A Weed By Any Other Name

A recent post on the blog of Chicago’s Lurie Garden addressed the question of weeds in a way that seems pretty sensible.

lurie garden may 4
Chicago’s Lurie Garden has a nuanced approach to weeds.

Scott Stewart, the Garden’s Director, tells us that the staff at Lurie divide weeds into four categories (and I’m paraphrasing a bit with these categories):

creeping charlie
Creeping Charlie drives men to dark deeds. Photo from University of Illinois Extension.

Weeds they hate, have always hated, and will always hate. These are plants that are simply evil and have no redeeming social value. An example given is Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis). Not mentioned in the post, but one I would nominate if asked, is Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea).

Ohio Spiderwort
Ohio Spiderwort shouldn’t take the blame for its unruly relatives.

Weeds they got involved with when they were really young, afterwards realizing it was a horrible mistake. The example given here is Spiderwort (Tradescantia), which was included in Lurie’s original design.

I think this is a bit unreasonable. Not all Spiderworts are the same, and it is unfair to stereotype an entire genus because of a few bad apples (so to speak). Yes, Virginia Spiderwort (T. virginiana) spreads like a barbarian invasion, but Ohio Spiderwort (T. ohiensis) is considerate and well-behaved, like a polite Midwesterner.

Wood_sorrel_oxalis_04
Yellow Wood Sorrel

Weeds that show up uninvited, but that aren’t so bad once you get to know them. These are basically weeds that can actually play a positive role in the garden. For example, Yellow Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta) is unobtrusive and discourages more aggressive weeds by covering bare spots. The staff at Lurie generally don’t bother to remove it.

Now, there is quite a bit of Yellow Wood Sorrel in our garden. I have been annoyed by its quiet persistence, and have made a point of pulling it out when I see it. However, once I read that the Lurie Garden leaves it alone,Β it suddenly seemed almost attractive to me. Funny how that works, isn’t it? So for now I am letting the Yellow Wood Sorrel spread where it likes.

Plants that photo bomb the garden designer’s vignettes. Basically, these plants are generally fine, but they have decided to pop up where they ruin the look of a planting. The example given is Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeding itself into Lurie’s River of Salvia .

So, what do you think? Do these categories of weeds make sense, and do they call to mind any particular weedy acquaintances of your own?

59 Comments on “A Weed By Any Other Name

  1. Thanks you for sharing this useful, thoughtful, beautiful and practical gardening philosophy. I enjoyed reading it and seeing how many of your weeds are also very common here in sub-tropical Brisbane, Australia. Happy garden times.

  2. If only most weeds would fall into that third category! I find the weeds that are hard to see, with tiny little flowers in insignificant colours, are the meanest, and Ground Elder is the meanest of all, despite some gardeners recommending it as ground cover!!!

  3. Great post. Bindweed and dog strangling vine, plus that wild mustard /garlic mustard are an abomination. I liked the Tradescanti flowers. Japanese knotweed, sometimes called wild bamboo, is also a rough bully and a pest.

  4. Great post! I like the photo bombing example and agree some forms of spiderwort are very beautiful and surprisingly long flowering – that’s one I struggle to see as a weed. Climate, soil and situation also plays a big part – and perhaps even culture. What swamps everything out in one climate/soil/situation can be something of a rare jewel in another. Few English people would think of violets as weeds, whether the cultivar is common or more unusual.

  5. I’m with SUSURRUS in that I like the spiderwort flowers, but I wish they wouldn’t keel over after blooming. I’m wondering how I can tell if mine is the Virginia variety or the Ohio variety. It multiplies, which I like, but doesn’t seem to be doing it aggressively. You see, I live in Virginia. Does that automatically mean that I have the Virginia variety? What is the difference?

    • Well, if you live in Virginia I’d say you have Virginian Spiderwort, but not necessarily Virginia Spiderwort. Ohio Spiderwort is taller and is always blue. Virginia Spiderwort is more violet/purple but can have a variety of colors.

  6. I don’t mind the weeds that flower come Fall. They are pretty and useful to birds and insects at that time of year. I just behead the flowers after they fade, otherwise the plants would multiply and make my garden look like a field. I agree on Creeping Charlie. It is one weed that is very persistent and prevalent in our area. The flowers are nice, but the vining/rooting habit along the soil surface is a royal pain.

  7. These categories do makes sense. I’ve become friendlier with a lot of weeds this year, but mostly from laziness.

  8. Thanks for sharing this recent blog post from Lurie Garden! Weeds, just like the ornamental plants intended to be in the garden, can play an important role in the garden ecosystem. And thank you for bringing the blanket Tradescantia comment from the blog up for discussion. For clarification, the spriderwort that became such an aggressive bully at Lurie Garden was Tradescantia x andersoniana ‘Concord Grape’. This hybrid selection of T. ohiensis x (T. subaspera x T. virginiana) certainly inherited its reproductive fortitude from T. virginiana.

  9. I rather agree with Susurrus above, I often read about a plants being invasive or a weed that I’m desperate to grow. I allow weeds in that aren’t difficult to eradicate. My mantra is that a weed is a plant in a place isn’t not wanted!

  10. The part that struck me was the change of attitude when an “authority” underwrote it (yellow wood sorrel). I changed my mind about Prunella vulgaris when I saw it for sale in the natives section of a local nursery. Now I view it as a useful groundcover. Buttercups are vicious spreaders, but so so pretty. I spend a lot of time pulling them from beds but let them go in the “lawn” (as if I had a choice).

  11. Hate is what I think when I see Creeping Charlie. That is the worst thing ever. A good second is Wild Strawberries. They get entwined in plants and kill them off some how. Almost as bad as Creeping Charlie. I rather like yellow wood sorrel. I don’t leave it usually but it doesn’t make my blood boil when I see it popping up here and there. I have some spiderworts that are very nice. They stay in their clumps and behave. I have never found them where I didn’t want them. It doesn’t seem quite right to invite a plant into your garden and then hate it. I have done it though. I made the mistake of planting chameleon plant houttuynia cordata and I curse it almost every day. It is nonrelenting in its aim to take over the world. Right up there with Creeping Charlie, maybe even worse.

    • Now see, I don’t mind wild strawberries. Perhaps because in our garden, at least, they don’t have the same smothering effect.

  12. Interesting grouping of weeds. The most vicious ones are shared by most gardeners but many plants are a weedy in one garden but not in an other. I am always surprised to read about what is invasive in one area. Often time it is not invasive here and vice versa.

    • Exactly. Just as invasives are not invasive on their home turf where they are controlled by competitors and herbivores.

  13. What an interesting post.There are some weeds I loathe, like mare’s tail and ground alder. I do like your yellow wood sorrel and have to confess to being fond of bindweed flowers, and they do have the beautiful cousin, morning glory. But yes, they are a pain and earn their name bigtime.xxx

  14. I’ve decided a weed is anything (and I mean ANYTHING) growing where I don’t want it to grow. Of course, some plants are always unwelcome – creeping Charlie, Canada thistle, bindweed, garlic mustard, poison ivy, etc. Mint is out, as is Queen Anne’s lace, mulberry, the evil form of honeysuckle. I’m intrigued with that Yellow Wood Sorrel now – or any plant that helps me combat weeds.

  15. Most weeds I can put up with, but bindweed drives me to distraction. I have it it many parts of the garden. It’s only redeeming feature is how satisfying it is to dig out, I love those thick roots. So in a way, I wouldn’t be without it (as if there’s an option). Everything else I just view as good exercise and an excuse to get up close to the plants and see what’s going on. There’s a habit in the gardening media to get a bit hysterical about weeds, but at the end of the day, we’re always going to have them, it’s just part of gardening – pull the ones you don’t like. Job done… until the next time πŸ™‚

    • A weedless garden is like utopia, something to dream of but not something that can be experienced in this life. I think gardeners have to accept that there is a constant back and forth with weeds, it is a war that can never be completely won.

  16. I think that any plant that gets out of hand, spreads like wildfire and smothers other plants can be considered a ‘weed’. I’d agree with bindweed which is also a right royal pain to get rid of! I’d add brambles, ivy, ground elder and Japanese anemone (all difficult to eradicate).

    • We’ve talked before about Japanese anemone and ground elder, which seem manageable here, perhaps due to our harsher climate.

  17. I had to laugh at the photo bombing category, especially since you illustrated it with milkweed. I love milkweed and think it’s beautiful in all stages. I have a clump in the middle of my perennials that I let alone and, sure enough, it’s a photo bomb. It looks like an out-of-place intruder. But I still haven’t steeled myself to remove it.

  18. I have such mixed feelings about Milkweed. I let a few establish themselves in my prairie a few years ago and now I can’t even tell if the Sporobolus is still there. I began to control them last year, but this year they’re even more prolific. Aaack! What to do!

    You are dead right on Tradescantia ohioiense. It is a great plant. I also have Concord Grape but, thankfully, is not taking over the world — like Milkweed.

  19. Right on with the creeping Charlie comment! I see it as the triple threat– it can spread by seed, cuttings, and root. Also the runner grass quack grass fits the bill. Personally, I hate the sorrel, and its look-alike yellow clover. Crab grass is not a favorite as it germinates so readily and produce a zillion seeds per plant. These are just about the only weeds I have (except I have no creeping Charlie, thankfully), but they are enough!

  20. Once you do some digging (har, har) it’s interesting to find out how much weeds can be indicators of soil health and can (in some cases) actually help improve soil. I’m planting white clover as a living mulch (it’s a natural nitrogen fixer) for my flower bed. The carpet of white flowers in spring adds a nice touch, too. I’m also leaving the purslane. It can help break up hardpan, bring moisture back up to the soil’s surface, shares moisture and nutrients with other plants and, at the end of the day, works as an excellent ‘green manure’ when finally added to the compost heap.

  21. I like categories, but I like best this information about yellow wood sorrel. I’ve been pulling and pulling, but I think I’ll also experiment with leaving it in the beds πŸ™‚

  22. It is just nice to know that people all over the world are battling with weeds and coming up with categories to make sense of it all. Good tips for all gardeners!

  23. I like these categories and realize that which plants fall in what category may differ from one garden (and gardener) to another. I do think, though, that we need a special category for invasive plants that tend to escape from cultivation and wreak havoc with local ecosystems. Even if a gardener personally finds some of these to have redeeming value, it’s irresponsible to grow them.

  24. I would have to agree with Cynthia and Jean. If it’s a non-native invasive that’s crowding out native perennials, it should go. Even more so, if it has no wildlife/pollinator value. Garlic Mustard, Bindweed, and Japanese Knotweed fall into this category. It’s nearly impossible to totally remove Creeping Charlie, but at least it has pollinator value when it blooms in the springtime. Local plant experts here in Madison seem to be more willing to live with Creeping Charlie in the spring, and then attempt to pull it as much as possible after that. I would avoid removing Spiderwort or Milkweed because of their great value to wildlife and pollinators. Plus, they’re lovely native plants!

    • I agree with you regarding Garlic Mustard, Bindweed, and Japanese Knotweed. I would add shrub Buckthorn also. Fortunately Yellow Wood Sorrel is actually a native wildflower!

  25. I’ve been reading comments about yellow wood sorrel. I have a wood sorrel with dark green / burgundy leaves and would love to get rid of it, but it’s not easy. Mine is oxalis corniculata. What do you know about that one?

  26. Blah blah blah a plant growing where it’s not supposed to…. I wish my garden was so black and white! I have like 50 shades of weeds ranging from bindweed down to daisies. Much of it depends on my mood, but I’m happy to see that even the pros have to think it over every now and then as well!

  27. Hello Jason, now that I’ve see “Creeping Charlie”, I recognise that we have something that looks the same, or very similar, somewhere (I can’t remember where). I’m still heavy handed with weeds, especially after the experiences of rescuing the patio wall from rampant ivy and the endless carex that had self-seeded everywhere. I keep a beady eye out and let the dense border planting do the rest.

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