Weeds of Affection and Perpetual Annoyance

Mulberry weed Photo www.missouriplants.com
Mulberry weed
Photo www.missouriplants.com

“Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.” –Eeyore

Mulberry weed is an unwelcome guest that I can’t shake loose. The trouble is: the Mulberry weed doesn’t travel alone. I’d like to get rid of them all, but there is no end to mulberry weed. In a prodigious year for weeds in Kentucky, I fear Fatoua villosa is winning the war.

The rogue showed up in our garden several years ago and never takes a day off from May until frost. It is usually easy to spot, growing upright to a foot or more, but there are wayward progeny with procumbent growth, creeping low-slung, in the semi-shade. These are the hardest to nab. This mulberry tree relative has dull, barely distinguishable flowers that produce mature seeds in the blink of an eye.  A gazillion seeds give or take can be catapulted across two time zones.

Other notable weeds of my spring and summer garden are bush honeysuckle and porcelain berry, but there are some native scoundrels as well. Make no mistake: pokeweed, American elm, hackberry, and redbud are chronic offenders, too.  Not vicious by any measure, nor thuggish like bush honeysuckle and porcelain berry, they are nonetheless constant reminders that you can’t easily control natural forces.

No one but a Libertarian cynic could defend Asian bush honeysuckle. It leafs out a week or two before anything else and chokes out spring ephemeral wildflowers that rely on a few weeks of direct sun for survival before the native Kentucky tree canopy unfurls in mid to late April.

The porcelain berry can run rampant at the edge of woods and strangles anything in its way.  It tends to sneak into our garden unnoticed, until the woody vine begins working its way through trees and bushes, into sunlight and direct view.

Bush Pokeweed-in-vase-Vaananen-photo-082713-2013-060
Pokeweed. Photo by Mary Vaananen.

I have a soft spot for pokeweed, though I try not to enable ripening seeds.  Regardless, birds will drop ammo into the garden. Pokeweed is a tall perennial, with deep roots, and lovely white blooms that produce dark purple seeds. Occasionally, I will see a plant with dark magenta stems. Ink can be produced from the seeds for natural dye. Polish meat packers sometimes use pokeweed ink for meat stamps. The leaves can be cooked in very early spring, but you’d better get the timing spot on, or else risk a nasty poisoning. I’m taking a pass on poke salad. On the other hand, I can recommend a pokeweed arrangement with stems, leaves and berries. Mary Vaananen, a very talented garden artist and my Jelitto Perennial Seeds colleague, made the lovely discovery while weeding her garden last weekend.

Last year I noticed a large, healthy American elm specimen two doors down the street. I’d been pulling elm seedlings for 18 years and hadn’t, until then, been able to figure out the seed source. I marked a few seedlings this year for replanting on our farm in nearby Salvisa. Maybe one, like its parent, will prove resistant to Dutch elm disease.

Common Hackberry
Common Hackberry

The common hackberry, a durable elm relative, falls into the “special needs” category.  One lone hackberry, the mother of many, stands on the corner of our lot. It always looks like it’s at death’s door. How can I love a tree whose foliage is always chlorotic and disfigured with leaf nipple gall? On the other hand, hackberries can’t be killed and the deeply fissured bark is beautiful.

You wouldn’t think redbuds would be a nuisance, but our garden is carpet-bombed with seeds every year. Redbuds have deep, nitrogen-fixing roots that are impossible to pull unless you get to them in April or early May.

A lovely variegated seedling popped up in the back garden, down near the alley, about eight years ago. I didn’t pay too much attention to it until Mike Hayman, a local tree activist, came for a visit, and thought it was worth propagating. Soon everyone was growing excited and encouraging me to patent it.  I briefly imagined an endless stream of fat royalty checks.

But, there were as an ethical hitch. You can’t patent a plant that is a “product of nature.” The patent advocates argued that the variegated redbud was found in my garden, not in nature.  I didn’t lift a finger to put it there. It was either heaven sent or a bird dropped it (I suspect the latter).  That sounds like a “product of nature” to me.  (Note for you sneaky opportunists: How would the patent office know the difference?)

A “product of nature” prohibition hasn’t stopped the stampede for patenting human DNA, although the Supreme Court recently weighed in on hoarding the genome.

Cercis 'Alley Cat'
Cercis ‘Alley Cat’

I didn’t patent the redbud.  I try not to ignore a gift. I passed our gift of Cercis canadensis ‘Alley Cat’ along to Mike Hayman and, in turn, the brilliant father and son propagators—Harald and Alex Neubauer of Hidden Hollow Nursery in middle Tennessee. Hayman took scion wood to the Neubauers, and they budded it onto seedling understock. The variegated redbud was freed from the dark end of the alley. Now others can enjoy it. And the gift keeps on giving. Alex Neubauer returned the favor two weeks ago with a six-pack of Alley Cat beer.

Meanwhile, the mulberry weed has traveled around town faster than bird flu virus. It’s coming to your garden, whether you like it or not. The weed is growing abundantly in the gravel of the shady portions of the courtyard at the Grape Leaf restaurant on Frankfort Avenue and seems just as happy on limestone ledges in Cherokee Park.

We had a few lovely, cool days in mid-August. I went on patrol on hands and knees. I am the lone hawk on weed watch.  I was in a quiet world one morning, in the shade of a swamp white oak, pulling weeds, hidden in a tall patch of Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Henry Eilers’. My solitude was shattered without warning. A once kingly hosta was cut in half.

I knew right away that mulberry weed was not my most menacing threat.

Deer have taken roost on our city street.


  1. A lovely Ode (of a fashion) to Weeds!

    I don’t have anything nearly so poetic – or kind – to say about the weeds I deal with on a regular basis. Part of the problem is that the most persistent of them (purslane, spotted spurge, crabgrass) grow in such a ground-hugging way that I’ve worn out the fingers of far more gloves than usual this year just trying to pry them from between the patio bricks. And the spiny lettuce? Can only be pulled with leather gloves or something similarly impervious to said spines. No poetry there either. Then there are the trident maples in the neighbors’ yards on either side in front. Those unleash their flurry of winged seeds in the Spring and assault my lawn & planting beds. It isn’t until weeks later when I see that every. single. seed. seems to have germinated that I realize what’s happened. And the as-yet-unidentified evergreens along the neighbors back fence with their incessant seed drop…

    Yeah, you were much kinder to your weeds than I feel toward mine.

  2. Here on the West coast, the Chinese hackberry has its own private aphid. A large fluffy aphid that excretes excess honeydew and candy coats the ground and anything under it. The bug doesn’t seem to get on any other plant, just that tree. Doesn’t hurt it a bit.

    • We had those little suckers on the Chinese hackberry in our schoolyard. I discovered them when I walked over the pea gravel beneath it & came away with it “glued” to my shoes. the honeydew was literally dripping from the leaves it was so thick. Much as I willed them to transfer to the cursed Bradford pears and inflict fatal damage, they wouldn’t. Now I know why.

  3. Very nice article.

    I went to the National Garden at the Botanic Gardens last week. Now, I frequently go to the Smithsonian Gardens, but I hadn’t been to the Botanic Gardens in 9 years. I had forgotten they were constructing the National Garden on the grounds, so last weekend I happened upon it. It was terrific. (I’m sure you already know about it.)


    Now, there are more birds in my small yard than there are birds at the National Garden, of course, because it’s right in the middle of the city. But, I turned a corner and there was the ‘meow” of the catbird. I looked to my left and there it was among the pokeberries. I was so happy that they showcased the pokeweed in the gardens.

    I actually have a pokeweed garden. I love it. The birds love it. I also know how important the berries are for the birds and their fledglings on a nestbox trail I monitor.

    So, if you must, try doing what I have done. I don’t cut it down. I transplant it when young along some wooded, unmowed areas near my home.

    Here are a few pics, two from the National Garden, one of my Phytolacca garden.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/9624628056/in/set-72157635283548991

    • MarVh, You are a courageous soul to plant a pokeweed garden. My hat’s off to you! I enjoyed your photos, too.

  4. Before you touch Pokeweed (especially if you are pregnant or have a compromised immune system please read this article). A gentleman came to the Master Gardener booth at the County Fair with a sample and said that he had a very bad reaction (breathing etc). We identified it as Pokeweed and as I had already read this article I knew that Pokeweed was probably the cause. I have always regarded it as a nusiance but did not know that it was this toxic. http://www.oardc.ohio-state.edu/weedguide/singlerecord.asp?id=270

  5. I have wondered what that Mulberry Weed was. I didn’t have it in my garden until about three years ago. Now I pull and pull. It is indeed persistent. UGH

  6. Mulberries, pokeberries and THISTLE are my main weeds, along with purslane, and did I mention all the redbud seedlings? None of them are variegated, shucks. And cottonwood seedlings. And I could go on but let’s just say… great piece on weeds.

  7. ‘Libertarian cynic’? What is that even supposed to mean? If you are going to make fun of someone’s political views, at least get it right. Libertarians would most likely just spray the heck out of weeds with some nice glyphosate not defend their right to exist. That’s an argument the permaculturists use.

  8. I too have been wondering about the mulberry “weed.” Watched it closely through spring and summer, yanking it out as best I could. However, in the last week, the plant stands (!) are blooming. Native bees and pollinators are flocking to the flowers. Might it be heresy to suggest it as autumn source of bee food? Akin to tolerating a few poke weed “trees” as bird food, while spending the rest of the growing season plucking out the exuberant volunteers?

  9. Thanks for a very pleasurable read. I’ve been associating the mulberry weed with the mulberry tree in a neighbor’s yard, although I knew it didn’t seem to be an exact match. I’m glad to learn what it is. My interest in weed ID has grown over the last few years. Last year I saw Passiflora lutea at a native plant sale and realized I’d been pulling it for years. I also saw Gulf Fritillary cats eating a sprig I’d missed. I leave it now to drape itself over shrubs in a couple of places. Thanks, again for an informative and interesting post.

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