“I consider ‘weed’ to be a politically incorrect term”



One of many “weedy” spots I have, though I think at least one of these is native. I have much worse areas, but couldn’t find the images.

And I thought I’d seen the last of the term “politically
incorrect,” which has become almost as combustible as “liberal.” But just as
there was a backlash against “political correctness,” there now seems to be a
mini-backlash against the native plant movement, in articles like the one
Susan wrote about a few posts back, and one published in the Boston Globe Saturday.

 This is Not a Weed follows scientist Peter Del Tredici (quoted in my title) as he
extols the “emergent forest” and “spontaneous vegetation” of the urban jungle,
praising plants like dandelions, chicory, mugwort, toadflax, phragmitis, and,
of course, ailanthus (as many of you know, the tree of A Tree Grows in
). Del Tredici contends that no plant is native to the city and
commends species that stubbornly emerge from sidewalk cracks, gravel beds,
vacant lots, and untended patches of soil for providing carbon
sequestration, producing oxygen, feeding wildlife, preventing erosion—and more—without need of any care whatsoever.

His book is called Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast. I
plan to buy and read it if only to correctly identify many of the plants I have
been pulling as I work on neighborhood beautification projects. I tend to agree
that the urban habitat is so different from the original woodlands, that to
insist on the historic natives might seen irrelevant. But it will take a lot of
mindset changing to make vacant lots filled with the plants he’s talking about
seem anything but blighted. And getting rid of them—if nothing else—is
definitely beneficial to humans as aerobic exercise.

Still, I also find these plants fascinating, especially the
ones that grow out of seemingly completely inhospitable surroundings. There is
something to admire in that.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. The tropical-looking plant with the purple berries is Phytolacca americana, Pokeweed, a North American native plant. It’s one of the few “weeds” I “cultivate” in my garden.

    It’s an impressive plant, growing to 8 feet in my gardens. Mature plants have a corky taproot that can weigh a few pounds.

    The berries are important fall forage for migrating birds. Stalks persist through the winter, providing architectural interest in the garden. The berries that survive into winter feed year-round residents. Frost-burst berries stain snow beneath them magenta, a shock of color I’ve yet to see from any other plant in winter.

    I encourage its presence, but edit its positions. It seeds prolifically, and its seedlings are a maintenance headache. I wouldn’t tolerate such rude behavior from any non-native plant.

  2. My front flower bed will be filled with blooming chicory in about two weeks because I put it there. It will also have tons of ox-eye daisy. It put itself there. I added Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’, Verbenea bonariensis and a few other items. They are all weeds in the right conditions.

    The difference between my front flower bed and a vacant lot is human intervention. My weeds are organized and I eliminate other intruders like goldenrod and vetch to keep the weed palette to the design intent.

    The concept of organization may be the key to helping change the mindset about the inhabitants of vacant lots.

  3. Xris, I am a pokeweed fan, and have written about it a few times here. I thought it was native but didn’t have time to check this am. About the berries though–it was my understanding that most of the mature plant is poisonous? Though the emerging shoots were notoriously eaten as “poke salad.” (in a song I have posted here–I think Craig/Ellis Hollow gave me the YouTube link for it)

  4. Have you seen the cultivar Phytolacca americana ‘Silberstein’? One of my favorites. Outrageous color at the end of summer – it kinda slaps you in the face as you walk by.

  5. I have respect for all plants: weeds, cultivated plants,or wild natives. Nothing fills a brownfield like mugwort. I find as much beauty in a field of city weeds as I do in a mountain forest.

    When I was a child exploring the world I could not distinguish between weeds, non-natives, and natives. They were all the same. We used to make “wine” out of the berries of poke and spears from the dried stems! I was quite fond of the lambsquarters that grew in the yard, with its magenta, spade shaped leaves. Dandelion! Of course, first a sunny yellow flower and then a puff ball you could blow into the wind!

    Having respect for all plants is part of the capacity to make difficult decisions regarding any particular plant.

  6. I wish Professor Peter would come to the San Francisco Bay area and write a book called Wild Urban Plants of the CA Bay Area.
    No pun intended but he would have a field day here with all our native and non native opportunistic weeds/ plants .
    (Hi Peter, from your former student at the GSD and the AA)

  7. I’ve never thought of weeds that way. Maybe it is good that some plants can pop up in the craziest places–because it just means more plants.

  8. What exactly defines the “native plant movement”? Is it intentionally landscaping with nursery-grown natives? Wild-collecting and propagating natives, ie. orchids and ferns? Locating, identifying, photographing and learning about natives in their habitats? Cultivating a particular point of view about where they should grow?
    Having said that, I now admit: I have a really hard time uprooting or even “shaping” a healthy, attractive “weed” (by the way, is the definition of “weed” a plant that you don’t want growing where it is growing? then mine aren’t “weeds” after all!). I know this makes me a “bad gardener” (and even worse, a “bad farmer”), but that’s my natural inclination. And I can rationalize it very easily by explaining how the “weed” is habitat for beneficial insects, or a nitrogen-fixer, etc. I also have a soft spot for things like volunteer asparagus, strawberries, crocus, iris, etc….non-natives introduced long ago on my property which have stuck around…What to do?

  9. By that reasoning, gangs, which thrive in urban areas, should be encouraged as well.

    I say let’s get rid of the thugs and encourage native plants.

  10. “Gangs” at their root, are human beings with bad behavior. I guess you could just take machine guns into the city and mow them down like weeds to eradicate them, and then replace them with folks more to your liking….

  11. Peter Del Tredici is my new hero. I especially like this: “…the plants that grow and thrive here [Boston] could be considered the natural denizens of a new kind of habitat — what he calls ‘cosmopolitan’ species. Like the human residents of Boston, many have immigrated from other parts of the world to coexist in a single community. ‘You can in many cases get as much functionality out of a cosmopolitan group of plants as you can out of a native group of plants,’ he says.”

    And the comments on Garden Rant never fail to amuse me: Town Mouse says: weeds are like human gangs; off with their heads! Anne replies (tongue firmly planted in cheek): yeah, so let’s mow ’em all down with AK-47s.

    Immigration debate anyone?

  12. Yes! Weeds as the new symbol of American plurality and democracy (I can see the t-shirts already)! The new parties will be the Weedists, the Nativists, the Cultivarists, the Invasionists 🙂
    Sincere apologies for getting off-topic, but I couldn’t resist!

  13. Part of the wonder of the natural world is its itricate complexity, credit either evolution or creation. Pollinators matched to plants, bizarre mimicry, odd colors, odder shapes.

    Those “colonizers” that PDT extolls, are all “generalists”, happy almost anywhere. Yes they will cover waste areas, but often they don’t stop there; their strength, tenacity, and vigor (all admirable characteristics) allow them to run ramant over delicately balanced ecosystems.

    Here you go then, if we encourage these “generalist” species, we directly contribute to a diminishing of the complexity of the biological world with the loss of many species. That’s a fact.

    My opinion is that this makes the world a less beautiful place, a less mysterious place, and a less wonderful space.

  14. Anyone who has ever lived around and tried to control Ailanthus would not approve of it in any form in any place. Increadibly fast growing, a seed can sprout and grow 7-10 feet in one season. Very weak wooded and shallow rooted,it frequently falls in stormy weather causing much damage to anything in its path. Further more, it smells bad. If you cut one down, it sends up hundreds of sprouts from its roots. Many people are allergic to its pollen. What more can I say…

  15. Hi. My definition of a weed was anything I didn’t pay for and put into the ground on purpose. A couple of years ago I purchased an innocent looking packet of morning glory seeds. Now my definition of a weed is anything that has been pulled out of the ground, left to die in the sun and yet, a week later is still blooming and growing and strangling neighboring plants and maybe even a cat or two. I hate you morning glory!

  16. I have the native wild garlic (Allium cnadense)growing amongst the Mediterraneans in my herb garden. A lovely herb. I wrote about it here: http://fnpsblog.blogspot.com/2010/04/native-herb-has-earned-honored-place.html

    Re: Poke: I’ve done my share of foraging over the years, but I’ve never been tempted by pokeweed, because you need to catch it early in the season before the poisons build up in the stem so you can cut it off and eat it like asparagus. You also can eat the greens, but you must boil them twice and throw out the first water to get rid of the toxins–this has been called poke sallet, an old English term for cooked greens. I also thought people were saying, “poke salad,” but that doesn’t make any sense because it’s not a good idea to eat the uncooked greens.

  17. Liz: Yes, all parts of Pokeweed are poisonous, to humans, except for the early sprouts.

    Opportunists, generalists, call them what you will, “weeds” are plants that thrive in disturbed conditions. Cities are disturbed conditions. The built environment itself is not “native.”

    As for “no plant is native to the city,” this is false. There are native plants and wild areas within the borders of New York City. We are not separate from the environment just because we build within it. Biodiversity matters even – especially – in urban areas.

  18. Well, I’m a weedist.–Thanks Anne.

    I say if you don’t like them, pull them out. That said, I never appreciated my weeds more until this year.

    I feed weeds to my rabbits so they have a real purpose.—wild carrot, pepper grass, lambs quarter, bush sunflower, dandelions, various grasses, thistles, & hackberries. I’ll just bet I have some of the healthiest bunnies around.

    The bunnies then make bunny droppings, which go into the compost, and everything comes full-circle. Plus, if I am ever without food, I know which weeds I could eat that won’t kill me.

    The only weeds I can’t tolerate are ligustrum and poison ivy.

  19. The worst “weeds” I deal with, on an almost daily basis, are wax myrtle “Myrica cerifera’, trumpet vine ‘Campsis radicans’ and the worst of all, Smilax. Some might consider these prime native horticultural specimens but here in the SC Lowcountry they are the worst thugs. They would eat the house if I didn’t whack back the jungle on a regular basis.

  20. Ali M, I too have problems with the three aggressive natives you mention, and I don’t think anyone would consider them fine “horticultural” specimens, but they are important for wildlife, so I leave them in fringes and wild spaces that used to be lawn.

    BTW, catbriar (Smilax) is edible. The tubers can be used to make sarsaparilla and the new shoots and growing tips are excellent in salads. My daughter’s friends are horrified when she relates that her mother made her eat catbriar(!) when she was growing up.

  21. Ginny: in the song to which I refer, it is Poke Salad Annie–Tony Joe White. Great song; you should check it out. Elvis also sang it. However, I am sure you are correct about the original sallet.

  22. My husband likes my definition of a weed: A plant that’s growing in a spot I don’t want it to.

  23. A weed is a plant man hasn’t found a use for. On my 1/2 acre of selectivly random garden, there are areas that I refer to as the native plant collections. So I don’t have any weeds. Except, of course, where there are weeds.

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