A weed by any other name …

Clockwise from top left; Deciding what is a weed isn't as easy as you might think: Dandelions, Canada thistle (IL noxious weed), Black walnut trees can be a problem if you are growing a vegetable garden, pokeweed---friend or foe (both!)
Clockwise from top left; Deciding what is a weed isn't as easy as you might think: Dandelions, Canada thistle (IL noxious weed), Black walnut trees can be a problem if you are growing a vegetable garden, pokeweed---friend or foe (both!)

This time of summer, gardeners often find things get away from them a little. Oh, I am sure I am not talking about you, but maybe your neighbor.

After those unbearable hot weeks, it was easy to just think maybe, just maybe, the heat would kill the weeds, as it was wilting our desirable plants, while you were taking respite in the air conditioning.

But no, there they are, growing as if they are in the perfect conditions, regardless of the weather.
But I often get asked, what makes a weed a weed? And if it seems desirable in some way — say it blocks the neighbor’s view or the birds and hummingbirds seem to love it, what’s the harm? It depends on who you ask and what effects –short and long term — there are.

So, what is a weed? There are many definitions, but a common definition I like is, a plant out of place. Nature has a purpose for everything, just maybe not in your yard, or garden or farm.
I always tell people, I can tell you the science answers, but everyone’s garden, well, it is your personal Eden. With few exceptions, except for the literal list of illegal weeds, you can plant what you want.

That list of illegal weeds (also called noxious weeds) for Illinois includes: poison ivy, common ragweed, giant ragweed, buckthorn, Canada thistle, johnsongrass, marijuana (I know, I know, but it is still on the noxious weed list), kudzu, musk thistle, perennial sowthistle and sorghum-almum.
The noxious weeds are defined as harmful to the environment or animals. And there is great debate, especially among those trying to restore our native areas, that list should be as long as a dictionary.

Also, for our farmers, weeds are serious business, both agriculturally and economically. Not only do weeds sap energy and resources from the crops, but they contaminate the harvest. Just how much thistle do you want in your next bottle of catsup?

You also might be thinking, “What about dandelion, what about creeping Charlie?” Nope, not noxious weeds. And the jury has changed their verdict on these plants in support of our early pollinators. Some gardeners chose to leave the lawn dandelions and the creeping Charlie to bloom as food for the early native bees when few other plants are even growing, let alone producing nectar and pollen yet.

Terms like “bee lawns” or “perennial groundcover lawns” have changed the attitude, for some, from negative and needing immediate eradication with chemicals, to tolerable — even desirable, and encouraged. Again, your personal Eden. You do you (unless you have a tough homeowners association.)

And some plants that are considered weeds have what are called allelopathic properties. Kind of a “get out of my yard” chemical action that when they grow somewhere, some parts of their anatomy exudes chemicals that literally prevent other plants from growing there.

But that isn’t as simple as you think, either. Take the Black Walnut tree, Juglans nigra, for example. Black walnut is a native tree to Illinois that is found in every county in our state. It is food for insects and wildlife. And, if we could ever figure out how to get in those seed vaults, as I call them, we can find tasty, very expensive nuts for our sundaes.

When I started my Extension career, as I was going through the old Extension pamphlets, I ran across one on growing black walnuts where the recommendations for getting the nuts out of those impermeable shells included putting the nuts in a gunny sack and running them over with your truck a few times.
Well, besides the difficulty of getting to the nutmeats, black walnuts sound like fine trees, right? Not weeds to be sure. Well, not if you are gardening tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Black walnut exudes one of those allelopathic chemicals – it’s right there in its name, juglone — that will prevent tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants (any member of the Solanaceae (sun-loving) family) from growing.

It is worth pointing out that that delicious family of vegetables — tomatoes, peppers and eggplants –are non-native, coming from South America and beyond. Food for thought … literally.
So defining weeds wasn’t as easy and clear-cut as you might have thought. Take pokeweed, for example. Many people call me to identify this “beautiful” (remember beauty is in the eye of the beholder) 10- 12-foot-tall arching green plant with large leaves and long drupes (think of elongated clusters of tiny grapes) that are deep mulberry- colored in the fall. Friend or foe?

Right now, this plant is starting to flower its long whitish-green flowers and doesn’t look like much. But with this summer on fast forward, soon you will see these flowers turning to green fruit, then maturing to the deep purple. Is this plant native? Yes, as indicated in its botanical name, Phytolacca Americana.

So why would people keep pokeweed? Lots of people choose to because it is so attractive to wildlife. People also think its large statuesque presence, fills a late-summer void. It does. And the bird do. But remember, what goes in, must come out. And in this case, come out with a little fertilizer included.

After you let the first pokeweed grow, you will be graced with an entire orchard soon. And they are not easy to dig out. They have a huge taproot system. The first time I tried to dig one out (yes, I let it go for birds), I found a deep, smelly root that was as big as a whole coconut … and as hard. Again, the choice is yours.

The key to all weed decisions is like life: The more you know, the better equipped you are to decide what is best for you. That is why Extension is here. I am only a phone call or email away 815 727 9296 [email protected] to help you identify what you have and answer your questions about your weeds …

Or are they wildflowers?


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