A weed is frequently defined as a plant or flower that grows where it is not wanted. You may be happy to see dandelions or violets growing in a field or forest, but not if they are invading your lawn.
By Paul Hicks
A weed is frequently defined as a plant or flower that grows where it is not wanted. You may be happy to see dandelions or violets growing in a field or forest, but not if they are invading your lawn. Yet, it is fascinating to discover that many of the plants we had long thought were weeds, even when they were growing in the wild, are included in the most respected wildflower guidebooks.
At a number of Westchester places over the past few months, we have looked up a number of flowering plants that turned out to have particularly interesting names and botanical descriptions. When you are next out in the countryside, it is worth becoming aware (and sometimes wary) of the following weedy wildflowers:
Bittersweet or Woody Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)
This vine has star-shaped purple flowers with yellow stamens and berries that turn from green to yellow, orange and red as they mature. At the base of the leaves there are often two opposing lobes. All parts of the plant are toxic, especially the berries. It grows in shady, moist places.
Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea lutetiana)
Despite its common name, this is a member of the evening primrose and not the nightshade family. It grows in wooded areas and produces small white flowers on slender stalks as well as green seedpods that attach readily to clothing and dogs. The genus name comes from the enchantress Circe of Greek mythology, and the generic name is from the Latin name for Paris, which was once known as the “witch city.” Enchanter’s is mildly toxic because it contains tannin.
Horsenettle (Solanum cariolense)
Found in fields and roadsides with large, toothed leaves and prickly stems; star-shaped flowers are usually violet (sometimes white) with a protruding yellow beaks. It is not a true nettle and, as a member of the Nightshade family, it can be toxic.
Jewelweed or Orange Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis)
Found on roadsides and along woodland trails, this familiar plant has gray-green leaves and a distinctive orange flower in the shape of a funnel. The juice of its stem has been used effectively by many to wash the oil from contact with poison ivy or applied to the rash caused by stinging nettles.
Pokeweed (Phytolacca Americana)
Plants grow up to ten feet tall and have white flowers on the end of stems. As the plant matures, the stems and stalks turn reddish and the berries a purplish black. All parts of the plant are toxic, but the leaves (called poke sallet) are eaten in parts of the South after cooking in three changes of boiling water.
Self-heal or Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris)
The plants (up to a foot in height) are like small clubs on the end of stalks with two leaves just below the club. Purplish flowers grow from the club mostly in summer along trails in wooded areas. Regarded in many countries as a cure-all, the dried leaves and flowers are brewed to ease sore throats.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
A tall (as high as seven feet) plant with large, serrated leaves, interspersed with sprays of greenish-yellow flowers. The leaves and stems have many fine hairs, whose tips come off when touched and which inject chemicals that cause a painful sting. Rubbing Jewelweed on the rash is recommended, as is aloe. They have some medicinal benefits for those with arthritis, and it is said that the young leaves have a flavor like spinach.
Sweet Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum)
One of a number of Joe-Pye Weed varieties, this plant grows in clumps as tall as eight feet. The leaves grow in whorls that are narrowly oval and the purplish-colored flowers begin blooming in mid-summer. Joe Pye is said to have been a Native American healer who used this plant to treat fevers and a variety of other ailments.
White Snakeroot (Argeratina altissima)
This erect and branching plant grows in woods and thickets to as high as five feet. Its leaves are oval and sharply toothed. In late summer, small, round flowers appear at the top of the plant. Milk from cows that have eaten this toxic plant has been known to poison humans. In the early 1800s, milk sickness caused numerous deaths around the country, including Nancy Lincoln’s, mother of our future 16th President.
Yellow Wood-sorrel or Sour Grass (Oxalis stricta)
The leaves of this plant, which are clover-shaped, fold up at night. It grows along the edges of roads, trails and lawns. The yellow flowers bloom from spring into fall. Although it is not a grass, it has a sour, lemony taste and was used by some Native Americans to quench thirst. Its generic name, Oxalis, means sour.
One of the best ways to become more knowledgeable about weedy and other wildflowers is through the Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College. It is a very valuable resource, whether you want to identify them in the countryside or plant them in your garden. Also, since it is back-to-school season, you might want to consider enrolling in one or more of their fall courses, which you will find at http://www.sunywcc.edu/about/the-native-plant-center/learn/.