A weed is but an unloved flower. - Unknown
The reality is – it’s a hopeless endeavor - weeds outnumber us. As their seeds mature this time of the year, they produce an explosion of potential future plants. Some plants are so exuberant in their reproduction that they produce thousands of seeds per plant, like the notorious ragweed of allergy fame, purslane, cockleburs, and sandburs. They prove the old saying true : “One year’s seeding means seven year’s weeding.” It’s no wonder the gardener’s work is never done.
In addition to their prolific seed production, weed seeds are extremely durable, many packaged with shell-like covers to protect their germination until just the right conditions present themselves. Some can survive grassfires, extreme cold and enzymes of the digestive systems of animals and birds while others remain dormant, resting peacefully in the soil for five to fifty years, especially if the soil is undisturbed.
Some weeds have unique travel strategies to get from one place to another to germinate. Cockleburs, sandburs, and stick-tights, the hitchhikers of the plant world, have Velcro-like miniature hooks that attach to clothing or animal fur for a free ride. Others take to the sky using the wind to propel their seeds into the world. The tiny parachutes of the dandelion allow their seeds to float and drift with the whims of the wind to relocate.
Robert Frost wrote, “The rose is a rose and was always a rose,” but the definition of a weed is more difficult to describe and categorize. Much like the adage, “One man’s trash is another’s treasure,” such can be said of the lowly weeds. It all depends on the gardener’s level of tolerance. From a simple definition of anything growing where it isn’t wanted, like a lily in a lettuce patch, to more technical terms of noxious or invasive plants with USDA guidelines, weeds span the spectrum from the sunny-faced dandelion to the aggressive and invasive thistle varieties.
Weeds with pretty flowers have been upgraded in definition to wildflowers or as some have described them, “weeds with press agents.” Many enjoy a protected status as they flower and flourish along highways. Efforts by former First Lady Ladybird Johnson, a tireless advocate for wildflowers, restored and maintained the natural beauty of native plants along the highways of Texas and have expanded to other parts of the US.
While the color and beauty of a swath of wildflowers along the road may tempt our fingers to pluck a few blossoms, there is an etiquette to help protect and preserve native plants and their habitats: Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
But when those same native grasses, weeds and wildflowers show up as uninvited “growing pains” in our lawns and gardens, what to do? Advice from the 1845 edition of Everyman His Own Gardner suggests, “Do not be afraid of weeds, but cut away. They must either be your master, or you theirs.” And so the gardener’s never-ending labor continues. Perhaps it 's better to consider weeds as Emerson did: “. . . A flower in a weed’s disguise. . . . A plant whose virtues have not been discovered.”