Pamela Ruch is a horticulturist and garden writer living in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. She holds a master’s degree in environmental science from Green Mountain College. Currently the director of the Urban Garden at the Nurture Nature Center in Easton, she teaches nature journaling workshops and hosts a website, Art of Nature Journaling.

This article applies to:



A Few Native Plants That We Call Weeds
by Pamela Ruch       #Natives

Did you know that many of the weeds we pull from our gardens year in and year out are native plants that offer the same benefits as our much-loved butterfly weeds (Asclepias spp.) and coneflowers (Echinacea spp.)? I didn’t, until I resolved to learn more about the rampant volunteers in my garden community. What’s more, we think of Northeast natives as being mainly perennial forbs, shrubs and trees, but there are quite a few very common native annuals underfoot.

Clearweed (Pilea pumila) is a wind-pollinated annual in the nettle family, and like nettle, it is a favorite larva food of butterflies. Commas, red admirals, question marks and others depend on this non-prickly, low-growing plant with nearly translucent leaves. Clearweed’s roots are shallow, making colonies of this plant very easy for the gardener to eliminate, should he or she choose to do this. The trick is to get it done before the plentiful seeds scatter.

Another native annual that you may have seen clambering wildly through trees at an amazing pace is the bur cucumber (Sicyos angulatus). Its tendrils wind counterclockwise around anything they can grab — petioles, pine needles, even themselves — and given a foothold can create a smothering cover on top of a tall stand of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria sp.) in about three weeks. I know this for a fact. Turn your back and an abandoned car will literally disappear! Bur cucumber flowers are tiny, but apparently very sweet; they are a favorite pollen source for native bees.

Clearweed typically grows in colonies.

What’s under this pile of bur cucumber? Could be anything!

Wild lettuce (Lactuca spp.) is a fast-growing native annual or biennial that provides pollen for bees and seeds for finches. Some types, such as Canada lettuce, can grow to impressive proportions. And yes, wild lettuces are edible. That goes for the non-native prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola) — distinguished by the prickles on its leaf midribs — as well. Wild lettuces are the very same species as domesticated lettuce, and have similar flowers. Their seeds can float gently into your garden on the wind, which explains how a weed of such stature can suddenly just appear.

Pilewort (Erechtites hieracifolia) has a look somewhat similar to wild lettuce, though it is a little less colorful. But that does not stop wasps, bees, flies and butterflies from sipping its nectar. It will pop up anywhere — between the cracks of pavement, along chain link fences. It’s as though it bided its time throughout natural history until America industrialized, just so it might offer its services to urban pollinators.

Wild lettuce can reach impressive proportions.

Pilewort often stands alone.

Everyone knows jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) as the plant with the juicy stems that reputedly relieve the itch of a poison ivy rash when crushed. This native annual forms dense colonies along moist roadsides, and is often found in close proximity to poison ivy, which, by the way, is also a wildlife-friendly native. Multitudes of spotted orange flowers dangle from jewelweed’s stems, mostly hidden from view. Close observation, however, may gain you a look at the hummingbirds, bees and butterflies that pollinate the blooms and feed on the nectar. Even more entertaining are the fruits, which are shaped like mini pea pods. The fruits explode to eject the seeds when they are ripe enough (or gently squeezed) in a distribution mode aptly called “ballistic dispersal.” Yes indeed, fun for all ages.

Spotted spurge (Chamaesyce maculata) can be maddening in the garden; its ground-hugging frame goes unnoticed until … surprise! The thousands of inconspicuous flowers on each plant become three-seeded capsules. Pick the floppy weed-mat up and you may notice ants busy at work, carrying off the small white seeds. They drop a few along the way, of course, which explains why tiny stems of spotted spurge peek out at you from every little crack in the patio. To its credit, birds eat the seeds.

Jewelweed, also called Touch-me-not, attracts bees … and daddy long legs too.

Spotted spurge, like other spurges, has milky sap.

So there you have it. Weeds are native plants too. What I have taken away from my limited weed study is a more thoughtful posture toward the landscape. As gardeners, we try to control our environment, weeding out the rampant and the unadorned so that we can plant something “better.” Will I let these native weeds have their way in my garden? I will not! But neither will I forget to appreciate the subtleties of plants that I often thoughtlessly extract — plants that provide for the many creatures, seen and unseen, that live among us.

And certainly their reproductive prowess is deserving of respect.

Photos courtesy of Pamela Ruch.


Posted: 08/25/14   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Other People Are Reading



Matt-UK-Gardener (England) - 10/23/2014

That’s a really high quality photo of a daddy long legs!

{screen_name}'s avatar