A weed to one person can be a beautiful flower or table delicacy to someone else. I can think of numerous plants that fit that bill. It seems every season of the year is full of examples.
Sometimes we even domesticate some of these weeds and cultivate them for ornamental use. Many garden centers sell an ornamental variety of dead nettle, an invasive mint. It’s one of those pink to purple weeds that floods our local fields in early spring. Deer don’t even like it, but it is edible and usually gone before warm weather sets in.
Buttercups attract a lot of attention but can be a menace to livestock, especially when pastures are lean. This is often the case in spring around here. Most buttercups are quite invasive, largely for this reason. If animals find them unpalatable they become more competitive.
Ironweed, Joe-Pye weed and goldenrod are three other noxious pasture weeds that have been domesticated and selected for flower gardens. They like warm weather. My father-in-law would turn over in his grave if he saw people actually buying these to plant in their beds. These weeds cut down on pasture productivity, because livestock don’t eat them and they spread so productive forage can’t grow.
One weed that defies that logic is a favorite of mine. Lambsquarter can be a menace in a vegetable garden or a field of greens. However, there isn’t a species of cultivated greens I like to eat more as a cooked green than lambsquarter. It’s in the beet family, has toothed leaves, whitish new growth and tastes nearly identical to spinach.
Livestock and wildlife love it too, but they can’t eradicate it. Lambsquarter produces too much seed. In fact, animals serve as vectors to spread it everywhere. Use cattle or horse manure on your garden and you’ll no doubt introduce more lambsquarter.
One weed I battle in the greenhouse is toothed spurge. It tolerates dryness and temperature extremes well. This one gets covered with tiny white flowers and has the appearance of baby’s breath. One of my friends loves the ornamental version called diamond frost. I tell her it’s a noxious weed but we still grow it since many people love it.
Another horrible greenhouse weed is bittercress. It’s a great addition to my salad, but plants spit seeds everywhere. Usually outside it’s only a problem in cool weather, and it’s another one that livestock enjoy.
White clover is one my dad always liked in the lawn because it filled in bare places and didn’t grow too tall. He also liked the flowers and it attracted bees which pollinated the garden and fruit trees. Most people despise clover in their lawns and invest large sums of money every year to remove it.
We’ve all heard it said that a weed is merely a plant out of place. Maybe plants are just like politicians. A hero to some might be a menace to others, but we all can make up our own minds.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.