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Good Weeds

March 28, 2022 12:00 AM
By: Ryan Reed, Natural Resource Program Specialist, Bureau of Forestry

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​The term “weed” has a very negative connotation in the eyes of most gardeners and horticulture professionals. Merriam-Webster defines a weed as “a plant that is not valued where it is growing.”

Gardeners and homeowners have spent countless hours pulling weeds. They grow relentlessly, and every spring they know the task begins again.

Common offenders are dandelion, bittercress, plantain, foxtail, ragweed, creeping Charlie, and Canadian thistle.

Many gardeners despise these plants -- they’re tough, spread like wildfire, and often have taproots longer than the carrots. We will probably never get the upper hand on these weeds.

Outdoors, nature, flower, leaves, petals
Jewelweed at Greenwood Furnace State Park

Caught in the crossfire of our dislike of weeds, a few fantastic plants very unfortunately carry the term “weed” in their common names. Some great examples are:

  • Butterfly weed
  • New York ironweed
  • Jewelweed
  • Sneezeweed
  • Common Joe-Pye weed

Weeds of Value

Most people couldn’t possibly conceive of going to a nursery and purchasing one of these plants. Who in their right mind would purposely buy and plant weeds?

wildflower, ironweed, plant, fflowers, field, outdoors, nature
Ironweed in a meadow at Yellow Creek State Park

Despite their unfortunate names, these plants are native to Pennsylvania and happen to be quite beautiful. They attract pollinators -- which is also great for your vegetable garden -- and add eye-catching interest in landscaped beds.

Planted in clusters, the “good weeds” can outcompete and crowd out the bad ones. Imagine a garden, taken over by “weeds” that you don’t have to weed. Now that is an idea we can really “put our backs into!”

Flower, outdoors, nature, insect, butterfly, plant, flower
American lady butterfly on Joe Pye weed at Frances Slocum State Park

People often change their names to something they perceive as more likable. Perhaps this is a courtesy we should grant to these “good weeds” too.

Doing so would likely boost their numbers in landscapes throughout Pennsylvania, which would be a big win for conservation.

Add Some Weeds to Your Landscape

Wildflower, flower, nature, outdoors, petals
Sneezeweed at Gifford Pinchot State Park

Consider adding some of these beneficial, native wildflowers to your garden or landscaping this year.

DCNR maintains a list of some native plant suppliers in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Native Plant Society advocates conservation of native plants and their habitats; and promotes the increased use of native plants in the landscape. It also has an online list of native plant suppliers.

There are several native plant sales that occur in state parks in the spring.

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