How about a new perspective?
Story and Photography by Cindy Shapton
Do you ever look at weeds and wonder why this or that plant is considered a weed while other plants, such as bermudagrass, are not?
It’s all in the angle I suppose, “One man’s treasure is another man’s junk,” and all that. Perhaps, before we insisted on weed-free lawns and gardens, the “weeds” may have been considered a natural and integral part of a healthy, sustainable ecosystem that benefited the lawn, garden, man, and beneficial insects.
My granddaughter quotes Peppa Pig’s definition of a weed being “a cheeky plant growing in the wrong place.” Hmm, what if that cheeky plant was really growing in the right place? I know, it sounds too crazy to be true, but let’s have an open-minded discussion about five weeds that are or are trying to grow in your yard or garden – just for fun.
Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)
First of all, if this weed is so bad why does it have such a cute name? I mean really, henbit, or its other common name, giraffe head, sounds like a character in a children’s story. This “weed” is in the mint family (Lamiaceae). Henbit has a square stem and scalloped leaves that wrap around or clasp the stems (a key fact to henbit identification). Although henbit doesn’t smell minty, it is a nutritious salad green.
You will be glad to know that there are no poisonous look-alikes, but it is sometimes confused with purple dead nettle, another member of the mint family (L. purpureum), but no worries, that “weed” isn’t poisonous either.
Chickens like this plant, hence the name, as do hummingbirds and box turtles … no idea if giraffes fancy it. Honeybees and bumblebees gather the nectar and pollen from the early blooms, so perhaps henbit could be beneficial in orchards, attracting pollinators at peak bloom time.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
I consider this herb a happy ground cover. You can see it making itself right at home, spreading out in the yard and garden beds in late fall into spring. Chickweed enriches the soil as it accumulates potassium and phosphorus. It is also a valuable food supply for pollinators in the spring. It may look a bit untidy, but it will die back when the weather heats up, releasing nutrients back into the soil.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
This herb originated in Europe and was employed by beekeepers to attract honeybees. The French named it dent de lion, or tooth of the lion, which refers to the iron-rich toothed leaves. Dandelion has been used for food and medicine (entire plant) for hundreds of years only to come to this country to be totally overlooked and cursed by gardeners for its ability to sprout up in disturbed soil and lawns.
But the lowly dandelion offers so much. The edible roots grow deep, breaking up hardpan and bringing nutrients up to the topsoil, making lawns healthier. As the roots decay, they make perfect tunnels for earthworms as they increase air and water in the soil and break down organic matter to feed plants, all while making fertilizer in the form of castings. If you have an abundance of dandelions, dig up the roots, roast and grind them as a coffee substitute.
The flowers feed ladybugs and other beetles when their normal food source is unavailable. If that’s not enough, flower buds sautéed in butter taste like mushrooms and flowers battered and fried are tasty fritters filled with natural antioxidants. Besides, what other plant is so much fun for children as they blow those fluffy seed heads and make wishes. Neighbors especially love this.
If you absolutely must dig the dandelions from your yard or garden, toss them into the compost pile so they can at least nourish soil in the future.
Plantain (Plantago major)
This broadleaf herb was brought to America by early settlers from Europe, and can be found almost anywhere, usually growing in disturbed or compacted soil.
This invaluable plant accumulates minerals and deposits them in soil. Often called the beekeeper’s friend, it’s known to take the hurt out of bee stings simply by chewing a leaf and spitting it on skin (remove stinger first). A simple remedy that works on nearly any type of insect bite or sting.
White clover (Trifolium repens)
Homeowners often inadvertently encourage this plant by cutting grass too short, which causes the grass roots to also shorten and then wither during the first dry spell, allowing the clover to move on in. But don’t get discouraged – clover roots have a symbiotic relationship with a bacterium that actually converts atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use. Clover is often planted as a “green manure” to add nitrogen back to the soil. This amazing weed also draws in phosphorus and puts it back into the soil.
It has a creeping growth habit, forming a thick mat that beneficial insects such as parasitoid wasps, spiders, and ground beetles use as shelter. Lacewings lay their eggs in clover and ladybugs and pollinators, especially honeybees, feed on its nectar.
Perhaps our conventional wisdom should be re-examined now that we know that some “weeds” help loosen soil, create organic matter, slow erosion, fertilize, heal and nourish our soil, plus feed and house beneficial insects. All of this is great news for those of us who strive to have a perfect weed-free garden and lawn … perhaps we should relax a little and enjoy the benefits these “weeds” provide.