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

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Summer of Weeds: Lambsquarters

Since we seem to be on the topic of edible weeds we may as well discuss lambsquarters, another frequently present and commonly eaten, nutritious and versitile weed. Botanically known as Chenopodium album, it is a member of the family Amaranthaceae and therefore related to several common (and uncommon) agricultural crops, including spinach (Spinacia oleracea), beets (Beta vulgaris), Swiss chard (also Beta vulgaris), amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), and red orach (Atriplex hortensis). Chenopodium, a genus consisting of 100 plus species, is also cultivated in various parts of the world for its edible leaves, stems, and seeds. Chenopodium quinoa, commonly known as quinoa, is now a popular “grain” in North America after being grown for millenia by Andean cultures.

Chenopodium album is a summer annual that reaches up to 6 feet tall with sturdy, angular stems and triangular, diamond-shaped, or lance-shaped leaves with irregularly toothed margins. The leaves are green on top and mealy gray-white on bottom. The flowers are tiny, petal-less, and organized in tight clusters at the ends of branches. In Botany In a Day, Thomas Elpel describes the flowers as “little green ‘globs’ forming along an upright stalk, sometimes colored with specks of yellow.” They are generally wind-pollinated, but are occassionally visited by pollinating insects. Each plant can produce tens of thousands of seeds, which are potentially viable for up to 40 years.

Inflorescence of lambsquarters (Chenopodium album)

Lambsquartes is one of many common names for C. album (others include goosefoot, fat hen, baconweed, mealweed, frostblite, and wild spinach), and is a name with several proposed origins. Is it because the plant is commonly found growing in the manure-rich soils of barnyards? Or is it because the fuzzy undersides of the leaves are reminiscent of sheep’s wool? Perhaps it is because per weight, the harvested plants and a quarter of lamb contain roughly the same amount of protein? Who knows? Despite all this talk of sheep, however, large quantities of lambsquarters are reported to be poisonous to both sheep and pigs.

Though lambsquarters prefers nutrient-rich soils, it tolerates a wide variety of soil types, including dry, compacted, urban soil. It is drawn to all sorts of disturbed sites and is particularly abundant in gardens, agricultuaral fields, and roadsides. It readily hybridizes with other Chenopodium species, including the North American native C. berlandieri. In The Book of Field and Roadside, John Eastman calls it “one of the wold’s most abundant and noxious weeds,” because “it competes with some 40 crops [and] is especially invasive in tomato, potato, sugar beet, soybean, and corn fields.”

Eastman goes on to hint at lambsquarters’ potential for phytoremediation: “The plant accumulates high levels of nitrates and pesticides in addition to its oxalic acid content.” It also takes up heavy metals, including zinc, copper, and lead. This phenomenon is worth a future post, so stay tuned.

Leaf of lambsquarters (Chenopodium album)

That being said, when harvested from a non-polluted site, lambsquarters is a very nutritious spinach-like green both raw and cooked. Younger leaves and plants are preferred because older ones tend to be higher in oxalic acid. The seeds are also edible and, like quinoa, can be used in a similar manner as common grain and cereal crops. Harvester ants and various bird species also collect and consume the seeds. The roots of lambsquarters are high in saponin and can be used to make soap.

There are many reasons to be impressed with Chenopodium album, including its ability to tolerate drougt and frost, its adaptability to all types of soil, its highly nutritious plant parts (but also potentially toxic due to accumalation of pollutants and oxalic acid), and its competitive and persistent nature. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, author of Weeds and What They Tell, was in awe of this “most enduring annual weed” and its goosefoot family relatives, writing: “We have the feeling that the goosefoot was destined to play a better role than to become an obnoxious weed. They follow closely man’s steps, showing their inclination to be domesticated. Probably future plant breeders may develop new cultivated varieties out of this family long after our present cultivated plants have degenerated, for it is their extreme vitality and preserverence to grow that makes the goosefoot family so interesting.”

Pfeiffer’s predictions haven’t quite come to pass, but time will tell.

More lambsquarters flowers

———————

According to an article posted on LiveScience, lambsquarters is one of “The Five Healthiest Backyard Weeds.” The list includes two other weeds we have covered during the Summer of Weeds: Purslane and Plantain.

Summer of Weeds: Salsify

Picking a favorite weed is challenging. If we dismiss entirely the idea that a person is not supposed to like weeds, the challenge is not that “favorite weeds” is an oxymoron; it is, instead, that it is impossibile to pick one weed among hundreds of weeds that is the most attractive, the most impressive, the most useful, the most forgiving, whatever. For me, salsify is a top contender.

Salsify and goatsbeard are two of several common names for plants in the genus Tragopogon. At least three species in this genus have been introduced to North America from Europe and Asia. All are now common weeds, widespread across the continent. All have, at some point, been cultivated intentionally for their edible roots and leaves, but Tragopogon porrifolius – commonly known as oyster plant or purple salsify – may be the only one that is intentionally grown in gardens today. Its purple flowers make it easy to determine between the other two species, which have yellow flowers.

As it turns out, I am not familiar with purple salsify. I don’t think it is as common in western North America as it is in other parts of the continent. In fact, the most common of the three in my corner of the world appears to be Tragopogon dubius, commonly known as western salsify. Tragopogon pratensis (meadow salsify) makes an appearance, but perhaps not as frequently. To complicate matters, hybridization is common in the genus, so it may be difficult to tell exactly what you are looking at.

western salsify (Tragopogon dubius)

Regardless, salsify is a fairly easy weed to identify. It is a biennial (sometimes annual, sometimes perennial) plant that starts out as a rosette of gray-green leaves that are grass-like in appearance. Eventually a flower stalk emerges, adorned with more grass-like leaves, branching out to form around a half dozen flower heads. Salsify is in the aster family, in which flower heads typically consist of a tight grouping of disc and ray florets. In this case, only ray florets are produced. The florets are yellow or lemon-yellow, and each flower head sits atop a series of pointed bracts which encase the flower (and the forming seed head) when closed. Examining the length of the bracts is one way to tell T. dubius (bracts extend beyond the petals) from T. pratensis (bracts and petals are equal in length).

Illustration of Tragopogon dubius by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

The flowers of salsify open early in the morning and face the rising sun. By noon, they have usually closed. This phenomenon is the reason behind other common names like noonflower and Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon. Salsify’s timely flowering makes an appearance in Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things: “Alma learned to tell time by the opening and closing of flowers. At five 0’clock in the morning, she noticed, the goatsbeard petals always unfolded. … At noon, the goatsbeard closed.”

The seed heads of salsify look like over-sized dandelions. Each seed (a.k.a. achene) is equipped with a formidable pappus, and with the help of a gust of wind, seeds can be dispersed hundreds of feet from the parent plant. The seeds don’t remain viable for very long, but with each plant producing a few hundred seeds and dispersing them far and wide, it is not hard to see why salsify has staying power.

Open, sunny areas are preferred by salsify, but it can grow in a variety of conditions. In The Book of Field and Roadside, John Eastman writes, “goatsbeards can establish themselves in bare soil, amid grasses and old-field vegetation, and in heavy ground litter; such adaptability permits them to thrive across a range of early plant successional stages.” Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast lists the following sites as “habitat prefrences” of meadow salsify: “abandoned grasslands, urban meadows, vacant lots, rubble dumps, and at the base of rock outcrops and stone walls.” While generally not considered a noxious weed, Tragopogon species are commonly encountered and widely naturalized. Last summer on a field trip to Mud Springs Ridge near Hells Canyon, salsify was one of only a small handful of introduced plants I observed looking right at home with the native flora.

Seed heads of western salsify (Tragopogon dubius) before opening

All that being said, why is salsify one of my favorite weeds? Its simple and elegant form appeals to me. Its gray- or blue-green stems and leaves together with its unique, yellow flowers are particularly attractive to me. And its giant, globe-shaped seed heads, which seem to glisten in the sun, captivate me. Its not a difficult weed to get rid off. It generally pulls out pretty easily, and it’s a satisfying feeling when you can get it by the root. It’s a sneaky weed, popping up full grown inside of another plant and towering above it, making you wonder how you could have missed such an intrusion. The roots are said to be the most palatable before the plant flowers, so if you can spot the young rosette – disguised as grass and also edible – consider yourself lucky. I haven’t tried them yet, but I will. [Editor’s note: Sierra tells me that I have eaten them in a salad she made, but at the time I didn’t know they were in there so I don’t remember what they tasted like.] If they are any good, that will be one more reason why salsify is one of my favorite weeds.

Bonus excerpt from Emma Cooper’s book, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, regarding Tragopogon porrifolius:

Salsify is often called the vegetable oyster, because its roots are supposed to have an oyster-like flavor although I suspect nobody would be fooled. The long roots are pale and a bit like carrots – they are mild and sweet and when young can be eaten raw. Mature roots are better cooked. Traditionally a winter food, any roots left in the ground in spring will produce a flush of edible foliage.

Summer of Weeds: Henbit and Purple Deadnettle

There are weeds for every season. Now that we are heading into the hot days of summer, spring weeds (if they haven’t already) are fading. There is a parallel between them and the spring wildflowers we love. They start early, greening up and flowering even before there are leaves on the trees. They exploit the sun made available before deciduous trees and shrubs can hog it all, and they take advantage of the moisture in the soil brought by winter snowfall and spring rain. They thrive in cool temperatures, and their flowers provide early pollen and nectar for emerging pollinators. One major difference between spring ephemeral weeds and spring ephemeral wildflowers is that, despite having similar strategies and providing similar services, the spring weeds aren’t from here; and so we look down on them.

Two common, annual, spring weeds that are easily recognizable – but often mistaken for one another – are henbit and purple deadnettle. Both are in the genus Lamium and the family Lamiaceae (the mint family) and both arrived from Europe. Looking closely at the leaves is the best way to tell these two apart. The upper leaves of henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) lack petioles and are round or oval with rounded teeth. The upper leaves of purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) are crowded around the stem, have short petioles, sharper teeth, and are more spade-shaped, coming to a point at the tip. The uppermost leaves of purple deadnettle are a distinct reddish-purple. Identify That Plant offers a great tutorial to help tell these and groundy ivy (another spring-occurring, annual weed in the mint family) apart.

henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)

Henbit prefers full sun and moist, rich soils. It can have either a prostrate or an erect growth habit. In urban environments it is commonly found in lawns, garden beds, and drainage ditches. It is common in agricultural crops and fallow fields as well. According to Weeds of North America, “henbit is poisonous to livestock, especially sheep, causing the animal to stagger;” it is also a host for aster yellows, tobacco etch, and tobacco mosaic viruses. Purple deadnettle inhabits similar sites, often forming a dense groundcover. While henbit and purple deadnettle are highly attractive to bees, they do not always require insect pollination and can self-pollinate instead. Each plant can produce dozens of seeds, and seeds remain viable in the soil for as long as 25 years.

Plants in the genus Lamium are commonly referred to as dead-nettles because they resemble stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) and other plants in the genus Urtica. Lamiums do not posses the stinging quality, and so they are “dead.”  The young leaves, shoots, and flowers of henbit and purple deadnettle are edible and can be eaten raw or cooked. Check out Eat the Weeds for more details.

Illustration of henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) from Selected Weeds of the United States (Agriculture Handbook No. 366) circa 1970

More Resources:

purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)

Quote of the Week:

From Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast by Peter Del Tredici

From a utilitarian perspective, a weed is any plant that grows by itself in a place where people do not want it to grow. The term is a value judgment that humans apply to plants we do not like, not a biological characteristic. Calling a plant a weed gives us license to eradicate it. In a similar vein, calling a plant invasive allows us to blame it for ruining the environment when really it is humans who are actually to blame. From the biological perspective, weeds are plants that are adapted to disturbance in all its myriad forms, from bulldozers to acid rain. Their pervasiveness in the urban environment is simply a reflection of the continual disruption that characterizes this habitat. Weeds are the symptoms of environmental degradation, not its cause, and as such they are poised to become increasingly abundant within our lifetimes.

A patch of dead-nettle (Lamium sp.) – photo credit: Amy Trampush (Thank you, Amy!)

Horticulture’s Role in the Spread of Invasive Plants

I live in the city of Boise – a bustling metropolis by Idaho’s standards. It is located in the high desert of the Intermountain Northwest in a region called the sagebrush steppe. Our summers are hot and dry, and our native flora reflects this.

When I leave my apartment I am greeted by a flowering quince (Chaenomeles sp.). At this time of year it is in full bloom and looking amazing. It originated in East Asia. To my left I see a tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), a common urban tree that came to America from China via Europe. To my right there is a row of Norway maples (Acer platanoides), another popular urban tree. As its common name suggests, it is a European species that is distributed across large portions of eastern and central Europe. None of these plants are native to the sagebrush steppe, nor would they survive the harsh conditions without supplemental irrigation. All are horticultural introductions.

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

But there is another thing that at least two of these species have in common. Tree of heaven and Norway maple are considered invasive species in North America due to their propensity to spread into natural areas and disrupt native ecosystems. They also have a reputation of being pesky urban weeds.

My experience isn’t unique. Yards across North America are planted largely with species that are not native to this continent, and while most species stay where we plant them, a significant portion of them have leaped out of our tidy landscapes and disseminated themselves across natural areas, earning them the title invasive species.

In a paper published in BioScience (2001), Sarah Hayden Reichard and Peter White discuss the role that horticulture has played in introducing invasive species to the United States. Humans have a long history of moving plants from one part of the world to another for food, fuel, and fiber. However, collecting plants from around the world and organizing them into gardens for aesthetic purposes is, by comparison, a more recent thing. Species used for ornamental horticulture are what Reichard and White are concerned about.

As an introduction, Reichard and White offer a quick history of the beginnings of ornamental horticulture in the United States. This period is summed up well in an article by Richard Mack and Mark Lonsdale in the same issue of BioScience:

As colonists became more secure in their new environments, they began to import ornamental species from their homelands and elsewhere, in simultaneous quests for both familiar and unfamiliar plants. These plant importations sprang from deep-seated or primal aspects of human behavior shared by people in former colonies and homelands alike. … Many needed to be reassured with familiar plants from home, and they also had seemingly antithetical desires to experience novel, exotic ornamental plants.

Today, plant explorations continue throughout the world, often with the goal of introducing new plant species to the horticulture trade, and avid gardeners remain eager to find something new and interesting to add to their yards. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with filling our yards with exotic plants. The trouble comes when these plants escape cultivation and cause problems in neighboring ecosystems. Bringing awareness to this darker side of ornamental horticulture is what Reichard and White endeavor to do.

“Thomas Jefferson, an avid horticulturist, also introduced several species. He may have been the first person to introduce Cytisus scoparius (Scotch broom) as an ornamental species; that plant is now an invasive species in many parts of North America.” — Reichard and White (2001) [photo credit: www.eol.org]

Major players involved in the global movement of horticultural specimens include botanical gardens and arboreta, nurseries, garden clubs and horticultural societies, and the seed trade industry. The motives for transporting species vary among the groups, as do their roles in addressing the invasive species issue. Many botanical gardens have extensive plant exploration programs, which today are often more conservation focused than they were in the past; however, some of the species acquired during these explorations are released to the public, often without certainty that they won’t spread.

Even though most nurseries don’t have active plant exploration programs, they may acquire plants from nurseries or other institutions that do. For business reasons, plants may be sold before they have been properly screened for invasive-ness. Some retail nurseries make an effort to not sell plants that are known invasives in their regions. However, there are plenty of mail order nurseries that may not be aware of or may simply ignore the fact that they are shipping plants to regions where they are invasive. Seed exchanges between garden clubs and botanical societies, as well as the seed trade industry, are also responsible for shipping species to areas where they are currently or may become invasive.

“Uninformed people sometimes dump their aquarium water and plants into local water sources, and many of the aquarium plants survive and multiply. Hydrilla verticillata, a very aggressive aquatic weed in the South, was probably introduced to provide a domestic source of this plant for the aquarium trade.” — Reichard and White (2001) [photo credit: wikimedia commons]

Plant exploration will continue, and many new plants will be introduced to the public through the horticulture trade. Rules and regulations help restrict some plant movement, but in a capitalist society such restrictions will ultimately be, as Reichard and White write, “a compromise between ideal invasive plant exclusion and trade facilitation.” Plants can be screened for invasivibility, but it is difficult to know if, when, and where a species may become invasive. Furthermore, given enough time, a species that appeared to stay put can suddenly start to spread (or could have been spreading all along unnoticed).

Reichard and White acknowledge that “the burden of finding a solution to the problems posed by invasive plants does not necessarily fall on the shoulders of [the horticulture] industry.” Various groups from broad disciplines will have to come to together to work towards a solution. Reichard and White offer some suggestions for working together. For example, invasive species biologists can share their research with the horticulture industry which can, in turn, communicate this information to the public through garden writers and speakers. Botanical gardens can take a leadership role by vowing to “first do no harm to plant diversity and natural areas” and by providing public education about the issue.

Efforts can be made to ban the sale of problematic plants and to encourage proper screening of new introductions, but public demand for certain plants may remain. So, “better communication from ecologists to the public about which species are causing problems will discourage people from buying them.” Involving the public in eradication efforts can also help raise awareness, as people can see first hand that plants in their yards have invaded the wild.