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.
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.
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!