SUE BRUNS: A weed by any other name. . .
A flower garden runs the full length of our house and beyond. With several varieties of hostas and daylilies, spirea, thyme, cone flowers, salvia, and two or three varieties of sedum, the blooms of these perennials lure bees, butterflies and hummingbirds to the garden. Daisies and Johnny-jump-ups creep in and fill empty spaces. In June, the peonies open like elaborate pop-up tissue paper decorations. Delicate pink and white bleeding hearts line the stems of the plant between the peonies. Later in the summer, purple balloon flowers, bright blue forget-me-nots, and scarlet poppies among the coneflowers and bee balm make the garden a kaleidoscope of color and scent.
Each year I fill spaces where something hasn't come back from a harsh winter or where I've decided there are too many daisies or too much thyme or bee balm, and those plants have become weeds. On the other hand, I allow the delicate wild columbine to grow and bloom wherever it chooses, enjoying the lantern-like blossoms that attract the bees.
Weeds are an interesting concept. According to Merriam Webster's primary definition, which applies to my gardening in most cases, a weed is "a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth; especially: one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants." A secondary definition says a weed can be "an obnoxious growth, thing, or person; something like a weed in detrimental quality."
I pluck unwanted growth from my flower gardens but cringe when I pull up wild roses and raspberries that creep in by root from the woods. I don't hesitate to pull up the plush, moist creeping Charlie and often wonder why bunnies and deer don't find this luscious, quick growing ground cover delectable, but then, I've never tasted it. Judging by the chewed off stems, the green-leafed hosta appears to be the salad du jour for visiting critters.
Outside my garden, as I walk the dogs through the woods, I pause to gather blooming "weeds" that make an attractive little bouquet. Some of them I can name; for others I consult my wildflower field guides. It's unfair, I think, that someone has named them "weeds." Take milkweed, for example, the singular choice for monarch butterflies. Recently the milkweeds on the edges of our yard have burst into bloom—their aroma as intoxicating as spring lilacs. Along the lakeshore, where natural growth has risen to my height, swamp milkweeds bloom, magenta against the vivid green foliage, not deserving of the name "weed" in my estimation.
On the edge of our wooded trail, I pick white frilly-petaled fleabane with bright yellow centers and sunny-colored mouse-ear hawkweed. When I add a leaf from a bracken fern, they become a cheery bouquet in a small vase—in spite of their negative sounding names. During a recent bike ride near Lake Vermillion, I paused for a photo of deep orange and bright gold hawkweed, dotted with rogue daisies—a visual bouquet.
Back at home, climbing up the fence that encloses the vegetable garden, posing as a decorative vine with large, ivy-shaped leaves and a spray of tiny blossoms, wild cucumber appears almost overnight after a hearty rain and grows to several feet of creeping vine. A few years ago, unaware of what it was, I allowed it to overtake the fence until the spiky seed pods (not edible) appeared, and I realized that this aggressive plant could pose a problem.
In the flower beds, I pull up by the roots the persistent vetch that tries to enmesh my daylilies. Vetch is not without beauty with its thin stems, paired leaflets, and sweet clover-like flowers, but its name—somewhere between vomit and wretch—suggests its power to overtake another plant. Still, I keep a few blooming strands in a vase.
When I weed, I don't miss the metaphor suggested by Merriam Webster's second definition. I know what I want and don't want to thrive in my gardens, but sometimes I have to ask myself, "Who am I to decide what is and what isn't a weed?"