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Greatest Hits 2022: When Weeds Are Welcome—5 Wild Plants You Want in Your Garden


Greatest Hits 2022: When Weeds Are Welcome—5 Wild Plants You Want in Your Garden

December 29, 2022

Greatest Hits 2022: Each day this week, we’re republishing the most popular posts of the year, in case you missed them the first time around.

Weeds are the stuff you didn’t plant, and they have a universally bad reputation, like crabgrass. But for some weeds, that reputation is unearned and unwarranted. They are helpful, beneficial, even edible. (Remember to confirm the plant’s identity with three independent and professional sources before eating any wild plant.)

There are actually some weeds that you want in your yard. Here are five welcome weeds:

White Clover (Trifolium repens)

Photograph by NY State IPM Program for Cornell University via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by NY State IPM Program for Cornell University via Flickr.

Clover is actually a very good weed to have in your lawn. It fixes nitrogen into the soil. While nitrogen makes up 80 percent of the air we breathe, it’s not in a form plants can use. Via a symbiotic relationship with bacteria in the roots, clover converts nitrogen into a usable form for plants. Years ago, before petroleum-based fertilizers became popular, grass seed was sold with clover seed mixed in. It was an environmentally safe and easy way to fertilize your lawn. Grass is a heavy nitrogen feeder. By keeping the clover, it will feed your lawn for you and you can skip the fertilizer. One less chore!

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Above: Photograph by Marie Viljoen, from Wild Foods: 9 Weeds to Keep (and Eat).

A resilient, low growing, succulent plant that grows just about anywhere from garden beds to cracks in the sidewalk, purslane is really healthy for you! Purslane has vitamins A, E, and C, along with alpha-linolenic acid, a heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acid. It has a sour crunch and can be eaten raw or cooked (see Raw Purslane, 10 Ways for ideas). A few things to note: contamination may be an issue when they grow in high-traffic areas like sidewalk cracks. Additionally, there are some similar looking plants, such as spruges, that are poisonous. Proper plant identification goes without saying…

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Above: Photograph by Jim Powell for Gardenista. See Gardening 101: Dead Nettles.

No, really, they are very good for you if you can avoid being stung. (This weed is, admittedly, a hard sell.) The hairs on the stems are tiny hypodermic needles and if you brush up against them, they break off and inject formic acid under your skin. The sharp sting can last up to 24 hours. But cooking the plant inactivates the toxin. Handle them with gloves and you will be fine! Need recipes? Try this or maybe these!

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)

Above: An additional benefit of jewelweed: it attracts hummingbirds. Photograph by Vincent Mounier, from Rehab Diary: A Year in the Life of a Brooklyn Garden.

Did you try to be oh so careful harvesting stinging nettles and still get stung? Or maybe you got poison ivy while weeding? Then jewelweed is your wanted weed. As you can see by its Latin name, it’s in the same family as the ornamental annual flower that loves shade. Jewelweed shares this love of shade, too. The pretty orange-yellow flowers turn into interesting seed pods that will explode when ripe with the slightest touch. But its main attraction is as a folk remedy for poison ivy and stinging nettle rashes, which is convenient since it can be found growing nearby both these plants. Crushing the leaves and stems and using them as a pultice is said to reduce the itch and pain. It also can out-compete noxious garlic mustard on the forest floor.

Plantain (Plantago major)

Above: Photograph by Andreas Rockstein via Flickr.

Broadleaf plantain is one of the most common lawn weeds. And like the others, it does have benefits. It’s been used in folk medicine dating back to the 10th century. However, you probably don’t care about its medical uses if it’s in your lawn and you don’t want it in your lawn. But it’s there and it’s trying to tell you something. It’s telling you your lawn’s soil is very compacted. Plantain grows best in heavy, compacted, and poor soils—everything grass hates. If you have plantain, consider it a cry for help from your lawn. Grass needs friable, rich soil to grow deep roots. Plantain is telling you you need to fix the soil compaction to help your lawn.

The feelings on weeds have been shifting for a while now. Once hated and targeted with eradication with harsh chemicals, weeds are starting to be seen for their very important part in the ecosystem. They can be attractive to wildlife (like jewelweed), offer nutrition (like purslane and stinging nettle), amend your soil (like clover), and alert you to soil issues (like plantain). Their flowers feed beneficial insects. They are part of the diverse food web that is your yard. So the next time you see a plant growing where you didn’t plant it, do a little research and see if you may want or need it.

For more on weeds, see:

N.B.: This post was first published June 2022.

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