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My featured favorite weed - Blue-eyed stargrass

Although this plant would definitely fit the category of wildflower, not weed, it is a plant which might be found in a lawn, or on the edges of a lawn.  I’ve seen this lovely little lily-cousin in old meadows and in our own backyard woods; it deals well with wet shade.  The plant itself looks like a grass, and if it isn’t in flower most people would pass by it without a second glance.  Flower is tiny – about a centimeter across – atop a spindly, grass-like plant, between 1 and 2 feet high.  It won’t flower in a closely mown lawn, but if you’re lucky and you don’t weedwhack too often, it will flower around the edges.

Update on Good Weed Bad Weed - the book is now available - February 2011! Go to St. Lynn's Press for more information about Good Weed Bad Weed and other eco-friendly titles: or look for it at major booksellers in your area or online.
Please visit Nancy Gift's blog at for more information about weeds, kids and other great bits of information.

Introducing the Good Weed Bad Weed web supplement - 
more information on your favorite weeds!

Young boneset in spring
Another beneficial weed - Boneset

This plant, named for its herbal quality of aiding bone regrowth, is unusually distinctive for a plant with clusters of small, white flowers: boneset’s strappy, opposite leaves actually clasp together at the stem, with their squared off bases meeting.  Leaves taper to long points and are covered with fuzzy hairs.  Flowers grow in clusters, with threadlike petals – a nice, bright shot of white in late summer.  Plant typically grows as tall as an adult, but can flower at waist height also. 

Pretty little white flower clusters in the summertime on boneset

A weed with good and bad qualities - burdock

Burdock in springtime
Burdock is one plant which few people notice in flower, but everyone notices its burrs after the flowers are past.  Large, broad leaves may be confused for the ornamental elephant ear, but leaves are hairy (fuzzy or rough to tough) rather than shiny.  Very difficult to hoe – stems and leaf bases are thick and fibrous – and very tough going for a weedwhacker.  Roots are edible (popular in Asian cuisine) or may be used in wound healing, though as members of the composite family should be avoided by people with strong ragweed allergies.  Flowers are like small, round thistle flowers, purple and spiny-looking, but not nearly as sharp as thistles.  Stalks are also edible, and may be scrubbed, peeled, boiled and fried – but may not be worth the preparation.  Biennial, meaning that plant dies at the end of the second year, after seeds form.  (often confused with cocklebur, which has smaller leaves and comparatively little root)

Burdock burrs in the late fall

Chicory - have a cup?

Beautiful chicory blossoms open early in the day
Chicory, oddly enough, is one of the few weeds specifically outlawed in my township, but of course it grows here anyway.  It is tolerant of salt and serious soil compaction, and therefore common along roadsides, where its tough stems would seem to have little appeal - until this gorgeous periwinkle-blue flower comes out.  Flowers don't last long - a day, or even less if you pick them - but are lovely anyway.  Roots of chicory can be ground, dried, and used as coffee (much like dandelion root), and were used this way in the depression.

Goldenrod - aptly named

Goldenrod in bloom
Goldenrod - Rarely considered a lawn weed, but, like boneset, common on edges of woods and fields.  There are actually a number of goldenrod species, some endangered but many with healthy populations.  These native perennials die back in winter and regrows from roots, resulting in healthy stands of stalks in any goldenrod stand.  One of few natives in our area which seems to be able to grow a vigorous enough stand to discourage growth of multiflora rose.  Not palatable to deer.  Sprays of tiny yellow flowers in late summer and early fall, in many regions, suggest that it is time for the arrival of yellow school buses and a new fall routine.

Ailanthus- free garden stakes!

This weedy tree is highly pollution tolerant, and therefore seems to love cities: it is the original city tree, from Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, an Asian import with prolific, wind-spread seeds and an odor (in twig, leaf, and trunk) of rotten peanut butter.  Compound leaves (with multiple pairs of opposite leaflets) drop in fall, leaving large leaf scars along a very straight stem.  Wood is soft and breaks easily, but regrows quickly.  Seems particularly well adapted to growth in and through chain-link fence.  Probably very good for carbon sequestration, and young trees make great garden stakes, but otherwise, well worth cutting down, because it spreads so easily and crowds out native trees.

Honeysuckle - a pretty problem

Honeysuckle in various shades of white and yellow
If, in my childhood, you'd told me I would grow old and dislike honeysuckle, that would have been further evidence that adults are boring and wicked.  Yes, I love the smell of the blooms, and I love that children can taste its nectar - but they can do that from clover, which isn't nearly so invasive and hard to remove.  My own woods are mostly plagued by the viney honeysuckle, which grows along the ground and on the bases of tree trunks; I've seen many woodlands so thick with bush honeysuckle that young trees had no hope of making a living there.  I know there are experiments underway (at the University of Kentucky arboretum, my childhood wild space) to find out the most effective ways to eliminate it, and I look forward to learning the results.  For now, just keep cutting!

Viney honeysuckle can choke out other desirable plants

What's up? - Dock 

Dock growing in early May
Dock is a word which is used for several plants, but we're talking here about the genus Rumex.  Both curly dock and broadleaf dock have long, strappy leaves with rounded ends; broadleaf is bigger and flat, while curly has ruffled leaves.  Flowers are quite nondescript, and seeds, in clusters along the stalk, have a round or oval membrane around the outside. Like burdock (which is unrelated), stem is tough and root is difficult to remove - unfortunate for this perennial which *will* come up in the same spot next year.  Doesn't love being mowed, but once established can tolerate frequent mowing for a long time - in lawn edges especially.  May be useful as a skin treatment for ringworm and other fungal infections; just rub leaf directly on affected area.  I hoe this out of my flower and vegetable beds, but tolerate it in wooded areas - at least it doesn't spread quickly, like garlic mustard!

Maypop passionflower -what's not to like?


Passionfruit, the exotic, hard-to-ship delicate and delicious tropical fruit, that grows in…Kentucky.  And actually, maypop passionflower grows throughout much of the southeastern US (up to Pennsylvania), in soybean fields, along fencerows, in shrubbery.  The flower is wildly exotic and unmistakable as anything but a passionflower; the fruit, yellow, egg sized, smooth outside, and with interior seeds covered with the gooey sweet-sour unique to this wonderful fruit.  Why don’t we hear more about them?  I have no idea.  Maybe the people who find them just don’t want to share.  May be cultivated in the northeast.

                                                                            Lambsquarters - great in your salad!

When I teach classes on weeds or give talks, I always tell people “You *have* eaten lambsquarters, whether you know it or not.”  Lambsquarters, a lowly member of the spinach family, has a mild flavor (even in the heat of summer), excellent nutrition, and a tendency to grow in spinach fields.  If you’ve ever eaten frozen spinach, you might have noticed it as the odd leaf (almost kite shaped) with a slightly silvery-grey color to it, especially on the back – don’t worry! It will be excellent, the ultimate good weed.  The only reason this plant isn’t cultivated, as far as I can tell, is that it has a substantial stem, making it grow differently from the average spinach plant.  If you don’t want it, look out, because it can take over your garden with its numerous seeds.  However, don’t just kill it – go ahead and make spinach pie.  Free, and tasty.  Now that’s one serious Bueneza.