When my son was about 7, I visited his first-grade classroom to teach about flowers. I took along tulips, daffodils and dandelions for the children to examine and dissect as we explored the parts of a flower. When it came time to look at the dandelion, one of the children exclaimed, “But that’s not a flower, that’s a weed!”
If we took Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of a weed, the dandelion would never be considered one. Emerson wrote, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
The virtues of the dandelion are many; it has been used for centuries as a fresh green, a potherb, in wine and in medicines. The dandelion’s flower is also unmistakably beautiful, although many folks will deny this. I suppose that’s because most people don’t appreciate the yellow flowers when they’re growing in the lawn, or when the colorful stage is past and the fluffy seed heads (followed by naked stems) protrude from the green grass.
When I lived in Italy with an Italian family, the lady of the house would make a visit to the Tuscan countryside each weekend, returning with her basket full of an assortment of leaves, mushrooms and flowers she had collected. Dinner’s salad would include dandelion and other “weed” leaves, tossed in a fresh vinaigrette dressing. It’s hard not to appreciate dandelions served in this fashion.
Many of the earliest flowers to bloom are, by definition, weeds, but that doesn’t make them less interesting. Like dandelions, these plants have the ability to thrive in otherwise inhospitable locations, they can make use of limited sunshine, and they manage to spread copious amounts of seed into the soil weeks before most gardeners have even found their gardening gloves from last season.
These weeds may not be familiar in name, but are often all-too-familiar by sight, as they take advantage of a patch of soil, a bit of sunlight, and the slow-to-start weeder.
This fast little weed makes use of any location it can find to grow, from the cracks between bricks and stones to bare spots in the lawn. This so-called “winter annual” can germinate in cool temperatures and set seed before any of us have even thought about this year’s tomato plants.
Bittercress is up and growing as early as February, sometimes blooming beneath a blanket of snow. Tiny white flowers grow on a short flower stalk held above the rosette of leaves. A few weeks later, seeds are explosively propelled from the plant, up to 10 feet from the parent plant. Several generations can grow in one season.
It’s no wonder bittercress has become a troublesome weed in landscapes, where it is commonly introduced from nursery stock containing the seed. Hairy bittercress is easy to pull, and it can be managed with a pre-emergent herbicide in severe cases, but the herbicide has to be applied in early fall.
Like hairy bittercress, annual bluegrass is a cool season weed, sprouting in late summer, fall or spring. Plants flower from spring through summer, producing an off-white seed head that is unattractive in an otherwise-green lawn. If you have some lawn areas that have “gone to seed” in spring, you have annual bluegrass.
Another problem with annual bluegrass comes later in the summer. When temperatures rise, or under periods of drought, annual bluegrass dies, leaving bare patches in the lawn, which can be quickly colonized by heat-loving summer annuals. To complicate matters, there is even a perennial annual bluegrass. The plant is, apparently, unfamiliar with its common name.
I had a friend in high school whose father would pay her five dollars an hour to pull chickweed from the lawn. Thanks to chickweed, Deb hardly needed a summer job. Like annual bluegrass, there are annual and perennial forms of chickweed, so I can only imagine that Deb was pulling perennial chickweed, and it just kept growing back, keeping her pockets full.
Like my Italian friend, Deb could have harvested and eaten the chickweed, either fresh or as a cooked green. The plant is high in vitamin C, and is a good source of phosphorus and copper. Since I don’t forage from the lawn, I have no idea if this plant is tasty or not.
Chickweed produces tiny white flowers on low, spreading plants. As can be imagined from its common name, chickweed is a plant preferred by birds, which enjoy the seeds.
Chickweed has several common names that refer to this avian preference, including birdweed, chickenweed, and even mouron des oiseaux (morsel for the birds) in France. The perennial chickweed is called mousear chickweed; the leaves are fuzzy like a tiny mouse’s ear.
Purple deadnettle, henbit
If you’ve ever noticed a farm field covered in a purple hue very early in spring, chances are you’ve seen purple deadnettle. This member of the mint family, like its cousin henbit, is another winter annual. The purple hue of deadnettle is caused by the tint of the spring leaves, although the flowers are pinkish-purple as well.
Like the other winter weeds, purple deadnettle is easy to pull.
Keep a lookout for these and other early weeds, and pull them as soon as they are seen to prevent annoying problems down the road. Or, like a child, cut a tiny bouquet, fill a tiny vase, and take a few minutes to appreciate these amazing, versatile plants.
Denise Ellsworth directs the honeybee and native pollinator education program for the Ohio State University. If you have questions about caring for your garden, contact her at 330-263-3700 or click on the Ask Denise link on her blog at www.osugarden.com.