As a gardener, I’m supposed to react to the presence of “weeds,” those plants that arrive spontaneously in our gardens, by pulling them all out. But the problem is that there are some “weeds” I actually like! I find them attractive and not really all that invasive.
I admit that they do self-sow a bit, appearing spontaneously where I would never have thought to place them, but—at least in my flower beds!—they don’t do so abundantly enough to choke out the other plants. I simply find them here and there, inserted among my other plantings.
If ever they do go too far and start to encroach on plants I want to keep, I just pull them out! All the plants described below are easy to yank out.
Here are some of my favorites:
Black-eyed Susan or Black-eyed Coneflower (Rudbeckia hirta)
A North American native of variable longevity (there are annual, biennial and perennial strains), the black-eyed Susan produces large yellow composite flowers with a distinctly raised black central cone, hence tis common names. Sometimes the flower bears a ring of dark markings around the cone. The whole plant, except the flower, is covered in short bristles, which is not surprising, since its epithet hirta means bristly.
The black-eyed Susan blooms over a long season, from mid-summer to mid-fall. There are many cultivated varieties (the perennial ones are often called gloriosa daisies) with yellow, orange or near-red flowers, sometimes double or with a green cone rather than a black one. It attracts bees and butterflies and, if you don’t cut it back in the fall, goldfinches will feed on its seeds over the winter. I find it self-sows quite modestly, yet it’s always there, somewhere, every summer.
You can readily find plants and seeds in garden centers and catalogs.
Dimensions: 8 to 36 inches x 12-18 inches (20-90 cm x 30-45 cm). Zone 3 (biennial and perennial varieties).
Other coneflowers sometimes also invite themselves into the garden, then remain by self-sowing. I particularly like brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba), a short-lived perennial with much smaller but more numerous yellow or yellow and red inflorescences with a dark brown cone. It’s a very late bloomer, from September to snowfall where I live, but starting as early as July in milder climates. Both plants and seeds are quite readily available.
Dimensions: 4 ft x 8 inches (1.2 m x 25 cm). Zone 3.
Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)
This North American plant at first forms a rosette of narrow serrated leaves at the base, then several upright, multi-branching stems, capped with narrow spikes of mauve-blue (more rarely pink) flowers. Only a few are open at a time, in a circle around the flower spike, forming a sort of crown of bloom that moves upwards over the season. Flowering begins in July and continues until September. Butterflies and hummingbirds love it!
This is not a long-lived plant, but it reseeds modestly in sunny and not too dry gardens, so can maintain its presence. Wildflower specialists readily offer the seed if it doesn’t find your garden on its own. Sow it in the fall, because the seeds need a cold treatment in order to sprout.
Dimensions: 2-4 feet x 1 foot (60-120 cm x 30 cm). Zone 3.
Common Evening-primrose (Oenothera biennis)
Here is a plant that, I have to admit, sometimes self-sows a bit too much, but it is so easy to eliminate when it goes too far: just pull it out! Its roots give way readily and it never produces offsets: once it’s out, it’s out!
It is one of the rare North American native weeds to have conquered the globe, as it’s now abundantly naturalized on every continent except Antarctica.
As the botanical name biennis implies, it’s a biennial. The first year, it produces a low rosette of lanceolate, willowlike leaves and the second, a tall stalk of pale yellow cup-shaped flowers. They open in the evening and close the next day before noon … then start again each evening through the summer.
There is a lot of confusion about the true name of this plant: depending on where you live, the plant you’re seeing could be O. muricata, O. glazioviana, O. depressa or a hybrid between one or more of the above. I wouldn’t lose any sleep over that: even botanist can rarely tell them apart.
You’ll find seeds of common evening-primrose offered in several seed catalogs.
Dimensions: 1 to 5 feet x 12 to 14 inches (30-150 cm x 30-40 cm). Zone 2.
Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis)
This biennial or short-lived perennial has a long history as a medicinal plant used for treating “women’s diseases,” although these days, even herbalists no longer seem to have much use for it.
That’s how this widely distributed Eurasian plant made it to the New World. Brought over as a medicinal plant, it quickly escaped into the wild and is now firmly established pretty much throughout North America, where it is usually found in the somewhat humid environments, often on the forest edge or along streams.
The pink or white flowers (you often see the two colors mixing together) are produced in huge numbers from mid-spring until midsummer. A lot of people mistake it for garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), but dame’s rocket blooms far earlier. Also, its flowers have four petals while phlox blooms have five.
And what a perfume! In fact, it’s widely used in perfumery. The downside is that the flowers are scented only at night. It therefore makes an excellent cut flower: that way you can enjoy its fragrance in the privacy of your home even when it’s too dark to be in the garden.
This plant self-sows abundantly, but is very easy to eliminate if it goes too far.
This species is easier to find in seed catalogs than as a plant. Sow it abundantly: individual plants are rather scraggly; it needs company to look its best. Dimensions: 2 to 3 feet x 1 foot (60-90 cm x 30 cm). Zone 3.
Do note that dame’s rocket is considered a noxious invasive in a few states, so check local laws before you plant it. However, this is really a question of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. It’s already so well established in most areas where it’s officially banned that the laws make no difference!
Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis spp.)
There are all sorts of species of forget-me-nots found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, both native species and introduced ones, so who knows which one has found its way into your garden? They all look pretty much alike anyway! The most common in garden settings is, however, most like woodland forget-me-knot (M. sylvatica), originally from Europe, as it’s the one most often offered commercially by seed.
You don’t need to know the correct botanical name to appreciate the beauty of the tiny blue flowers of forget-me-nots. To start with, so few flowers are true blue! The plants blooms early in the spring, usually when tulips are in bloom, then dies (it’s a biennial). However, next year’s seedlings are already growing strongly by then, so you don’t really notice the mother plants fading away, as their babies are already replacing them.
Of course, besides blue forget-me-nots, there are also varieties with white or pink flowers. I find the blue ones tend to dominate, the whites hold their own, but the pink varieties rarely persist very long in the garden.
Forget-me-not seeds are very easy to find, both in garden centers and seed catalogs.
Dimensions: 6 to 12 inches x 6 inches (15-30 cm x 15 cm). Zone 3.
Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
This attractive biennial plant, which has dozens of other common names, depending on where you live, appears in my flower-beds from time to time, disappears, then reappears, adding a note of fantasy to the ensemble.
How could anyone treat this strikingly beautiful plant as an undesirable? With its beautiful rosette of fuzzy gray-green leaves the first year and its thick, upright stalk bearing bright yellow flowers the second, plus blooms over the entire summer, it’s always a star! Even when it dries up and dies at the end of the second year, becoming only a chocolate-brown stem still standing upright, at least that offers a bit of winter interest, notably when there is white snow all around.
There’s no use looking for plants of great mullein in garden centers: they never seem to carry it, nor do they usually sell its seeds. However, you can grow it readily from seed collected from wild plants in September or October in a field near you. Just sow them immediately or in early spring.
Dimensions: 3 to 7 feet x 2 feet (90-200 cm x 60 cm). Zone 3.
Musk Mallow (Malva moschata)
Like dame’s rocket, musk mallow is a Eurasian herb that was introduced to North America as a medicinal plant, but now grows abundantly in the wild.
The pink or white flowers look a bit like a child’s windmill. Each flower lasts only one day, but every morning brings new ones and that continues pretty much throughout the summer. In fact, it seems to bloom more in hot, dry summers than cool, moist ones. The blooms have a musky scent and are edible. The mid-green, deeply cut leaves are edible too, and quite attractive.
I know gardeners who can’t stand musk mallow because “it doesn’t stay where I planted it.” Indeed, it is short-lived (2 or 3 years) and therefore disappears quite quickly, but then reappears where you least expect it. For a meticulous gardener, it certainly will seem like more of a weed than an asset.
However, for laidback gardeners like myself, who prefer gardens with a little less control, musk mallow is a boon. It always seems to sprout sporadically here and there rather than in dense clumps that could overwhelm nearby plants and its cut leaves let sun get through to lower-growing plants. I just find it adds a bit of colorful spontaneity to my garden … and who doesn’t need a little spontaneity in their life?
Musk mallow seeds are fairly easy to find, both in catalogs and sometimes in garden centers.
Dimensions: 16 to 24 inches x 6 to 24 inches (40-60 cm x 40-60 cm). Zone 3.
Its taller cousins, hollyhock mallow (Malva alcea fastigiata), a musk mallow lookalike except it is twice as tall, and common mallow (Malva sylvestris), with darker flowers bearing distinct purple veins and peltate leaves, are also occasional spontaneous visitors, although more likely to arrive from neighboring gardens than from the wild, as they’re nowhere near as well established in fields and meadows as the ubiquitous musk mallow.
Even taller, to up to 6 feet (180 cm), are the lavateras, like tree mallow (Lavatera thuringiaca), yet another pretty self-sower.
Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
The oxeye daisy is so common in fields in temperate parts of North America, Australia and New Zealand that it’s hard to imagine that it could ever have been otherwise, but it is in fact an exotic species there, native only to Eurasia.
A neighbor lets the abundant daisies in his lawn bloom from start to finish and only begins to mow in mid-July, when they finish. It’s not such a bad idea; daisies are indeed beautiful. With their white composite flowers with a yellow disc, they are the very embodiment of a flower. If you ask a child to draw a flower, most will spontaneously draw a daisy!
Of course, the species grown in most gardens today is the Shasta daisy (L. x superbum), a hybrid with a complicated ancestry, and it generally makes a better garden plant, with more and often larger flowers over a much longer season (some varieties, like ‘Beckie’, will flower from early summer well into fall), but they don’t usually self-sow and can be short-lived. Oxeye daisies aren’t all that long-lived either, but maintain themselves by self-sowing. They can self-sow a bit too much, sometimes … but how you can you pull out such a pretty plant?
This is the only plant described here that spreads not just by seed, but by rhizomes, so it can be a bit harder to control.
While you can readily find Shasta daisy plants in just about any garden center or mail-order catalog, that can’t be said for oxeyes. If they don’t show up on their own, you may need to encourage them by purchasing seed from a wildflower specialist or moving a specimen to your garden from in a field near you. Not from a public park, of course, but otherwise, I don’t think removing one daisy would bother anyone.
Dimensions: 16-36 inches x 36 inches (40-90 cm x 90 cm). Zone 3.
It seems odd to speak of “care” with these plants, since all of them showed up in my garden on their own and simply grew on their own. Plus, they are considered weeds … and by definition, weeds take care of themselves! Also, it’s in the nature of weeds to be widely adaptable, taking just about anything, including soils both poor and rich, acid and alkaline, loamy, sandy, clay and rocky! However, the plants described above are all normally plants of meadows and fields, thus of at least moderately sunny environments, so will need full to at least partial sun in the garden.
If you sow them, clear a space of other vegetation so they can get a head start. If you transplant them from elsewhere, you don’t even need to amend the soil: they’re that tough! Water a bit more the first year if conditions are dry, but otherwise, just let them do their thing.
The important thing is to remember that you have to allow at least some seed production, or they’ll eventually die out. So, no deadheading or, at least, let at least few plants each year go to seed.
There you go! Eight “weeds” that I find particularly beautiful and useful, plants that may already have found their way into your garden. Try them letting them grow and see. And there are plenty of pretty weeds where they came from! If a plant shows up in your garden on its own, is attractive and doesn’t seem extremely invasive, perhaps you could learn to love it rather than brand it as a weed?
Learning to live with Mother Nature rather than fighting her? Maybe we could start a new trend in the gardening world?!