Butterfly weed

By Ryan Reed

The term “weed” has a very negative connotation in the eyes of most gardeners and horticulture professionals. Merriam-Webster defines a weed as “a plant that is not valued where it is growing.” I’ve spent countless hours, with many a subsequent back ache, pulling weeds in my gardens. They grow relentlessly it seems, and every spring I know the task begins anew.

Common offenders in my beds are dandelion, bittercress, plantain, foxtail, ragweed, creeping Charlie, and Canadian thistle. Like many fellow gardeners, I despise these plants. They’re tough, spread like wildfire, and often have taproots longer than the carrots I grow. I will probably never get the upper hand.

Caught in the crossfire of our seemingly universal loathing of weeds, a few fantastic plants very unfortunately carry the term “weed” in their common names. Some great examples are butterfly weed, New York ironweed, jewelweed, sneezeweed, and common Joe-Pye weed.

Joe Pye weed with American lady butterfly

Most people couldn’t possibly conceive of going to a nursery and purchasing one of these plants. Who in their right mind would purposely buy and plant weeds?

Despite their objectionable names, these plants are native to Pennsylvania and happen to be quite beautiful. They attract pollinators (which is also great for your vegetable garden) and add eye-catching interest in landscaped beds.

Planted in clusters, the “good weeds” can outcompete and crowd out the bad ones. Imagine a garden, taken over by “weeds”, that you don’t have to weed. Now that is an idea I can really “put my back into!”

People often change their names to something they perceive as more likable. Perhaps this is a courtesy we should grant to these “good weeds” too. Doing so would likely encourage their numbers in landscapes throughout Pennsylvania, which would be a big win for conservation.

Forest Fridays is a feature of the DCNR Bureau of Forestry.