Thursday, June 20, 2019

In Praise of "Weeds"

You have been sold a bill of goods if you believe that all "weeds" are created equal. Weeds is in quotation marks because the majority of what we call weeds are simply native wildflowers and grasses that volunteer themselves in our carefully orchestrated urban and suburban landscapes. Allow me to explain.

A primrose sprouts defiantly from a sidewalk crack

We create villains to open opportunities for the invention and marketing of products and services to kill them. Meanwhile, the actual villains are exotic plants propagated by the nursery and landscaping industries, which then escape cultivation to wreak havoc on natural ecosystems. Everybody in the business sector wins, but you are out of pocket for a good deal of expense, and natural habitats are abused or at least compromised, in the process.

Lawn services and weed killers should be trending down by now

This is not a conspiracy as much as it is a marketing strategy that has gone so far as to encourage legislation of local municipal ordinances that may explicitly prohibit homeowners from allowing their property to revert to any semblance of a natural ecosystem. Ostensibly, these "nuisance laws" were created in an effort to ensure public health and safety, seeking to eliminate refuges of "vermin," pests, pathogens, and excessive pollen, and mitigate fire risks. The stereotypical weed ordinance is one which prohibits grasses or brushy vegetation to exceed a specified height. The junk vehicle discovered while mowing the lawn is a running joke.

Home Owners Associations (HOAs) have taken this to a whole new level, with their attention to minutiae rooted in preservation and enhancement of property values. In the case of the authority my spouse and I are under with our townhouse, this has resulted in removal of some trees, replacement of juniper hedges with rock substrates, and continued embracing of water-guzzling lawns. Keeping up appearances means more to these organizations than enhancing the health of local ecosystems.

Clover is a bee magnet and fixes nitrogen: Win-win!

What we should be doing is advocating what I call "weed tolerance." Even naturalized plants have their benefits. Dandelion is among the first plant to bloom in spring, offering a vital nectar and pollen resource to butterflies, bees, and other insects when nothing else is flowering. The clover in your lawn is a bee magnet, plus the plant is fixing nitrogen so you don't need to fertilize as often, if at all.

Ok, Chinese Clematis is a genuine noxious weed

In fairness, there truly are weeds that have no place in the landscape. You can find them as state-listed noxious weeds. The United States Department of Agriculture has conveniently compiled a database of these most-wanted (maybe most-despised is a better term) plants for you to use in determining which plants you need to eliminate from your yard and garden, or avoid when shopping for plants. This is an ever-changing list as more information is gathered about the impact of each commercially available plant. It was not until recently that Bradford Pear and Butterfly Bush (Buddleja davidii) became enemies instead of friends in the landscaping community. Keep tabs on the list for more additions.

Wild rose, with more open blossoms, is friendlier to bees than cultivars are

Increasingly, more attention is being paid to providing for native pollinating insects, and supplying breeding birds with the insects necessary to raise a brood of chicks. You can search endlessly online for resource after resource, but you may wish to start with books like Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas Tallamy. Dr. Tallamy and his colleagues and students have worked tirelessly to demonstrate conclusively the differences in ecological impact between native plants and exotic plants. Native plants, including many species we currently define as "weeds," sustain far more species of insects and other wildlife, as they are already adapted to soils, precipitation, and other variables where they thrive naturally. This makes the plants hardier, better able to withstand heavy impacts from herbivores, diseases, and other agents that affect plant health.

Yellow and white composites are favorites with bees and butterflies

Want help that is even more localized and informative? Join your state's Native Plant Society. Here is a list of them in the U.S. and Canada. Also avail yourself of the Cooperative Extension Service, typically associated with your state's land grant university. There is usually at least one office in each county, located in the county seat.

The tide does appear to be turning, even with those weed ordinances. While some cities have begun relaxing their codes, other municipalities have reversed course completely, actively encouraging citizens to "go native" with revised laws and financial incentives. Use these success stories to argue your case locally for similar innovative strategies.

Don't forget about evening- and night-blooming flowers like blazingstars when landscaping

Lately I have been enjoying the weeds that have been flourishing here in Colorado Springs thanks to an exceptionally wet, cool spring. There are flowers blooming that I have never seen before now. How do I translate my appreciation for vegetative rebellion into something meaningful to those who have bought into the neat and tidy vision of the marketplace?

Penstemon growing in a vacant lot in Colorado Springs