Wildflowers: Weeds With a Press Agent?


For The Associated Press


NEW MARKET, Va. Nov. 12  (AP) — A popular definition for weeds here in the agriculture-rich Shenandoah Valley is “anything growing where it isn’t wanted.” That catchall phrasing puts a lot of posies in the pot: Wild roses, for example. Chicory.

It comes as no surprise, then, that many wildflowers are grouped among the undesirables.

“Wildflowers,” one disapproving wag wrote, “are weeds with a press agent.” That writer must have been a farmer, or a frustrated gardener trying to grow crops in ground already occupied by volunteer blooms.

Garlic mustard, ragweed and purple loosestrife can quickly overrun otherwise productive plots if you let them get growing on you.

Most of the weeds posing as wildflowers are non-natives – invasive plants that crossed the Atlantic accidentally or intentionally with immigrants, says Jack Sanders, author of “The Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little Known Facts, Folklore and History.”

“When they got here and the farmers opened fields from the woods, they (wildflowers) took over like wildfire,” Sanders said. “They didn’t have any natural enemies.”

With the exceptions of milkweed and thistles, few native varieties were considered pests.

“Most were used by farmers for foods or flavorings,” Sanders says.

Wildflowers enrich woodlots with their color; nourish insects and other foraging critters. Many wildflowers have medicinal value or are otherwise utilitarian--dye plants or plants used for making fabrics.

Many have fascinating histories. That includes the despised dandelion, which Sanders calls one of his favorite flowers.

“It doesn’t push other flowers out. It’s an attractive flower and most every part can be used for food,” he says. “Its roots can be roasted as a coffee substitute. The blossoms can be made into wine.

“I’m a believer in color and form in the landscape — not those lawns that look like putting greens.”

One of my favorite history lessons as a Minnesota grade-schooler centered on the dandelion, and how pioneer children delighted in blowing the plant’s parachute-like seeds into the air from the tailgates of their covered wagons as they rolled slowly across the Great Plains.

Sanders’ book builds upon the entertainment value of dandelions:

“Maidens would blow at the ball, and the remaining seeds would foretell the number of children they’d have when they were grown and married. Another favorite pastime of children, particularly girls, was making chains, bracelets and curls from the hollow flower stems, called ‘scapes.”‘

Other lesser-known wildflower facts:

·   About violets: “Whether in salads or in candies, violets have a long history as a food. And with good reason,” Sanders writes. “The basal leaves of the common blue violet have, in the springtime, five times more Vitamin C per 100 grams than the equivalent weight of oranges, and 2.5 times more Vitamin A than spinach.”

·   About Lady’s Slippers (wild orchids): “Orchids wear many colors, but among the 5,000 known species worldwide, you’ll never find a blue one.”

·   About daisies: The bane of bugs. Certain species are used as a commercial source of pyrethrum, a popular natural insecticide. “English country folk knew this,” Sanders writes. “They mixed the plant with the straw bedding of farm animals, then hung it from the ceilings of their homes to chase away insects, including fleas.”

·   Queen Anne’s Lace: “Transplanting flowering Queen Anne’s Lace is tricky, because by maturity, the plant’s root has sunk itself deep into the ground. These deep roots were one reason the plant was among the most hated of weeds; farmers found it almost impossible to eradicate from fields and often called it devil’s plague. Dairy farmers especially dislike Queen Anne’s Lace because it gives an unpleasant taste to the milk of cows that eat it.”

Folklore aside, wildflowers are favored by gardeners nurturing the natural look. Properly sited, they thrive with minimal care and have a long bloom season.

The first thing to consider before bringing wildflowers into your yard isn’t horticultural, however, it’s legal.

Most public lands from National Forests to rural road rights-of-way are off-limits to the taking of wildflowers.

“It’s been years now, but the only time I would take anything out of the woods is when I heard the property was going to be developed,” Sanders says.

“Wildflower fanciers in this area (of Connecticut) are known to watch the papers for news about new building projects and consider that an opportunity to get wild plants. I wouldn’t recommend that, though, without getting permission. Some people would consider that trespassing.”

If you’ve done with all the legalities, then pay attention to natural habitats before bringing any wildflowers home. Shade-favoring plants prospering in or near bogs won’t do well, for instance, in a rock garden.

“One of the problems with wildflowers is that they don’t like to be where gardeners like to garden,” Sanders says. “Black-Eyed Susans love lousy soil. Gardeners use good soil. They plant these things and they don’t do well.”


Recommended reading:

“The Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore and History” by Jack Sanders, The Lyons Press. $24.95.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press