“Is this a weed or a flower?” – one of the most commonly asked questions I get here at the Extension Office. I always answer: is it growing where it supposed to? If not, then it is a weed. A coneflower growing in a bluegrass lawn is a weed and bluegrass growing in a coneflower bed is a weed. As you can see there is no easy answer.
However, with common names the perception is very different. The last several days we’ve been getting questions about a magenta/purple flower blooming in parks and along roadsides and when we tell clients it is Western Ironweed they sigh in disbelief because the name includes weed. Western Ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii) is a native perennial and is a show stopper. This plant is a magnet for skippers, leafcutter bees, bumble bee, solider beetles and more. The plant has recently become more popular because of the later season flower and the role it plays with beneficial insects. However, because weed is in the name, some avoid planting it. It doesn’t self-seed like many of our popular asters like black-eyed Susan and purple coneflowers.
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) – another plant that is becoming more popular in the gardens but some still see it as a weed. A native perennial that is an important host to the larva of monarch butterflies. In a cultivated garden it is hard for this plant to spread and if the the seed pods are removed before they open then the risk for spreading is even less. However, this plant can spread by underground stems called rhizomes but at a slow enough pace that you can dig them out if you needed too.
Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium spp.) and sneezeweed (Helenium spp.) are two more plants that sometimes get shunned because of their namesake. No, sneezeweed will not cause allergies but often they are in bloom at the same time as ragweed (Ambrosia sp.). Both Joe-Pye and sneezeweed are excellent plants to be included in your perennial flower garden. They offer a burst of late summer and early fall color when many other perennials are winding down.
As the saying goes, don’t judge a book by it’s cover – you should never judge a plant by it’s name. But I think A. A. Milne said it best “Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”