Sunday, August 16, 2015

Who Are You Calling A Weed?

Dozens of plants across Georgia are asking that question of the humans that have proclaimed them to be weeds. Even plants can recognize when they are being dissed. Most notably upset are the plants who have come to be known by the name “weed.” These include plants like:

Milkweed (Asclepias), Joe pye weed (Eutrochium), Pokeweed (Phytolacca), Jewelweed (Impatiens), Sneezeweed (Helenium), Thimbleweed (Anemone), Gopherweed (Baptisia), Smartweed (Polygonum), Pickerelweed (Pontederia), Knapweed (Centaurea), Chickweed (Stellaria), Cudweed (Gnaphalium), Ironweed (Vernonia), Camphorweed (Pluchea and Heterotheca), Hawkweed (Hieracium), Rosinweed (Silphium) and many, many others.

Gulf fritillary butterfly on orange milkweed

Even those lucky enough to escape the weed name are frowned upon as weedy, undesirable plants:

Goldenrod (Solidago), Thoroughwort (Eupatorium), Fleabane (Erigeron), Sedge (Carex), Broomsedge (Andropogon) and most native grasses, Thistle (Cirsium), Old-field aster (Symphyotrichum), Common Violet (Viola) and more.

While man may call these weeds, many insects could not live without them in Georgia. These durable, tolerant and prolific plants provide essential services to our native bees, butterflies, beetles and many other insects.

In some cases, the blooms provide nectar and pollen for visiting insects. Spring roadsides are full of the tiny white flowers of daisy fleabane while thoroughwort and goldenrod are rich nectar sources in the later summer and fall.

Red-spotted purple caterpillar on native hawthorn
Yet as essential as the blooms are for some insects, it’s the leaves that really matter to hundreds more. Native plants are host plants to native butterflies and many of these “weeds” are the most supportive ones. (Host plants: Adults butterflies lay their eggs on these plants and caterpillars grow up on them.)

Goldenrod foliage is host to more butterflies and moths than any other native (or non-native) perennial. Those roadsides full of tiny white asters – those asters are the #2 foliage plant. Thoroughwort is number 4 and together those plants are host to almost 200 types of butterflies and moths. These “weeds” are powerhouses of life!

The adult red-spotted purple butterfly - quite a transformation
You might come across these caterpillars in your garden, but chances are you will miss seeing most of them. Because birds want to eat caterpillars, caterpillars have learned how to hide themselves very well. Some eat only at night, others hide under leaves or mimic something else (like the color of the leaf, or a stick, or even as bird poop!).

Those that survive will emerge as the beautiful butterflies and moths that we recognize.

Milkweed is a fairly well-known host plant for the Monarch butterfly and 11 other butterflies and moths. In fact, nurseries could hardly keep milkweed in stock last year after people heard about the decline in the monarch populations. Many other butterflies have similar special host plant relationships.

Did you know that sedges support 3 times as many butterflies and moths and violets over twice as many as milkweed? Yet both sedges and violets cause most homeowners to reach for the herbicide. Don’t think of these as weeds – think of them as butterfly host plants!

A familiar butterfly is the silver-spotted skipper; it is a very reliable visitor and said to be one of the most recognized skippers. But you've got to have some native legumes if you want to have more of these. Here is the caterpillar all wrapped up in the leaf of its host plant, Clitoria mariana, known as Atlantic pigeonwings.

Silver-spotted skipper caterpillar
Silver-spotted skipper adults

So the next time you are deciding what to use or what to keep in your landscape, spare a thought for these plants. You don’t need a yardful of “weeds” or violets, but leaving a few here and there will be very beneficial to those that search for them.


  1. Another spot-on article, and so timely. Ellen, you make the case so simply yet powerfully. Thanks, again.

  2. I shared this with the FB group, Gardening with Nature in Mind. Most of us are in Nebraska, but there are a number of other gardeners and bloggers in the group. We are each on different places on the path of growing more plants to support the critters that depend on them.

    I want to look up a list of what kinds of caterpillars eat what plants in our area. I am thankful to have an area across the street where I weed the weeds, having patches of lambsquarters, violets, ground cherries, etc. I also leave one or two pokeweed plants and a couple larger ones I'm not remembering the names of.

  3. Excellent. I'll share it locally. I didn't know that about violets.

  4. A field of weeds can be a lovely sight. I leave a field unmoved in my front yard. Portions are mowed each year. The plants and wildlife are fascinating.

    Behind me is hunting land. The deer and turkey mosey around my front yard the few times the hunters are out.

  5. Wonderful post Ellen! I wish more people would realize these important bits of information!