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Posts Tagged ‘Weeds’

One day when I was volunteering at the elementary school, the children and I stood around a raised garden bed discussing what grew there and what we were going to do that day. One of my philosophies about weeds is—if they’re not doing any harm, let them be. Some may argue that they take nutrients from the vegetables, but if they’re not trying to take over, I let them live until they must be removed for a valid reason. Besides, they may be of some benefit we have yet to discover.

Ponysfoot grew in that bed. I pointed it out to the kids and said, “It’s not in the way, so let’s leave it for now. It’s probably good for something, I just don’t know what.”

That bugged me. I should know what ponysfoot’s good for, so when I got home I asked my friend Google. Google doesn’t know much, but it knows whom to ask.

If someone is selling something on the internet, that’s the first thing that pops up. There were several ads selling ponysfoot seeds! Why would anyone buy ponysfoot? Because it’s a good groundcover, used for erosion control. Silver Ponysfoot, which grows in the Southwest, is used in landscapes and even hanging baskets. The species that grows in Florida is Dichondra carolinensis, Carolina Ponysfoot.

Ponysfoot (Dichondra carolinensis)

The website “Natives for Your Neighborhood” said that although ponysfoot is a garden weed, as a groundcover it competes with less desirable plants, thus can be beneficial. So I was right to leave it in the garden bed. Among its uses are habitat restoration and as a butterfly plant. (So far I haven’t found any info on its use as a butterfly plant, although it does have flowers.) One site mentioned a Dichondra lawn, which may have been popular at one time because it was easy and inexpensive to maintain.

I was happy to learn that Carolina Ponysfoot is edible, if bitter, and surprised to find that it has medicinal properties. Among other things, it can lower blood pressure. As I ventured down this path of discovery, I learned that other common lawn weeds also have medicinal uses. Dollar weed, Hydrocotyle bonariensis, also called pennywort, is another herb that lower blood pressure. I’ve eaten Dollar Weed Slaw, which is delicious, but try though I might, I can’t get dollar weed to grow in my yard. Long before I discovered the virtues of this plant, my daughter Carrie had a lawn full of it. Unfortunately, although she did nothing to make it go away, it did.

I began to google plants that do grow in my yard. Chickweed (Stellaria media) was used in the past to treat scurvy and is still used for a number of ailments, including weight loss. I’ll have to try that. You can buy it in herbal capsules, but I take advantage of the chickweed growing profusely in my yard and use it in salads, cooked greens, and green smoothies.

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

When my daughter Amber lived in Virginia Beach, a neighbor had a lawn overgrown with wild violets (Viola sororia). When she remarked on the pretty flowers, the homeowner said, “Yeah, I’m trying to get rid of them.” Amber was aghast. She knew the blossoms and leaves are edible, but not if they’ve been sprayed with chemicals. Euell Gibbons praised the common blue violet for its high Vitamin C content. With the flu going around, I try to stay healthy, so once my violets started to bloom, I began eating them. My research revealed that violas have been used in Europe for centuries for everything from cough to cancer. Caution: don’t confuse Violas with African violets which are totally unrelated.

Wild Violet (Viola sororia). The leaves are similar to Ponysfoot.

A few years ago, we Master Gardeners were planting a butterfly garden in a local park. One container was full of bluish flowers all abuzz with honeybees. When told we had to clear those out and replace them with the prescribed butterfly plants, I protested, to no avail. I did manage to rescue a few of those wondrous wildflowers, take them home, and replant them. These are Stachys floridana, Florida betony, another weed hated by lawn enthusiasts. Not only edible, I now find that the leaves can be made into a tea to treat colds, headaches, anxiety, and diarrhea.

One of my favorite weeds, Bidens alba, aka Spanish needles, is one of the most cursed because of the seeds that hitchhike on your clothes. Butterfly enthusiasts like Bidens because it’s a great nectar plant. I’ve been eating it for years but never knew it had medicinal properties. It turns out that it’s said to cure just about anything, including MRSA! Other bidens species are also useful, and you can even buy Bidens pilosa tincture.

Spanish Needles (Bidens alba)

I can’t leave out Lyre Leaf Sage, Salvia lyrata, which grows all over the eastern US. It gets its name from the leaves that are shaped like a lyre and have a burgundy stripe down the middle. The blue blossoms, when grown en masse, make a lovely show. This is a nectar plant for butterflies and has the same properties as garden sage, just not as strong. One common name, “cancer root,” refers to its use as a folk remedy for cancer. It is certainly edible and makes a good tea for sore throats.

Lyre Leaf Sage (Salvia Lyrata)

Now tell me, does it make any sense to spend money on poisons to kill herbs on your lawn, then spend more money at the drugstore to buy potions prescribed by a doctor, when your yard, if left alone, will grow its own pharmacopoeia?

Always be sure of what you put in your body. Don’t go by common names. There are several different species called chickweed, for instance. Research any plant before you use it. Herbs can have side effects and interact with medications. If you have any doubts about a plant’s identity, ask someone who knows.

 

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Spring caught me by surprise again. It does this every year. Winter in Florida is predictably unpredictable. It can be 80 degrees in the morning and plunge into the 20’s by midnight. Although the blooming of the Dog Fennel last fall predicted frost before Thanksgiving (and Dog Fennel’s predictions are more accurate than the almanac), Jack didn’t show his hoary head until January. Fruit trees that know no better began to bloom and set fruit. Then Winter skated in. Not a hard winter, as winters go, but enough frosts and freezes to nip those sassy buds and precocious peaches. Plants that know better, Yellow Jasmine and Wild Azaleas, knew to wait.

A thousand miles to the north, Punxsutawney Phil, that famous groundhog, predicted an early spring. I had my hopes, but didn’t bank on it. My misgivings were correct. I won’t be surprised if they fire that groundhog and replace him with another who can predict more accurately. But maybe it’s not his fault. Remember, my Dog Fennel was wrong, too.

Fortunately, we didn’t suffer the backlash of winter that hit our northern neighbors. No blizzards, but we did get a little snow, a few flurries that only the more adventurous caught before they melted to nothing. I missed the snowfall because it’s warmer in the woods where I live. If a few flakes drifted as far as the tree canopy, they never hit the ground.

Plants that hadn’t been fooled by our fickle weather stayed huddled in winter dormancy. When I gave my talk on Wild Eating to a neighboring garden club, the only thing I could find to eat was a pine tree. The usual weeds prudently remained in hibernation. At least we were able to enjoy a delicious pine needle tea.

Among leafless gray trunks of the woods and swamps, the Red Maples ignored warm days, cold nights, and the predictions of other species and blazed deep scarlet at their usual time. They’ve lived in Florida long enough not to be influenced by the uncertainties of what we call winter. You see, in Florida, seasons are backwards. Here, maple trees turn colorful in spring, not so much in fall. Soon their little helicopter seeds rained down into yard and flower pot alike and I have little maple trees coming up everywhere.

Then came March. Warm days of sunshine and short sleeved shirts, pollen from oaks and pines coating everything yellow, sending sensitive people to the doctor. I entered my best houseplants in the county fair. When I brought them home afterward, they begged to be left outdoors. They love the heat and humidity of summer. It reminds them of their jungle origins. In summer, they thrive on fresh rainwater and ask for no fertilizer. But they complain about the cool dry air of the winter house and need much coaxing to keep up appearances until fair time. It was the Ides of March. Was winter over? Against my better judgement, I left my tropical babies outside. Guess what—another cold front, nights in the 30’s. I brought the most vulnerable into the house and left the more hardy out. They weren’t happy, but they survived.

When I heard the first Whippoorwill, I knew spring had finally arrived. These aren’t really whippoorwills but that’s what we call them. They are actually Chuck-wills-widow, a cousin of the whippoorwill. Their song is not musical (Marjorie Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak”) but it’s unique and most welcome in March.

I love the light the sun sends in late winter—bright, unencumbered by foliage and haze, intense, almost silvery. It surrounds everything, leaving no shadows. Maybe that’s the cue. Buds began to plump. My Wild Azaleas bloomed, filling the woods with their sweet bouquet.

Then literally overnight, everything burst with color. A few trees tentatively put out green leaves. When no harm came to the early bloomers, other trees followed suit. Wildflowers have began to blossom. Yellow Primrose now decorates the dirt road from evening till noon. Phlox carpets the sunny roadsides and Lyre Leaf sage has turned the shady areas blue.  Before I knew what happened, my sunny yard transformed into a shady forest. Birds of more species than I can describe wake me with their morning songs.

I don’t know why Spring surprises me with its arrival. It happens this way every year. One day the oaks are bare, the next they are attired in spring green. Soon, the green will darken, the shade in my yard deepen, and heat and humidity will come home to stay. My tropical house plants will flourish, as will mosquitoes, and my human neighbors will wilt and hibernate in their air conditioning.

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Like some people, some plants don’t get the respect they deserve. One of these is Dog Fennel. The name suggests an inferior type of fennel, but it’s not at all related to fennel, which is a culinary herb imported from the Mediterranean. Dog Fennel is a native plant that grows mostly in the southeastern United States. You should not eat Dog Fennel because it contains a toxic chemical called pyrrolizidine. This won’t kill you right away but it can cause liver damage, and you don’t want that.

Dogfennel2

The plant I’m talking is Eupatorium capillifolium. The Latin name is important because there are three other plants called dog fennel that also are not related. If you google either name you will find scads of information on how to eradicate this plant. It’s considered a nuisance weed which will overtake pastures, hay fields, and cropland if not kept in check. If you don’t watch out, it will also invade your yard and garden.

However, I let a few plants grow in my yard and along my driveway. I’ve always liked Dog Fennel, in moderation. In spring, feathery green shoots emerge from last years’ roots or seeds. Over the summer they grow into graceful fountains, three or four feet high, or taller. Sometime in October, tiny white blossoms burst out, abuzz with bees, butterflies, and other insects. If you get close enough, you can detect the flowers’ delicate scent. When winter comes, Dog Fennel is reduced to brown skeletons that persist until you, or time, knock them down. I break off any stems that are in my way, but I leave a few to shelter beneficial insects and their larvae during the winter.

There is an old saying that when the Dog Fennel blooms we have six weeks until frost. Over the years I have observed this and found it to be generally true. The past two or three years I’ve recorded the time of blooming on my calendar and found it to be uncannily accurate. In fact, Dog Fennel blooms earlier in open areas than in more sheltered ones and the frost follows accordingly, within a few days of the six weeks’ date.

A few years ago, a dog fennel seed landed inconspicuously on one of the garden beds at the elementary school. That compost-rich soil nurtured it through the summer. By the time school started, it towered over all else in the garden beds. When we weeded the gardens in preparation for fall planting, I left it alone, for a time, because it looked nice and wasn’t in the way, yet. When I tried to pull it out, I found that the root system was as massive as the upper part. The time came to use extreme measures to get this weed out of the garden, but first I wanted to know if it had any redeeming qualities other than those I already mentioned.

Googling and following links, I came across a reference to the Scarlet-bodied Wasp Moth. This colorful insect may look like a wasp but it’s really a moth and doesn’t sting. In fact, it is not known to cause any damage to nature or mankind. The larvae feed on wild hempvine, a plant with heart-shaped leaves and white blossoms.

Be on the lookout for this beauty if you live in Florida, along the Gulf Coast or in coastal Georgia or South Carolina.

Be on the lookout for this beauty if you live in Florida, along the Gulf Coast or in coastal Georgia or South Carolina.

Here’s where things get interesting. Adult butterflies and moths usually feed on nectar. That’s why they are considered pollinators. The adult male of this species feeds on Dog Fennel. He pierces the stems with his proboscis to obtain the toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids. These chemicals do not poison our moth but make him distasteful to whatever would otherwise eat him. He also stores the chemical in little pouches under his abdomen.

The story gets more interesting. When he finds a lady friend, our gallant moth showers her with these compounds, which in turn protects her from predators. And even better, when she lays her eggs, they will contain these protective chemicals. The Scarlet-bodied Wasp Moth is the only insect known to transfer a chemical defense in this manner.

The caterpillar is quite harmless.

The caterpillar is quite harmless.

So, if the male doesn’t have Dog Fennel to feed on, his mate and their eggs are more susceptible to being eaten. In other words, no Dog Fennel plants mean fewer Scarlet-bodied Wasp Moths. Doesn’t this earn Dog Fennel our respect? It earned mine, and that of the children at the school. With no other Dog Fennel in the vicinity, we decided to leave the plant alone for the time being.

I don’t mean you should let your garden or pasture become overrun with Dog Fennel. A few plants here and there, along the fence or driveway or roadside, should be enough. These are small moths. They don’t eat much. If you find hempvine on your property, let it grow. If you have none, plant some for their babies. Then be on the look out for this pretty moth. And when the Dog Fennel blooms this fall, make a note of the date and wait to see if it predicts the first frost.

This homeowner understands the beauty of Dog Fennel. Unfortunately, this is not my yard.

This homeowner understands the beauty of Dog Fennel. Unfortunately, this is not my yard.

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“Treat people as if they were flowers and you will have a happy life.” I recently came across this quote by a man named Jacques Romano. Largely forgotten today, he was quite a sensation in his time, chemist, traveler, philosopher, and psychic, who maintained his down to earth personality even while hobnobbing in the salons of the rich and famous. He died 50 years ago at the age of 98. I believe he deserves lasting renown on the basis of that one quote alone.

“Treat people as if they were flowers.” How do we do this? There are so many  flowers and their lives are so very different. Some are beautiful, some smell nice, some are useful, some are unpleasant, and some are downright treacherous. But all have their place in the world.

Take the hybrid tea roses. They are cultivated for their beauty. Some have a romantic fragrance and some have no scent at all. But like the beautiful people in this world they have needs. They can easily be devastated by insects and disease and thus they require our care.

Some people are more like azaleas. They bloom their hearts out each spring, then they fade into the background for the rest of the year. They are quite hardy and require little care, but be wary of stunting their growth. I have seen azalea bushes pruned like ordinary shrubbery. They lose their form and grace. When spring comes, a few brave blossoms try to emerge from the squareness and they look sad, if not ridiculous. Leave them alone. Let them grow.

Some flowers of course need to be pruned. My Cherokee rose blooms in profusion for a few weeks in early spring then spends the rest of the year trying to take over the world. If I did not cut her back, she would. When I approach with pruning shears, she fights back with thorns that can deeply wound an ungloved hand. The runners seem actually to lash out at me, tearing at my face, arms, and clothing. I have to treat her with respect, but I keep her around because of her beauty.

Many flowers are not only showy but useful. Think of fruit trees. After the lovely petals drop, the blossoms are pregnant with new life – to sustain us and to perpetuate new generations. Other useful flowers are not as showy. Think of the many vegetables without whose flowers we would starve.

Speaking of starvation, think about our pollinators, the bees and butterflies. We have learned to plant flowers to attract these insects and hummingbirds to our yards. The canna lily is one. Not a true lily, it is so called because it looks like one. The native varieties have small, bright flowers rich in nectar. New varieties have been developed that have more showy flowers but our nectar loving neighbors are unable to get past the big petals to drink the life-sustaining fluid. Do not disdain the modest but useful. Nurture them.

Many plants that we call weeds have beautiful flowers. Some of these we now call wildflowers because we have learned to appreciate them, such as the Florida state wildflower, the coreopsis. We actually plant them on roadsides now, but once I saw a work crew mow down a bank of black-eyed Susans in full bloom. I’m sure the men were told to mow down those “weeds”. No flowers ever bloomed in that place again. Some other less showy weed replaced them. Do we sometimes treat people that way?

I have learned to appreciate a cursed weed called Bidens. It is also called Spanish needles because of the barbed seeds that will attach to every thread of your garment if you get too close. They don’t hurt, but the seeds are a devil to pull off because there are so many of them. But the Bidens has a small daisy like flower which is edible. So are the leaves. The plant’s most saving grace, however, is that it’s popular with the butterflies. I have seen Bidens bloom in winter when they were the only food available for the butterflies. Be sure to include them in your butterfly garden. Or just leave a patch along the edge of your driveway or in a corner of your vegetable garden. If you don’t want them to spread everywhere, just pinch off the spent flowers before they go to seed.

Bidens may deserve its bad reputation but goldenrod does not. These yellow spikes that brighten roadsides and waste spaces in the fall are blamed for people’s allergies. Do not prejudice yourself with rumors. The real culprit is ragweed which blooms invisibly at the same time. So enjoy the goldenrod.

But what about the ragweed? They are a nuisance in your garden and to your sinuses and they are not even pretty. Maybe the world would be better off without them. Do you know people like that? But wait – the larvae of several moths feed on ragweed and the seeds are an important winter food for many birds. So don’t obsess over your bird feeders. Leave some ragweed in your garden for the birds.

Sometimes as I walk around my yard I catch a whiff of something that causes me to check the soles of my shoes. No, nothing there. The smell is from a variety of viburnum whose blossoms smell like dog poop. Do you know people like that? But the viburnum is a native shrub. It belongs here. Other than its unpleasant odor, it is an attractive shrub which produces berries that are food for wildlife. Sometimes we just have to put up with a little unpleasantness.

Treat people like flowers. Each is unique. Treat each with love and respect. Appreciate them for their virtues, have patience with their shortcomings, and be wise in handling their vices. When we treat our flowers this way, they make us happy. How much more happiness would this world have if we would treat all people like flowers?

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