouring-rush, foxtail rush, horsepipes, and pine grass.

Equisetum hyemale

Equisetum hyemale

When I drive to Colrain to visit friends I usually take the Colrain road, a winding road through the woods, and I noticed large stands of the larger Equisetum hyemale growing in the damp shade. I have always admired this plant because it is unusual, about 18 inches tall, leafless, with bamboo-like nodes along the evergreen stem. One day I stopped and pulled up a few of these stems which spread by creeping rhizomes. I planted them in a wet shady spot in my garden and most of them took root and seem to be doing well.

According to Weeds of the Northeast equisetums are resistant to herbicides used by farmers. According to the MissouriBotanical Garden, which has an excellent website that often helps me identify plants and understand their requirements, Equisetum hyemale is an aggressively spreading plant that is difficult to eradicate because the rhizomes spread wide and deep.

I then remembered my recent trip to Minneapolis and environ with 60 garden bloggers. Our final garden tour was across the border into Wisconsin and the amazing gardens and sculptures of Woutrina DeRaad. For 25 years Trina has been creating an amazing wild garden filled not only with wonderful plants, but with her concrete and mosaic sculptures. One sculpture was of a long couch with a built in plant container she had filled with equisetum five years earlier. I admired it, but when Trina asked if anyone in our group knew about equisetum, one of the men shook his head and said it was probably already sending roots deep into the soil and she’d never get rid of it. It was hard to see how that could happen since it was in a concrete container, but clearly he considered it a danger. And Trina seemed to be taking him seriously, and starting to consider what she could use to replace the equisetum.

When I came home it did not take me long to dig up my equisetum  which had already sent out one rhizome. I do not believe it was sending rhizome out deeply.

It has been said that if you can name a thing, you will have power over it. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who can help give me power over the two mystery plants in my garden. In the meantime I will just have to wait and see if their flowers can give me another hint.

Between the Rows   August 13, 2016

I want to thank everyone who responded to my query with the answers. That tall weed is wild lettuce Lactuca biennis, first identified by Liz Pichette, but followed by several other knowledgeable plant people. Thank you all!

9 comments to Life Among the Weeds

  • When I saw your post title on my sidebar this morning, I laughed and thought Pat must be describing my garden:) I can’t help you identify your mystery weeds, nor can I identify many of the weeds in and around my garden. I often let a mystery plant grow, only to discover when it blooms that it is a weed–I admired a bush honeysuckle one year till the hort expert in our Extension Office identified it for me and warned me to dig it out immediately! But so often a “weed” is all in the eye of the beholder. I like chicory, too, as well as Queen’s Anne’s Lace, both of which line our roadsides in the summer. And I have a lot of what other people would call weedy goldenrod. The best example of this, I think, is the common milkweed: I spent many a summer as a teen helping my Dad pull swaths of milkweed out of his bean fields. Ironically, I have scattered seeds in my garden the last few years and can’t get a single plant to grow here!

  • The seedhead of that tall one in your second picture looks like bolted lettuce to me. But I’m no expert when it comes to identifying weeds. I’m currently trying to oust some from my lawn- I don’t mind the dandelions, violets, wood sorrell, clover or the occasional plantain, but my husband doesn’t want to see them. I do mind the crabgrass but my daughter likes the softness of its broad foliage! Weeds are just a plant in the wrong place- unfortunately an aggressive one that’s hard to get rid of. My husband for example doesn’t like pokeweed in our yard but I think it looks rather decorative and my kid is fascinated by the fact that natives used to use it for dye. She wants me to let it grow…

  • I learned on the Garden Bloggers Tour that one of my so-called weeds is Indian hemp – it grows in the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Right now there is a very tall mystery plant behind the shed; I’m waiting for it to bloom so I can (hopefully) identify it. I like violets and clover in the lawn, not the flower beds; also there is a patch of wild strawberry in the front yard. I let the pokeweed grow, but not the Canada thistle, bush honeysuckle, and Queen Anne’s lace. It seems the more “weeds” I let grow, the more insect life I observe, which is a good thing. My neighbors would disagree about both weeds and bugs!

  • Stuart Krantz

    From my perspecitive – ONLY Pollinators get to proclaim weeds. They rest: Are their food source! Let’s not forget what’s most important.

  • Pat

    Stuart – Pollinators certainly know how to make good use of ‘weeds’.

  • Pat

    Bitten – I also have experienced neighbors who are not on my plant wavelength. Fortunately they are tolerant. What my mystery weeds have taught me is how many plants I cannot identify (and I thought I was getting pretty good) and how much variety there can be in a single type of plant – the wonderful excess and extravagance of Mother Nature.

  • Pat

    Jeane – You got really close. What looks like bolted lettuce is Wild Lettuce – Latuca. I have no trouble with ‘weedy’ lawns. I called my Heath lawn a flowery mead, and the greenfield lawn is not as flowery but it does lean in that direction – violets, clover and dandelions.

  • Jim

    Pat….thanks for the tip. I’ve been trying to ID a plant we’ve had pop-up the last few years. After your Latuca tip, I was able to determine that ours are Wild Blue Lettuce. We were afraid to touch them because there have been some reports of Giant Hogweed and that’s a very nasty plant. But we are now quite sure they are the Wild Blue lettuce.

  • Pat

    Jim – I’m glad you were able to id your plant – and glad it wasn’t Giant Hogweed which is very nasty indeed.

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