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Common Ground Gardening Blog -May: A Time to Grow Wildflowers

Wildflower Or Weed?

“How can you tell if this is a weed or not?” 

That is the question gardeners hear when caught in backbreaking positions in their flower beds, expertly pulling out some sprouts while leaving others to grow in peace.

Here are some of my favorite answers:  

In his 1991 book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Best Seller American author Michael Pollan is not readily quotable, but he catches our flawed relationship with nature: 

“Weed” is not a category of nature but a human construct, a defect of our perception.”

At the other end of the quotability spectrum, a longtime gardener friend of mine likes to reduce the issue to a no-brainer: 

“If you don’t remember planting it, it’s a weed.” 

And then, there is the compassionate voice of American horticulturist, G.W. Carver (1864-1943): 

“A weed is a flower growing in the wrong place”. 

We could also add “A weed is a flower growing in the wrong time in history,” and as we know, history is always written by the winners.  

To illustrate this historical bias, here is a short quiz:  in your opinion, which of these two plants was called a weed in North America for about 400 years?

A group of orange flowers

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As shocking as it may sound today, it is not the English Ivy, but rather the Butterfly Weed, a wildflower that naturally grows from the Rockies to the East Coast, from Quebec to Florida. 

“Says who?”  you may ask, gazing at the glorious mass of flaming blooms. The answer illustrates Pollan’s, my gardener friend’s, and Carver’s “A weed is a flower…” 

But what is wrong about a “wrong place”?

When Europeans came to this continent, they saw the myriads of local wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees as a hindrance to planting, according to their basic food needs. The settlers were famously “thankful” for the Native Peoples’ gifts of Corn, Squash, and Beans, but they didn’t care for the weed-like plants. Native Peoples’ knowledge of the ecological and medicinal values of Wildflowers didn’t reach the European settlers, who deemed the precious plants useless and saw no harm in burning vast expanses of natural meadows and forests. 

Four centuries later, modern agriculture has “weeded” the Butterfly Weed and thousands of other Wildflowers to near extinction to meet our modern needs for food. A debate on the validity of such action doesn’t belong to this page. Suffice to say that the Butterfly Weed is the only plant on which Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs. Call them picky, but no other plants will do. As a result, the systematic eradication of Butterfly Weeds since the 1970s has caused the population of the Monarch butterflies to drop by 90% across the Nation.

Why do we need the Monarch? Ask a three-year-old child and they will answer, spot-on: Monarch butterflies are beautiful, and they make us happy. There are other more “grown-up” reasons why we should care about Monarchs and many other Native insects, which I will discuss on this blog in a future post. Stay tuned!

Now, what about English Ivy? That is not a weed either. Or is it? Well, it is a reliable ground cover. It grows everywhere you want it, in the sun, in the shade, on a wall, on the ground, even in the thick shade of an old Red Maple Tree, and you never have to even think about it. Until you do. And it may be too late, because you realize that it causes your walls to crack and your trees to rot and die. It suffocates all other plants on its path and harbors a host of pests from mosquitos to yellow jackets to rodents. In the past couple of seasons, it has provided a comfy wintering shelter for the eggs of the spotted lantern flies.

Unless you own a rototiller, it is almost impossible to get rid of old English Ivy? A plant that can cause so much damage to your property has to be a plant growing in “the wrong place”. You may not agree with me. That is precisely the point Carver and Pollan are making. The weediness of a plant lies in the eyes of the beholder. 

Why should we care?

Understandably, you love your English Ivy because it stays green in the winter. It provides you with privacy from your neighbors. It hides that ugly fence in the back of your yard. And with a bit of luck, it even hosts a family of robins every year. So, you may think “can’t I have both ivy and wildflowers?” Ah! I was hoping you’d ask. So, let’s meet halfway, and let’s explore why we all need wildflowers. 

Native flowers tolerate a wider range of conditions: many will thrive in a poor soil without the help of compost or fertilizers or show an amazing resilience to drought. They grow everywhere. In full sun, in full shade, in dry clay soil, swampy soil, and everything in between. Whatever the situation in your yard or your balcony,  you will find a wildflower happily growing there. Some of them can even grow indoors. 

Native flowers’ minimal maintenance extends to their propagation mode. The perennials grow back every year a little bigger and stronger, while the annuals reseed themselves. 

Native flowers are tastier to native pollinators than nonnative flowers. Keeping native pollinators fat and happy helps them achieve their full pollinating potential. A happy native bumblebee will be two and a half times more efficient than the honeybee at pollinating certain crops. 

Oh no! After badmouthing the English Ivy, is it now the turn of the beloved honeybee, the rock star of the insect kingdom, the Taylor Swift of our gardens? The oversea honeybee vs Native bee debate reaches beyond the scope of this page and will be addressed, along with the Monarch, in a future post.  

The Return of Wildflowers. 

The renewed interest for wildflowers has been manifested in this country for a few decades, yet it hasn’t reached enough casual gardeners. We see increasing numbers of Oakleaf Hydrangeas, Viburnums, Blackeyed Susans, and Purple Coneflowers in nurseries and gardens. They fit in our taste for showy flowers. But they are no competition for large roses and luscious peonies, and massive limelight hydrangea heads. The latter are for the most part “exotic” blooming plants, imported to the Colonies from Europe and Asia since the 18th century for rich collectors famously represented by Thomas Jefferson. 

To be fair, Jefferson widely expanded the Colonists’ diet with all the great vegetables he imported from overseas and cultivated at Monticello. However, along with these “useful plants” he also shipped in over 200 different species of ornamental flowers and trees. Granted, he didn’t know that – in time – some would escape the collection, spread out, wrestle the Native plants to near extinction, and cause an ecological disaster throughout the Nation. 

Fortunately, 300 years later, First Lady Ladybird Johnson’s deep passion for native plants and for the preservation and restoration of natural local landscapes led to the passing of 50 environmental bills into laws. Her relentless and often televised advocacy jump-started a renewed interest for Wildflowers. It was not yet a widespread interest. But it immediately  spearheaded academic research on Native plants and led to the 1982 foundation of a living collection now known as the Ladybird Johnson Center for Native Plants at the University of Texas in Austin.  Ladybird Johnson was a modern pioneer in recognizing the humble beauty of these Native plants, and the crucial environmental necessity of rebuilding and conserving the American Wildflower meadow. 

Fast forward 40 years. We can now see hundreds of brick-and-mortar nurseries and websites dedicated to Native plants, including Wildflowers classified by regions. Most of anything labeled “Northeastern” will grow on your property as a perennial, or will vigorously re-seed themselves. Specialized websites will have all the information you need to  start seeding or planting your Wildflowers. 

To get you started you will find the following at the end of this post. 

A yearly bloom chart including the following:

Here is a list of resources, including where to buy your plants and seeds, and organic garden products I use. 

If you still need help, you are welcome in contact me with questions at mzanzal@commonpointqueens.org. If you do, please write “Common Grounds” as the subject line. Or you can stop by for a chat in the garden.  

PS: There is a hopeful and quite joyous ending to the Butterfly Weed’s tragic history. In November 2023, it was voted New York City’s official Wildflower. 

Before: Spring 2023,  108th Street grounds before beautification project started: Purple bearded Irises and English Ivy. 

A green plants growing on a hill

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After: Spring 2024, 108th Street grounds a year after Kids Korner Garden Club pulled all the English Ivy: the same Purple Bearded Irises. None were added. 

A purple flowers in a garden

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