As Irish novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford wrote in 1878 (in her book Molly Bawn), “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” When we bought our parcel of land it was a field surrounded by trees. The field had tall grass and, according to some, a lot of weeds.
Now, 15 years later, I’ve come to appreciate, cultivate and even occasionally propagate some of these plants. Like many fellow gardeners I call them wildflowers, not weeds, and, if strategically left to grow, they can add a lot of colour and interest to a garden. Plus, they all provide nectar and/or pollen for bees and birds. Here are the six I go out of my way to find places for:
#1 – Goldenrod – Solidago sp. I know – you see it everywhere, city and country and we have it everywhere too, in the meadow, along the tree line, coming up in the ‘lawn’ if it isn’t mowed often. It self seeds prodigiously and also spreads via underground runners. Yet it’s easy to pull out of the ground when the soil is moist and it is NOT the plant many blame for allergic sneezing and sniffing in late summer (that would be ragweed) as its pollen is heavy enough to fall to the ground and not be blown around by the wind.
The really neat thing about Goldenrod is you can control its growth by clipping it back once or twice in late spring or early summer. When you do that you get shorter, bushier plants without the ugly ‘bare legs’ most often seen. Plus they bloom a bit later after pruning so you lengthen the season.
#2 – England Aster – Aster novae angliae. Just coming into bloom now, it’s likely my favourite of all the Asters, although I do have a soft spot for Sky Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), also native to this part of the world. I often prune these the same way I do Goldenrod (see above) — cutting them back by different amouts or not at all to provide a clump of varying height stalks.
#3 – Mullein – Verbascum thapsus. You’ll see these stately spires in fallow fields or on the side of ditches when you’re in the country. I love them because they grow in rocky, dry soil (yaay!!), bees love them and the small flowers open one at a time, over many weeks. The bonus with Mullein is the soft, velvety rosette of large leaves that form the year before the flower stalk appears.
#4 – Queen Anne’s Lace – Daucus carota The tall lacy foliage of this plant does indeed smell like carrot when you crush it, as do the white, carrot like roots which are easily pulled in moist soil. The flowers (called umbels when they appear like this) attract many species of flying bug and the leaves are a fave food for Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.
#5 – the common Milkweed – Asclepias syriaca –Long hated (too strong a word?) by farmers because the seed pods burst open in late summer to disperse, like a dandelion, thousands of seeds. Thought to be poisonous to livestock thus not great in pastures and not great either in hay fields. HOWEVER… the leaves are a primary food source for monarch butterflies and the flowers, aside from attracting many species of pollinators, smell ever so sweet in early summer. Will spread underground as well as by seed.