Concluding the Summer of Weeds

“Most weeds suffer from a bad rap. Quite a few of the weeds in your garden are probably edible or even medicinal. Some invasive plants, including horsetail and nettle, are rich in minerals and can be harvested and used as fertilizer teas. Weeds with deep taproots, such as dandelions, cultivate the soil and pull minerals up to the surface. … Weeds are nature’s way to cover bare soil. After all, weeds prevent erosion by holding soil and minerals in place. Get to know the weeds in your area so you can put them to use for rather than against you.” — Gayla Trail, You Grow Girl

Great Piece of Turf by Albrecht Dürer (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

With summer drawing to a close, it is time to conclude the Summer of Weeds. That does not mean that my interest in weeds has waned, or that posts about weeds will cease. Quite the opposite, actually. I am just as fascinated, if not more so, with the topic of weeds as I was when this whole thing started. So, for better or worse, I will much have more to say on the subject.

In fact, I am writing a book. It is something I have been considering doing for a long time now. With so many of my thoughts focused on weeds lately, it is becoming easier to envision just what a book about weeds might look like. I want to tell the story of weeds from many different angles, highlighting both their positive and negative aspects. There is much we can learn from weeds, and not just how best to eliminate them. Regardless of how you feel about weeds, I hope that by learning their story we can all become better connected with the natural world, and perhaps more appreciative of things we casually dismiss as useless, less quick to jump to conclusions or render harsh judgments about things we don’t fully understand, and more inclined to investigate more deeply the stories about nature near and far.

Of course, I can’t do this all by myself. I will need your help. If you or someone you know works for or against weeds in any capacity, please put us in touch. I am interested in talking to weed scientists, invasive species biologists, agriculturists and horticulturists, edible weed enthusiasts, plant taxonomists, natural historians, urban ecologists, gardeners of all skill levels, and anyone else who has a strong opinion about or history of working with weeds. Please get in touch with me in one of several ways: contact page, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or by commenting below.

Another way you can help is by answering the following poll. If there is more than one topic you feel particularly passionate about, feel free to answer the poll as many times as you would like; just wait 24 hours between each response. Thank you for your help! And I hope you have enjoyed the Summer of Weeds.

Quick Guide to the Summer of Weeds:

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Summer of Weeds: Wild Urban Plants of Boise

The Summer of Weeds is a result of the curiosity and fascination I feel towards weeds. It is also inspired by Peter Del Tredici’s book, Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, which encouraged me to take a closer look at the weeds that grow in my urban hometown of Boise, Idaho. Del Tredici’s book serves mainly as a field guide for identifying common weeds found in urban areas in the northeast region of the United States. Many of these weeds are found in cities across North America, so the guide is still useful regardless of where you live. Additionally, the book’s 25 page introduction is an excellent overview of how weeds fit in to the ecology of urban areas and an incentive to not only stop and get to know our urban flora but to respect it for its tenacity and durability and its important ecological role.

Excerpts from Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast by Peter Del Tredici:

From the Foreword by Steward T. A. Pickett –

If it is to fulfill its potential, the urban wild flora must be better understood and better used. In other words, its functions, not just its categories – native, exotic, invasive, naturalized – must be appreciated by professionals and citizens alike. Understanding should come before judgement when urban wild plants are concerned.

Defining urban wild plants –

The [plants] that fill the vacant spaces between our roads, our homes, and our businesses; take over neglected landscapes; and line the shores of streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. Some of the plants are native to the region and were present before humans drastically altered the land; some were brought intentionally or unintentionally by people; and some arrived on their own, dispersed by wind, water, or wild animals. They grow and reproduce in the city without being planted or cared for. They are everywhere and yet they are invisible to most people. Given that cities are human creations and that the original vegetation that once grew there has long since disappeared, one could argue that spontaneous plants have become the de facto native vegetation of the city.

Why weeds are problematic in agricultural and horticultural settings, as well as in natural areas, is fairly intuitive. But why are they seen as a problem in urban areas, outside of our parks, yards, and gardens? –

When it comes to spontaneous urban plants, people’s complaints are usually aesthetic (the plants are perceived as ugly signs of blight and neglect) or security related (they shield illicit human activity or provide habitat for vermin). Indeed, the context in which a plant is growing not only determines the label that we put on it but also the positive or negative value that we assign to it.

Regarding urban ecology – 

[Cities] have their own distinctive ecology, dominated by the needs of people and driven by socioeconomic rather than biological factors. People welcome other organisms into cities to the extent that they contribute to making the environment a more attractive, more livable, or more profitable place to be; and they vilify as weeds those organisms that flourish without their approval or assistance. Regardless of humans’ preferences, an enormous variety of nonhuman life has managed to crowd into cities to form a cosmopolitan collection of organisms that is every bit as diverse as the human population itself.

To illustrate the point that urban weeds are playing a role in the ecology of our cities, Del Tredici lists the ecological functions of each species featured in the field guide portion of the book. These functions include:

  • temperature reduction
  • food and/or habitat for wildlife
  • erosion control on slopes and disturbed ground
  • stream and river bank stabilization
  • nutrient absorption (nitrogen, phosphorous, etc.) in wetlands
  • soil building on degraded land
  • tolerance of pollution or contaminated soil
  • disturbance-adapted colonizer of bare ground

Carbon storage and oxygen production are functions of these plants as well, as they are of all plants; however, as Del Tredici points out, “because [spontaneous urban plants] grow on marginal sites and require no maintenance, [they] are probably providing a greater return in terms of carbon sequestration than many intentionally cultivated species.”

There is much more to say about this “brave new ecology” and the role that urban wild plants play in it. Future posts are in the works. For now, consider this sentiment from Del Tredici’s book: Urban wild plants “are well adapted to the world we have created and, as such, are neither good nor bad – they are us.”

What follows are a few photos of some of the urban wild plants I have encountered in Boise over the last few weeks. These, along with the plants featured in previous Summer of Weeds posts, are a mere fraction of the species that grow wild in my urban hometown. The diversity of weeds alone in urban areas is astounding and should be given more consideration, along with the broader diversity of organisms that exist within our cities.

Creeping wood sorrel (Oxalis corniculata) along the driveway in front of my apartment

Prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola) in an abandoned lot on Bannock Street

Yet to be identified thistle along 23rd Street

Field horsetail (Equisetum arvense) in front of post office on 13th Street

Pale smartweed (Polygonum lapathifolium) in a ditch at Idaho Botanical Garden

Tree of heaven seedling (Ailanthus altissima) in the backyard of my apartment

Birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) in the lawn at Esther Simplot Park

Weeds taking over a recently abandoned business on 27th Street

Creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides) in the alleyway behind my apartment

Showy milkweed seedlings (Asclepias speciosa) next to horizontal juniper in a median on Parkcenter Boulevard

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) on the bank of the Boise River near the Broadway Avenue bridge

Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) along the Boise River Greenbelt near MK Nature Center

Summer of Weeds: Flower of an Hour

Hibiscus trionum is a great example of an ornamental plant becoming a widespread weed. Its common name, flower of an hour, refers to its short-lived blooms. Other common names include Venice mallow, bladder hibiscus, bladderweed, modesty, and shoofly. Native to southern Europe and tropical to subtropical parts of Asia and Africa, it was introduced to America as an attractive addition to annual flower beds. It is now naturalized in many states across the country.

Hibiscus is a huge genus in the family Malvaceae, consisting of species found throughout warmer parts of the world. H. trionum is a warm season annual that grows to around two feet tall and has the habit of a sprawling, decumbent vine; an upright, many-branched mound; or something in-between. Its leaves are alternately arranged and three-lobed with coarsely toothed margins. The flowers are solitary and borne in the axils of leaves. They are creamy white to pale yellow with a purple-brown center, and are both cross- and self-pollinated.

flower of an hour (Hibiscus trionum)

Flowering occurs on sunny days throughout the summer. The ephemeral flowers promptly produce a balloon-shaped seed capsule that is hairy and papery with prominent purple veins. Once mature, the capsules split open at the top to reveal five compartments lined with brown to black, kidney- or heart-shaped seeds. Every part of this plant is attractive and interesting to look at, which is why it is no surprise that it is welcome in many flower beds.

Seed capsule of flower of an hour (Hibiscus trionum)

Sites that are in full sun with fertile soil and regular moisture are sought after by flower of an hour. Less fertile soils are still prone to invasion. As with many weeds, disturbance is key, so it is often found in agricultural fields, rangelands, along roadsides, and in vacant lots and construction sites. Its presence in natural areas is a result of escaping from garden beds, agricultural fields, etc.

When we choose to grow plants that have a history of escaping into natural areas, we should be aware of both our proximity to natural areas and the dispersal mechanisms of the plants. Exotic plants that reproduce reliably and prolifically by seed, such as flower of an hour, should be considered unsuitable for gardens that are adjacent to natural areas.

This is because many popular ornamental plants have become invasive in the wild. Plants that are perfectly welcome in our gardens manage to find suitable habitat in natural areas, potentially threatening the livelihood of native plants and/or altering ecological processes such as fire regimes. An example of this where I live is bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus), which has escaped from gardens and invaded the Boise Foothills. While the impact of this invasion is not well-studied, the speed at which this plant has spread is disconcerting. Even more disconcerting is the fact that seeds of this and other European and Asian species are commonly found in “wildflower” seed mixes distributed throughout North America.

While I am sympathetic towards weeds, I also see them as one of the best reminders of the impacts that humans can have on the planet. They are clear indicators that every step we take has consequences. We should be mindful of this, and we should continue to have the tough conversations that issues like weeds and their impacts encourage us to have. There are no easy answers, but the dialogue must go on. Because all of us – gardeners and non-gardeners/ecologists and non-ecologists alike – generally have an opinion about weeds, they seem like a pretty good place to start.

Additional Resources:

Quote of the Week:

From the book Invasive Plant Medicine by Timothy Lee Scott

The nature of a weed is opportunistic, and we, as humans, have created enormous holes of opportunity for these plants to fill. They have adapted to be at our side, waiting for those favorable times to cover the exposed soils that we continually create. With ever-changing genetics of form, function, and transmutation, weeds have evolved to withstand the punishments that humans unleash upon them.

Summer of Weeds: Stinking Lovegrass

There are so many weedy grasses that we would be remiss if we let the Summer of Weeds go by without discussing at least one of them. As obnoxious and ecologically harmful as some of these grasses can be, they are easy to ignore, simply because they are not as showy and eye-catching as other weeds. They can also be difficult to identify, particularly when they are not flowering. To the untrained and unappreciative eye, all grasses appear alike and most are fairly uninteresting.

But some of them have great common names, like Eragrostis cilianensis, commonly known as stinking lovegrass, candygrass, or stinkgrass. This plant earns the name “stink” on account of the unpleasant odor that is released through tiny glands in its foilage and flower head. Probably due to my poor sense of smell, my nose doesn’t pick it up very well, but from what I can tell it has a funky or, as Sierra put it, “musky” smell. I imagine if you were to come across a large patch of stinking lovegrass blowing in the breeze, the smell would be detectable.

stinking lovegrass (Eragrostis cilianensis)

Eragrostis cilianensis is a short (up to two feet tall) annual grass from Eurasia and Africa. It is naturalized across much of North America. It has hollow and jointed stems with flat or folded leaves. Where the leaf blade wraps around the stem (an area called the ligule) there is a tuft of fine hairs. The inflorescence is highly branched, and the branches are lined with several compact, flat florets. The appearance of the flower head is highly variable, from tight and compact to spread out and open.

Inflorescences of stinking lovegrass (Eragrostis cilianensis)

Stinking lovegrass likes sandy or gravelly, dry soils in open, regularly disturbed areas with full sun. It is very drought tolerant and thrives in hot temperatures, which is why it is unfazed growing in the cracks of sidewalks and pavement. It can grow in rich, fertile soil as well, and so it often makes an appearance in vegetable gardens, agricultural fields, and ornamental garden beds.

Stinking lovegrass growing in a crack between the pavement and the sidewalk

There are dozens of species in the genus Eragrostis, with representatives around the world. A few are native to North America, and a few others have been introduced. Provenance aside, all have the potential to be weedy. Eragrostis curvula, weeping lovegrass, is an aggresive invader in some regions. Eragrostis minor, lesser lovegrass, is similar to stinking lovegrass, not only in appearance but also in its provenance and status as a weed in North America. In Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, Peter Del Tredici mentions two North American natives that can be weedy along roadsides and in vacant lots, sidewalk cracks, garden beds, and elsewhere: E. pectinacea (Carolina lovegrass) and E. spectabilis (purple lovegrass). Last but not least, Eragrostris tef (aslo known as teff) is a commonly cultivated cereal crop in Ethiopia and surrounding countries, the seeds of which are harvested to make injera.

Additional Resources:

Video of the Week:

The Idaho Weed Awareness Campaign has some fun educational materials, including a few puppets, to help teach children about noxious weeds. Mortie Milfoil is a puppet who helps spread the word about the aquatic invasive, Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum). Hannah teaches kids about poison hemlock (Conium maculatum). See Hannah’s video below:

Summer of Weeds: Common Mullein

The fuzzy, gray-green leaves of common mullein are familiar and friendly enough that it can be hard to think of this plant as a weed. Verbascum thapsus is a member of the figwort family and is known by dozens of common names, including great mullein, Aaron’s rod, candlewick, velvet dock, blanket leaf, feltwort, and flannel plant. Its woolly leaves are warm and inviting and have a history of being used as added padding and insulation, tucked inside of clothing and shoes. In Wild Edible and Useful Plants of Idaho, Ray Vizgirdas writes, “the dried stalks are ideal for use as hand-drills to start fires; the flowers and leaves produce yellow dye; as a toilet paper substitute, the large fresh leaves are choice.”

Common mullein is a biennial that was introduced to eastern North America from Eurasia in the 1700’s as a medicinal plant and fish poison. By the late 1800’s it had reached the other side of the continent. In its first year it forms a rosette of woolly, oblong and/or lance-shaped leaves. After overwintering it produces a single flower stalk up to 6 feet tall. The woolly leaves continue along the flower stalk, gradually getting smaller in size until they reach the inflorescence, which is a long, dense, cylindrical spike. Sometimes the stalk branches out to form multiple inflorescences.

First year seedlings of common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

The inflorescence doesn’t flower all at once; instead, a handful of flowers open at a time starting at the bottom of the spike and moving up in an irregular pattern. The process takes several weeks to complete. The flowers are about an inch wide and sulfur yellow with five petals. They have both female and male sex parts but are protogynous, meaning the female organs mature before the male organs. This encourages cross-pollination by insects. However, if pollination isn’t successful by the end of the day, the flowers self-pollinate as the petals close. Each flower produces a capsule full of a few hundred seeds, and each plant can produce up to 180,000 seeds. The seeds can remain viable for over 100 years, sitting in the soil waiting for just the right moment to sprout.

Common mullein is a friend of bare, recently disturbed soil. It is rare to see this plant growing in thickly vegetated areas. As an early successional plant, its populations can be abundant immediately after a disturbance, but they do not persist once other plants have filled in the gaps. Instead they wait in seed form for the next disturbance that will give them the opportunity to rise again. They can be a pest in gardens and farm fields due to regular soil disturbance, and are often abundant in pastures and rangelands because livestock avoid eating their hairy leaves. Because of its ephemeral nature, it is generally not considered a major weed; however, it is on Colorado’s noxious weed list.

Several features make common mullein a great example of a drought-adapted plant. Its fleshy, branching taproot can reach deep into the soil to find moisture, the thick hairs on the leaves help reduce water loss via transpiration, and the way the leaves are arranged and angled on the stalk can help direct rain water down toward the roots.

Common mullein has an extensive history of ethnobotanical uses. Medicinally it has been used internally to treat coughs, colds, asthma, bronchitis, and kidney infections; and as a poultice to treat warts, slivers, and swelling. The dried flower stalks have been used to make torches, and the fuzzy leaves have been used as tinder for fire-making and wicks in lamps.

The hairy leafscape of common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

More Resources:

Quote of the Week:

From Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway

Here’s why opportunistic plants are so successful. When we clear land or carve a forest into fragments, we’re creating lots of open niches. All that sunny space and bare soil is just crying out to be colongized by light- and fertlity-absorbing green matter. Nature will quickly conjure up as much biomass as possible to capture the bounty, by seeding low-growing ‘weeds’ into a clearing or, better yet, sprouting a tall thicket stretching into all three dimensions to more effectively absorb light and develop deep roots. … When humans make a clearing, nature leaps in, working furiously to rebuild an intact humus and fungal layer, harvest energy, and reconstruct all the cycles and connections that have been severed. A thicket of fast-growing pioneer plants, packing a lot of biomass into a small space, is a very effective way to do this. … And [nature] doesn’t care if a nitrogen fixer or a soil-stabilizing plant arrived via continental drift or a bulldozer’s treads, as long as it can quickly stitch a functioning ecosystem together.

Book Review: Weeds Find a Way

At what age do we become aware that there are profound differences among the plants we see around us? That some are considered good and others evil. Or that one plant belongs here and another doesn’t. Most young children (unless an adult has taught them) are unaware that there is a difference between a weed and a desirable plant. If it has attractive features or something fun to interact with – like the seed heads of dandelions or the sticky leaves of bedstraw – they are all the same. At some point in our trajectory we learn that some plants must be rooted out, while others can stay. Some plants are uninvited guests – despite how pretty they might be – while others are welcome and encouraged.

But weeds are resilient, and so they remain. Weeds Find a Way, written by Cindy Jenson-Elliot and illustrated by Carolyn Fisher, is a celebration of weeds for their resiliency as well as for their beauty and usefulness. This book introduces the idea of weeds to children, focusing mainly on their tenacity, resourcefulness, and positive attributes rather than their darker side. “Weeds are here to stay,” so perhaps there is a place for them.

The book begins by listing some of the “wondrous ways” that weed seeds disperse themselves: “floating away on the wind,” attaching themselves to “socks and fur,” shot “like confetti from a popped balloon.” And then they wait – under snow and ice or on top of hot sidewalks – until they find themselves in a time and place where they can sprout. Eventually, “weeds find a way to grow.”

Weeds also “find a way to stay.” We can pull them up, but their roots are often left behind to “sprout again.” Pieces and parts break off and take root in the soil. Animals may swoop in to devour them, but weeds drive them away with their thorns, prickles, and toxic chemicals. In these ways they are a nuisance, but they can be beautiful and beneficial, too.

This illustrated story of weeds is followed by some additional information, as well as a list of common weeds with brief descriptions. Weeds are defined as plants “thought to be of no value that grow in places where people do not want them to grow,” adding that even “misunderstood and underappreciated plants that are native to a region and have multiple uses” can be labeled weeds.

The concept of weeds as invasive species is also addressed; some introduced plants move into natural areas and can “crowd out native vegetation, block streams, and drive away wild animals.” That being said, weeds also provide us with “endless opportunities to study one of nature’s most wonderful tools: adaptation.” Weeds are problematic as much as they are useful, it’s simply a matter of perspective.

A criticism of this book might be that it doesn’t focus enough on the negative aspects of weeds. There is plenty of that elsewhere. The aim of this book is to connect us with nature, and as Jensen-Elliot writes, “you don’t need a garden to know that nature is at work.” When there is a weed nearby, nature is nearby. Weeds “adapt and grow in tough times and desolate places,” and they make the world beautiful “one blossom at a time.”

Introducing the Summer of Weeds

I spent the first five months of this year posting almost exclusively about invasive species. There is still plenty more to say on the topic, and I’m sure I will get back to that. However, it is time now to dive into the topic that I really want to explore. Weeds.

There is definitely crossover between the two topics – many weeds are invasive species – but there are clear distinctions, too. Oftentimes, weeds as a category of plants are unfairly and unjustly lumped under the title “invasive,” but any plant can be a weed at any moment in time if a human says so. That’s the difference. A plant does not have to prove that it is causing any sort of ecological or economic damage to be called a “weed;” it just has to be growing where a human doesn’t want it to. Yet, too quickly a plant “out of place” is cursed at using words like “invasive” or “noxious” regardless of its origin or behavior. I know I’m being overly semantic about this, but it seems unfair (and incorrect) to lump any and all plants that are bothering us for whatever reason into categories that have legal definitions.

If you can’t already tell, I am obsessed with weeds. It’s a topic I have been thinking about fairly consistently for much of my adult life. For one thing, as part of my career I spend a huge portion of my time killing and controlling weeds. I comprehend fully the visceral reaction of seeing a garden overcome by weeds – the vile thoughts one can have towards a group of plants that are soiling what could otherwise be a beautiful landscape – and I know very well the backbreaking work and countless hours that go into removing uninvited plants (cursing the intruders along the way). I get why weeds are a problem, and I understand why they are a subject of so much vitriol. Yet, over the years I have developed a respect – even a love – for weeds (despite the fact that I still must remove them and that removing them continues to be an overwhelming task).

Unwanted plants have been following us around and getting in our way for millenia. Essentially, we are partners in crime. We intentionally and unintentionally bring plants from various parts of the world on our travels, and through disturbance we create conditions where introduced plants can settle in and thrive. Over time, some once beloved plants grow out of favor and transition from desirable to weedy. As our cycles of disturbance continue, we give early successional, opportunistic plant species a chance to perpetuate themselves, guaranteeing that we will keep such “weeds” with us forever. We reap what we sow; even though we generally don’t plant weeds on purpose, other actions ensure that they will be our constant companions.

The importance of weed control goes beyond the aesthetic. In horticulture and agriculture, weeds compete with crops for light, space, water, and nutrients. They also harbor pests and diseases, and their seeds can contaminate crops. In pastures and rangelands, some weeds poison livestock. Certain weeds are harmful to people, too. Other weeds are simply disruptive – getting tangled up in machinery, damaging infrastructure, blocking our vision along roadways, and even giving cyclists flat tires. Apart from all that, even if all weeds did was make our gardens look unsightly, I imagine we would still be pretty angry with them.

I am interested in weeds wherever they are, but the weeds that fascinate me the most are those that thrive in urban environments. Not necessarily the weeds in our yards, but the weeds that have escaped our fences and property lines; the ones in the margins. We see them in abandoned lots, along roadways, near irrigation channels, and in other neglected spaces. They pop up in the cracks of sidewalks, on rooftops, in the middle of decaying buildings, and anywhere else that people haven’t paid attention to in a while. Urban areas have, for the most part, been scraped of their native flora. Introduced species move in to fill that void. As Richard Mabey writes in his book about weeds, these plants “insinuate the idea of wild nature into places otherwise quite shorn of it;” they are “the very essence of wildness.” Novel ecosystems, like those created by urbanization and human development, are with us whether we like it or not. There is a “wildness” to them that is unlike other cultivated and manicured areas maintained by humans. These urban wild places are worth a closer look.

So, what is the Summer of Weeds?

Put simply, it’s an exploration of weeds. Throughout the summer I will be profiling some of the weeds I come across in my daily life. I will include photos, a brief description, and some interesting facts about each species. I will also include quotes about weeds from various sources, as well as videos, links, resources, and whatever else I come across that seems worth sharing. I hope you enjoy it. If you have anything to add along the way – specifically any personal thoughts or stories to share about weeds – please do. You can contact me via the usual ways: in the comment section below, through the Contact page, or on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, or Instagram. Happy Summer!