“My flower is an educated weed.” – Luther Burbank
Spring is coming and many of our plants will soon be bursting into flower. But while we celebrate, there’s another less attractive family of plants that will be springing into life as well. These are the dark cousins of our ornamentals: the perennial and annual weeds. The bane of all gardeners, they crop up on the soil, stubbornly unfurling their tiny leaves each year, seemingly unfazed by our attempts to remove them.
I first started delving into the shadowy world of weeds a few years ago, when one of the members of my garden club gave the rest of us an odd assignment. She handed us each a sheet of paper on which were illustrated a dozen garden-variety weeds. Then, she asked us to “locate” them in her garden. (At this point you may be laughing, I know.) We ended up pulling a lot of weeds that day, but the experience also peaked my interest in this unwelcome form of vegetation.
Weeds compete with other garden plants for water, sunlight and nutrients, often in very aggressive ways. In Maryland, Creeping Charlie is one such example, as it delights in spreading rapidly by runners and carpeting the garden with its fan shaped leaves and minty aroma. (Though pulling it can be particularly satisfying because it comes up in large mats.) Other weeds like crabgrass, or worse, hairy bittercress that spits up tiny seeds if you touch it, are hard to eradicate and decidedly much less satisfying to remove.
Not to be outdone by their showy relatives, weeds, just like ornamental plants, are categorized by their life spans. They’re either annual (growing from seeds spread the previous year) or perennial (springing up from established roots that survived the winter.) Herbicides are generally targeted to annual species, while perennial varieties can recover from almost anything. Perennial weeds, in fact, can easily regrow from seemingly dormant stolons, rhizomes, tubers and of course seeds.
Over the past year, I’ve compiled a list of the more obnoxious weeds that show up uninvited in my garden. It’s helped me get to know the different species and understand when and why they appear. Somehow just knowing the name of what I’m removing has made the whole process much more satisfying.
Here are the top ten weeds I’ll be pulling this season.
Long considered a major problem weed in North America, crabgrass can produce up to 150,000 seeds per season all of which germinate in late spring and early summer. The clumping annual grass can be distinguished by its slender, finger-like leaves that spread by side shoots from a central hub. Growing to form larger and larger clumps in star-shaped patterns, crabgrass eventually becomes a dense mat that smothers grass and other weeds. Interestingly, the smooth-leaved weed is considered a symptom and not the cause of poor lawn health as it thrives in sparse lawns that are under watered and not well fed.
GOOSEGRASS (Elusine indica)
Also known as silver crabgrass, goosegrass is a prostrate, bunching grass that spreads by seed and usually emerges a few weeks after its smooth green cousin. It has dark green, thick, flattened leaves and whitish stems that radiate from a central point (which makes it easy to identify.) Small, flattened flowers emerge on stiff spikes from July to September. Unlike crabgrass, goosegrass is very difficult to remove and its seeds spread easily in the wind.
A member of the mustard family, hairy bittercress has heart-shaped leaves with scalloped margins that grow from a basal rosette. The largest leaves are at the base of the plants. The weed produces tiny white flowers from spring to fall and spits its dried seeds into the air when disturbed. If you can dodge the seeds, hair bittercress is actually easy to pull from wet soil, roots and all, by giving a good yank on the stalk.
BROADLEAF PLANTAIN (Plantago major)
Broadleaf plantain has large, oval-shaped leaves that grow in a ground-hugging rosette. The leaves are attached to thick green stems that resemble celery when shredded. Long slender spikes of inconspicuous tiny green flowers spring from the base of the weed from April to September. Broadleaf plantain is actually edible (as are many weeds) and is chock full of iron, minerals and vitamins. The smallest leaves (harvested in the spring) are the tastiest, imparting an asparagus-like flavor. Fresh leaves can also be crushed to treat burns, insect bites and wounds.
A native of Europe and Asia, bindweed is a member of the morning glory family. The perennial weed has a spade-shaped leaf with rounded tip and two pointed lobes at the base. Erect seedlings spring from underground stems that can grow to several feet long, causing the weed to bend over and begin its vine-like growth. White, trumpet-shaped flowers, which close each afternoon and reopen the following day, bloom from April to October. Bindweed spreads from both underground horizontal stems and seed and is considered one of the most troublesome weeds in the U.S.
CHICORY (Chicorium Intybus)
Of Mediterranean origin, chicory was grown for centuries as a salad green before it started showing up all over our lawns and roads. Also known as blue daisy, blue-sailors and coffeeweed, the hardy perennial grows from a deep taproot that forms a prostrate rosette of hairy leaves. Clusters of clear blue flowers appear on stiff hairy stalks from June to September. Blossoms open early in the morning and close about 5 hours later. In addition to the many medicinal uses for chicory, the weed’s long taproot can serve as a coffee substitute when dried.
YELLOW NUTSEDGE (Cyperus esculentus)
Native to North America and parts of Eurasia, yellow nutsedge is a grass-like perennial with shiny yellowish-green leaves and golden brown flower heads. The plant spreads by producing tubers from a complex shallow root system. It can grow in just about any soil and is considered one of the world’s worst weeds.
MOUSE-EAR CHICKWEED (Cerastium vulgatum)
Mouse-ear chickweed is a low-growing, mat-forming perennial with oval, dark grey-green leaves. The leaves are attached directly to the stem, which can be green or purple. Tiny clusters of white, star-like flowers bloom on erect 4″ stems throughout the summer. Mouse-ear chickweed forms dense mats with trailing stems.
CREEPING CHARLIE (Glechoma hederacea)
Creeping Charlie, also known as creeping Jenny or ground ivy, lives up to its name; it creeps. It has small, fan-shaped leaves with round-toothed edges, which emit a minty scent when crushed. Tiny blue-violet flowers appear in the spring, which are actually quite pretty. Creeping Charlie spreads rapidly to form dense mats, setting down roots all along its stems.
INDIAN STRAWBERRY (Duchesnea indica)
Resembling common strawberry, Indian Strawberry is a ground-hugging plant that spreads by hairy runners and forms crowns at nodes. Its leaves are toothed and have dense hairs on the upper surface. Yellow flowers with five petals appear from April-June followed by tiny red strawberries. The fruits are edible, but have very little taste. The plant has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes, including acting as a fever reducer and antiseptic.
Of course, there are so many other weeds to pull, including clover, ragweed and dandelions, to name just a few. This list is by no means exhaustive. NOTE: Remember to pull weeds when the ground is wet- it makes it a lot easier and you’re more likely to get the entire plant instead of leaving part of it in the ground. Click here for a great tutorial on fast and easy ways to remove weeds from the garden.