Weeds & Invasive Plants
What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
Weed is not a botanical term. Although each of us probably has our own definition, it’s generally a word we use to describe certain plants that show up in locations of their own choosing. Are weeds good or bad? A weed to me may be a showy specimen to you. Your neighbors may be poisoning the dandelions in their lawns while you eat yours for dinner.
Over the years I have grown to appreciate the weeds. This is their farm, too, and they aren’t leaving any time soon. So we invite them to stay, pretending that it was our idea in the first place. Feeling welcome, they flourish alongside the newcomers we brought with us—the lilacs and the roses, the raspberries, the peaches, the daylilies. While we still mow paths and meticulously weed and mulch our vegetable gardens, for the most part the weeds have become equal partners on the farm. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The weeds are great and beautiful bloomers. They provide wonderful habitat, improve and hold the soil, and in the fall they lie down and mulch the land.
A July orchard as a sea of milkweed, valerian and Queen Anne’s lace was for me an acquired taste. At first it looked like an incredible mess and I felt like a failure if I didn’t run for the mower. But it’s grown on me. I’ve begun to see a new kind of elegant organization that I love. I wade through the weeds and hear the sounds of a thousand bees. If the monarchs ever return, we’ll be ready.
What we now treasure as our favorite heirloom apples were nearly all volunteers, “weeds” you might say, that happened to be discovered by some observant farmer in a rocky cattle pasture or along some stone wall or quiet roadside. These selections were subsequently grafted and named and passed from neighbor to neighbor, village to village. Some like Gray Pearmain, Harmon and Moses Wood were never known beyond a county or two, while others like Baldwin, Ben Davis and Northern Spy became world famous.
Our offerings this year include several new apple weeds. These wild seedling apples, discovered by fruit-exploring friends around the Northeast, are so good we decided to graft and offer them. We’re also offering many other wonderful plants that straddle the weed line. What is a weed, anyway? You’ll find lots of writing about weeds in this year’s catalog. We invite you to join us in seeing the world of weeds a little bit differently. The landscape need not be treated as a blank canvas for us to fill. Rather it can be a rich diverse weedy world we plunge into and join forces with. Collaboration and compromise are words we don’t hear so much anymore. The orchard and yard are great places to experiment with both.
It is remarkable that the wild apple, which I praise as so spirited and racy when eaten in the fields or woods, being brought into the house, has frequently a harsh and crabbed taste. The Saunterer’s Apple not even the saunterer can eat in the house … for there you miss the November air, which is the sauce it is to be eaten with.
–Henry David Thoreau, Wild Fruits
Who knows but this chance wild fruit, planted by a cow or a bird on some remote and rocky hillside, where it is as yet unobserved by man, may be the choicest of all its kind…
–Henry David Thoreau, Wild Apples, 1862
Wisdom is oftentimes nearer when we stoop than when we soar.
Throughout this year we’ve been writing about weeds. What about those plants we call invasives? Our agricultural land, our cities, our waterways and even our forests are increasingly being invaded and overrun by bittersweet, garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, milfoil and many other aggressive plants. Take a break from focusing frustration on these troublesome species and consider how and why they thrive in our landscape. Every time we disturb the environment, there are consequences.
Invasive plants grow in polluted areas where our native plants no longer grow. They force their way through sidewalk cracks, bringing life into our cities. Recent studies have shown that some of these plants, such as mugwort and lamb’s quarters, even take heavy metals out of the soil. At a time when Lyme disease is on the rise, so is knotweed—its roots contain resveratrol, a component found medicinally effective in treating the disease. These plants are doing a remarkable job of adapting to the world we have created.
The algae bloom inundating Lake Erie this year is not the problem. The problem is the way we treat our agricultural land with synthetic fertilizers that run off into the water. Congress instructed the EPA to find a solution for the algae, but will that result in meaningful changes in harmful agricultural practices? We have a national habit of saying, “I want to lose weight but I still plan to eat 20 ice cream cones and cakes and cookies every day.”
“Calling a plant invasive allows us to blame it for ruining the environment when really it is humans who are actually to blame,” writes Peter Del Tredici in his 2010 Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast. Although primarily focused on the urban environment, Del Tredici gives a relevent, accessable, thought-provoking and non-judgemental look at our plant villians. He tells it like it is: “Weeds are the symptoms of environmental degredation, not its cause, and as such they are poised to become increasingly abundant within our lifetimes.” The book includes descriptions and mug shots of over 200 species. If weeds interest you, read this book.
Crabgrass can grow on bowling balls in airless rooms, and there is no known way to kill it that does not involve nuclear weapons.
But these plants are ruining my life! We get it. You spend days pulling, hacking, scything, mulching, torching, spraying, smothering, cursing—and still they won’t go away. It’s demoralizing to watch really tough weeds like bittersweet or loosestrife choke out large stands of native plants. Knotweed is like the Blob consuming whole neighborhoods. Goutweed blankets the forest floor. These plants are not leaving our ecosystems anytime soon and we need to think intelligently about how to contain them. Understand how the plant reproduces and gets around. Some weeds spread by rhizomes—tilling them chops and multiplies the roots, and adding them to the compost pile can create an inadvertent invasive-plant nursery. Other plants spread by seed—learn the best season to till them out of existence before they make seedlings. Remember that unwanted plants are often introduced by imported soil or hay. We all need to check our gardening practices and also learn to identify the most problematic weeds.
Common invasive plants and ideas about how to contain them
- Asiatic Bittersweet Celastrus orbiculatus Introduced. Climbs and strangles shrubs and trees by girdling the stems. Reproduces by seed. Sever vines at ground level.
- Autumn Olive Eleagnus umbellata Introduced and currently sold at nurseries across the U.S. Outcompetes native plants. Very invasive. Spreads by seeds and roots. Pull up seedlings before they fruit.
- Bindweed Convolvulus arvensis also Calystegia sepium Introduced. Reproduces by seeds and rhizomes. We’ve had luck setting it back by pulling up intact rhizomes all season long. If the brittle rhizome breaks and parts remain in the ground, you’ll have new plants.
- Galinsoga Galinsoga ciliata Introduced. Reproduces by seeds. Likes fertile soil. Keep weeding it throughout the growing season or till before it flowers.
- Goutweed Aegopodium podagraria Also known as Bishop’s Weed. Introduced. Spreads mainly by rhizomes. Mow repeatedly. Never till and never add it to a compost pile. Keep plant material away from the woods.
- Japanese Knotweed Polygonum cuspidatum Introduced. Grows pretty much everywhere. Spreads by seeds and rhizomes. You can pour asphalt over them and they will continue to grow. Some folks are tackling small plots by cutting stalks back, laying tarps in very early spring, stomping on the tarps, then digging up rhizomes and repeating over and over again.
- Multiflora Rose Rosa multiflora Introduced and taking over whole landscapes. Spreads by seeds and runners, also by birds and mammals. Mow and cut 3–6 times per season for 3–5 years to help slow it down.
- Poison Ivy Toxicodendron radicans Native. Reproduces by seed, root and stems; seeds dispersed by birds. Thrives on the edge of the woods, in wetlands, on disturbed sites. Repeated mowing helps control it, and can eradicate small patches. Get goats and hope they will eat it?
- Purple Loosestrife Lythrum salicaria Introduced. Likes wet marshy roadsides where it displaces plants like our native cattail. Reproduces by seeds and roots. Mowed stems can form new roots. Remove seed heads and burn. Remove whole root systems.
- Tatarian Honeysuckle Lonicera tatarica Introduced. Birds eat the berries and spread the seeds. Grows everywhere. Cut it down before it goes to seed.
Our attitude towards plants is a singularly narrow one. If we see any immediate utility in a plant we foster it. If for any reason we find its presence undesirable or merely a matter of indifference, we may condemn it to destruction forthwith.
Weed or Wildflower?
Wildflowers that wear out their welcome in the rich loose soil of a garden can be beneficial in areas that don’t get mowed or cultivated. These plants we don’t buy at a nursery or start from seed are hanging around waiting for the opportunity to germinate in any piece of turned up soil.
- Cow Vetch Vicia cracca Nitrogen fixer, improves soil, flowers brilliant blue-purple in June, and holds up well in a vase. Purple vetch Vicia americana is native but the non-native species are most commonly seen naturalized in fields.
- Goldenrod Solidago spp. Numerous native species and possibly the most abundant of all the wildflowers in New England. One of the best late flowers for pollinators. While some folks are allergic to the pollen (and excessive handling can cause contact allergies) many folks are actually allergic to ragweed, which blooms at the same time.
- Aster Symphyotrichum spp. Quite ornamental and grows most places. Late in the season when little else is still in bloom, the bees seek out aster.
- Carpetweed Mollugo verticillata Well-behaved attractive spreading groundcover of rosettes carpet sandy soil as soon as the ground warms. Beneficial living mulch in wild gardens. Produces very few seeds.
- Queen Anne’s Lace Daucus carota Biennial wildflower aerates soil with deep taproots. If you believe in folklore, place this flower under your pillow and your dreams will come true.
- Fireweed Epilobium angustifolium Bright magenta-purple flowers in July. Spreads in colonies in sandy depleted soil. Good for erosion control but will take over without vigorous competition.
- Violet Viola spp. Vigorous perennial groundcover quickly overpowers other members of the garden but pleasant when scattered in fields and orchards where low-growing perennials are desired. Shade tolerant.
Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.
–A. A. Milne
Edible and Medicinal Herbaceous Weeds
- Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara Non-native perennial. Leaves harvested in early spring tinctured for antiasthmatic properties and relieving coughs and colds. Spreads on fill and gravel.
- Plantain Plantago major Perennial anti-fungal commonly used in poultices for burns, swelling, bites and sores. Roast seeds and sprinkle on salads. Thrives in compact soil and is commonly seen on grassy paths where there is a lot of foot traffic.
- Burdock Arctium lappa Biennial. Root and seeds used medicinally as a blood and lymphatic cleanser. Called gobo in Japan and commonly used in stir-fries and soups. Harvest roots in early spring before plants flower, or late fall.
- Common Chickweed Stellaria media Annual native to temperate regions all the way to the Arctic. Good in salads. Use topically for burns, rashes and skin irritations, or tincture for digestive and respiratory illnesses.
- Purslane Portulaca oleracea Spreading edible groundcover commonly seen growing in sandy dry soil. Best eaten before flowering. Makes great pesto. Hoe or weed out of garden areas before going to seed—one plant contains up to 200,000 seeds!
- Mugwort Artemesia vulgaris Native to Europe and Asia. Grows in the tiniest sidewalk crack. Bitter herb with dozens of medicinal uses for digestive, circulatory, reproductive and nervous systems. Used for thousands of years in Chinese and Ayurvedic Medicine.
- Horsetail Equisetum arvense Perennial native to temperate regions of the world and commonly seen growing on roadsides, gardens and in sandy areas. Silica-rich foliage used in tinctures and teas to improve hair and skin. In Japan and Korea the tiny roundish buds are eaten in spring. Used as a biodynamic prep where there is excess water or fungal problems.
There was nothing pretty or charming about this vegetation…it pulsed with life—raw, cosmopolitan, photosynthetic life…Thirty-foot high bushes of buddleia from China towered above the layered sprays of knotweed from Japan, magenta-flowered everlasting-pea from the Mediterranean and the exquisite swan-necked blooms of thornapple, a weed now so spread about the world that its original home is unknown. Beneath them a galaxy of more modest weeds tricked out the compacted layers of plastic and glass that passed for soil…strange tuftings that one might see growing wild together nowhere else in Britain except these abandoned places: cumin, feral gourds, fuller’s teasel…I wandered through this ragged Arcadia in my lunch hours, amazed at its triumphant luxuriance, and feeling, in a naively romantic way, that its regenerative powers echoed the work we were trying to do inside. The plants felt like comrades in arms, vegetable guerrillas that had overcome the dereliction of the industrial age. This was my entrée into the world of plants, and it has permanently shaped my attitude towards those species usually vilified as weeds.
–Excerpted from Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey
Recommended reading about weeds
Here are a few of our favorite publications about weeds:
- Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey
- Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer
- Weeds, Friend or Foe? An Illustrated Guide to Identifying Taming & Using Weeds by Sally Roth
- Weeds of the Northeast by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal and Joseph M. DiTomaso
- Weeds and What They Tell Us (3rd edition) by Ehrenfried E. Pfeiffer
- Weeds of North America by Richard Dickinson and France Royer
- A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Allen Peterson
- Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: a field guide by Peter Del Tredici
- “From Wanted to Weeds: A Natural History of Some of New England’s Introduced Plants” by Jessamy R. Luthin, Maine History, Vol. 49, Summer 2015
- “Your Most Expensive Crop” by Tom Roberts.
I always think of my sins when I weed. They grow apace in the same way and are harder still to get rid of.
–Helena Rutherfurd Ely, A Woman’s Hardy Garden, 1903
Why is Fedco selling weeds?
Tansy, comfrey, valerian, nettles, Rugosa, blackberry, kiwi, horseradish, groundnuts. Some native, some not. Yep, they can become nuisances if we aren’t careful. We weigh the pros and cons of each plant and aim to provide info that will help all of us to garden mindfully. Sometimes we learn something new in our evaluations and decide to take a plant out of the catalog. We hold on to others because we think they are amazing assets to our gardens, and with thoughtfulness they can be cultivated and contained.
When Planting Comfrey, Tansy or Nettle: Choose a site that will never see a rototiller or you will live to regret it!
And where the marjoram once, and sage, and rue,
And balm, and mint, with curled-leaf parsley grew,
And double marygolds, and silver thyme,
And pumpkins neath the window used to climb;
And where I often when a child for hours
Tried through the pales to get the tempting flowers,
As lady’s laces, everlasting peas,
True-love-lies-bleeding, with the hearts-at-ease,
And golden rods, and tansy running high
That oer the pale-tops smiled on passers-by,
Flowers in my time that every one would praise,
Though thrown like weeds from gardens nowadays;
Where these all grew, now henbane stinks and spreads,
And docks and thistles shake their seedy heads,
And yearly keep with nettles smothering oer;—
The house, the dame, the garden known no more:
While, neighbouring nigh, one lonely elder-tree
Is all that’s left of what had used to be,
Marking the place, and bringing up with tears
The recollections of one’s younger years.
–John Clare, from “The Cross Roads; Or, The Haymaker’s Story”
Deep in the Weeds
Weeds show up everywhere, not just on the land but in our language, too. You weed something out of your life. The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. To be deep in the weeds. Mostly metaphors of perniciousness and overwhelmingness. I can relate. There are times when the weeds get me down, when I can’t get ahead of them in the garden, or when they’re strangling roadside natives. On those days I’m not in love with weeds.
At some point, I realized I spend more time handling weeds than I spend with my cultivated specimens. The untamed plants began to pique my curiosity. It’s hard to ignore how diverse, self-sufficient, tenacious and attractive some of them are. I’ve long enjoyed wild edibles—a fancy term for tasty weeds: lambsquarter, purslane, amaranth, sheep sorrel, dandelion, to name a few. I picked up a field guide and started to learn about others: pennycress, speedwell, shepherd’s-purse, heal-all, filaree. I love the way they sound falling off the tongue. Many of these names have stories behind them, glimpses into the long history between humans and plants.
The weeds have their own language, too. They tell me about my soil by where they choose to grow and they highlight gaps in my knowledge as a bumbling land steward. They fill in the blank spaces, hold the earth together, feed the pollinators, create jobs, mend the wounds we make on the planet, and grow where no else wants to live. Regularly, I find myself deep in the weeds, and loving it.
Orcharding with Carnivores
Another set of perceived “weeds” belongs to the animal kingdom. These are the often maligned wild creatures we feel pose a threat to the animals and plants of our farms and gardens. Actually some wild animals can help us in our agricultural endeavors. The coyote is a good example. Coyotes prey on the rodent population and keep other garden-loving herbivores at bay, animals that would love to chomp the bark off our trees or decapitate our young pea shoots. We have a family of coyotes living on the periphery of our homestead, and I suspect I’ve never seen a woodchuck near the garden because of their presence.
The foxes hunt mice, and the skunks eat insects and raid rodent nests. Even old porcupine has a place in the circle of life. So before you pull out the trap or the gun, consider doing a little research and learn about the roles these animals play in the ecosystem. Remember the old adage “Good fences make good neighbors.” This applies to your animal neighbors, too.
Read more about farming with carnivores.
Weed flowers and foliage make some of my favorite floral arrangements. The other day I went to a wedding and needed a quick bouquet. I could have brought sunflowers, zinnias, lilies or hydrangeas, but I wanted something a little more unique, something you couldn’t find in a florist shop. After a quick walk in an abandoned field and along the gravel driveway, I had a stunning arrangement that wowed the bride. Here are a handful of some of my favorite wild beauties:
- Blue-eyed Grass
- Queen Anne’s Lace
- Deptford Pink
- Oxeye Daisy
- Staghorn Sumac
Throughout the catalog you will find plants with common traditions of medicinal use. These include Asclepias, bee balm, blueberry, elderberry, high and lowbush cranberry, hops, lavender, linden, rose, solomon’s seal, witch hazel, eastern white pine and more. Our descriptions include notes about traditional medicinal use. The statements in our catalog regarding traditional medicinal uses of plants have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The plants we sell are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.