Weeds may be worth more than thought

Published 10:19 am Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Weeds have been referred to as “plants out of place,” or plants whose value we’ve yet to discover. Then there is the opinion that one man’s weed is another man’s treasure. And even a rose growing in a juniper bed could be classified as a weed.

What you define as a weed may not be the same as your neighbor’s definition, which means there may be fewer plants we want to eliminate if we knew their good sides.

For starters, weeds have lots of uses and can tell us about the soil in which they’re growing.  Some are so nutritious our ancestors consumed them as food crops. Others are attractive, adding color, texture, and forage for pollinators during the flower stage of growth.

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Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are prime examples of plants that have food value for humans and wildlife.  One of the first nectar plants available in spring for honey bees and butterflies, their leaves were eaten as salad greens, collected to make tea or wine, and were in general considered a “spring tonic” plant.  It is only fairly recently that we regard dandelions as prime targets for herbicides, while in reality, mowing them down before they set seed (remember those white puffballs our children love to scatter) will help keep numbers in check.

Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) is one of the most nutrient-rich plants in our gardens and yards. One cup of raw lambsquarters leaves contains vitamin C, phosphorus, calcium, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and iron.

Note: Before you consider munching on weeds, be sure they have been positively identified, as some healthy plants closely resemble others that can make us sick or even poison us.

Many homeowners try to eliminate clovers, another multi-use plant. Since clovers (white, red, crimson, etc.) are legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil, they are considered by some gardeners as beneficial, since soils in this area are generally nitrogen deficient. In fact, it might make sense to grow more clover and less turf grass. Clovers are very valuable for our bee pollinators, whose numbers are declining due in part to our efforts in eliminating some of their favorite forage plants, such as the clovers and dandelions.

Weeds can tell us about conditions in their environment, as they survive in conditions that would cause most cultivated plants to curl up and die.  Humus deficient, saline, swampy, rocky, alkaline, and highly acidic soils are usually sites where weeds are the only plants growing, testaments to the tenacity of plant genetics, whether we appreciate their presence or not.

Soil that is moderately acid supports sorrel, dock, and horse tails. If soil is hardpan, we may see mustard, nettle, morning glory, or quack grass. Cultivated beds are cozy environments for lambsquarters, plantain, chickweed, dandelion, prostrate knotweed, speedwell, mallow, and prickly lettuce.  Legume or pea family weeds prefer lighter or sandy soils, although they will grow in other environments since they, like most weeds, are adaptable.

Knowing which weeds are in your landscape, learning their growth habits, when they flower and set seed, is one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with weeds. So, if you are determined to resist sharing lawn space with those uninvited species, learn to identify what you’ve got growing. Go online, get a good weed ID book (make sure it focuses on weeds of the Southeast US), or contact your county Extension office, so you’ll be prepared to treat at the most opportune time, even if that treatment is carried out via a lawn mower!

Remember that many weed seeds remain viable in the ground for decades.

That explains a little secret about weed control – don’t let them go to seed. Dig them up, chop them down, or even eat them first!