Is there a more scornful word in the botanical universe than “weed?” We’re trained from early childhood to dislike anything associated with the term. Because of that, we native plant lovers and promoters have work cut out for us when striving to educate (or maybe preaching to) the general public.
My mother, bless her departed soul, grew up on a farm in eastern Nebraska on the fertile bottomlands of the Missouri River. She had a belligerent attitude toward unwanted plants, in field, orchard or garden. Of course, all of the crops, fruit trees, vegetables and flowers on her family’s small farm were introduced from far-away lands; the only exception to that being raspberries. They all flourished in the rich black soil under abundant rainfall. Even after living in Texas most of her adult life, her midwest farmer’s attitude hadn’t changed much. So when I pointed out some colorful Texas natives blooming in her large, semi-rural yard near Temple, more than once she retorted, “Oh, David, those are just weeds!” Even though mother never cussed, she spit out that four-letter “w” word like barroom profanity. I was reminded of that negative viewpoint in an earlier article by Deedy Wright. At the author’s suggestion, a neighbor had planted several natives in her yard. Later and to Deedy’s chagrin, the same neighbor lady tore out the new species, declaring them “weeds” that she could see elsewhere in the vicinity. Like most Texans, at least Mother loved her bluebonnets with deep devotion!
These “weed”-averse ladies weren’t alone in their negative assessments. I was recently truly surprised to find on the internet a list of Texas “weeds” ostensibly compiled for farmers and ranchers. This group of alleged undesirables was compiled for the Texas Weed Information Group by a professor in the Texas A&M system. At least a quarter of the list targets many of our favorite Texas native wildflowers. Perhaps the preferences of livestock trumped the tastes of birds, butterflies, other wildlife and Society members! A few months ago my wife and I and with backup from the San Antonio Water System, won a small disagreement (kept mostly cordial) with our neighborhood association. We had been cited for “weeds” growing in our yard (actually, annuals seeding out before being cut down) and a “dead” lawn (actually, summer-dormant buffalo grass).
Even in these times when a growing percentage of the population is attuned to the effects of drought on poor water usage, it’s no wonder that attitudes toward our Texas natives are difficult to change. I just completed a count of the common names of plants in my photo collection of over 750 species indigenous to our state. Almost 50 had the word “weed” attached to their identification. Moreover, many of the others carry pejorative monikers like “thorn … bristle/bristly … prickly … spiny … poison … death … bur … briar … puncture … crippler … dagger.”. Have I ruffled any feathers of fellow members yet?
Even as a lifelong native plant lover everywhere in the world I’ve lived (on four continents), my own attitudes and knowledge have needed periodic adjustments. Years ago and after I had moved onto a 16-acre property on the North Bosque River near Waco, I spotted lots of a tall, not quite ugly but sort of gangly plant which appeared to need some serious mowing to beautify the place. Checking my most handy guidebook, I discovered its identity: Frostweed (Verbesina virginica.) Yep, just as suspected: a “weed.” The short descriptive paragraph did nothing to convince me to keep them standing, so they got amputated to the ground along with some non-native invaders.
Come to find out later that Frostweed is a host plant for several butterflies, both in their larval (eating the leaves) and winged (sipping from the unspectacular flowers) stages. Not only that, during the first hard freeze after I moved in, a few that escaped the mowing exuded some delicate and complex ice “sculptures,” one of the most beautiful shows performed by any plant. Fortunately Frostweed is a perennial, so the next year’s growth was allowed to remain standing even though its plain exterior didn’t compare favorably to our more colorful varieties for the better part of the year.
In spite of ranchers’ concerns about unwanted plants, several natives stand out as superior forage for livestock; they’re not just pretty for human eyes or dinner for insects and wildlife. Prime prairie grasses like the “big four” fueled the Texas beef industry long before the imported varieties became common: Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum), Yellow Indiangrass (Sorgastrum nutans), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii.) Engelmann Daisy (Engelmannia peristenia), noted as a sort of “cattle candy,” nearly disappeared from heavily grazed pasturelands. By contrast some deliberately introduced exotic species like Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense) not only have become invasive but also can be toxic to livestock.
Nowadays it appears that much talk centers on another group of plants: five genera (Asclepias, Cynanchum, Funastrum, Matelea and Sarcostemma) collectively known as milkweeds.
We’re all encouraged to grow some of these milkweeds to support the declining populations of monarch butterflies. Even though I have never spotted a monarch caterpillar on any species of milkweed in Texas, I have heeded the call to support the cause. Wherever they are, let those colorfully banded larvae chomp away on the foliage; we want to keep our beautiful butterflies around for us and future generations!
Okay, let’s admit it: some natives really ARE weeds. Take Texan Great Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida var. texana), in my opinion one of the worst and famous as a noxious allergen. Even these seemingly obnoxious natives have a place in the environment such that few would celebrate their extinction. And note the genera name Ambrosia, synonymous with the translated Latin “food of the gods.” In fact, a benign and lesser known member of that family, Rio Grande Ragweed (Ambrosia cheiranthifolia) is an endangered species and is being grown in botanical gardens to prevent its disappearance!
Then there’s one of my favorite most beautiful and fragrant flowers, counterintuitively mounted on one of our most despised weeds: Bull Nettle (Cnidoscolus texanus.) Yes, I’m sure we all harbor love-hate relationships with “weeds,” some of which we carefully nurture in our gardens and fields and many of which we aggressively destroy throughout the growing season. For the most part, let’s continue to enjoy our Texas-friendly “weeds” and to share that positive attitude with others in our great native state