Wednesday, August 27, 2014

August Wildflower Wednesday--Weed or Wildflower?

Most gardeners are familiar with the old saying "A weed is just a flower in the wrong place." 
And I daresay most of us would nod our heads in agreement but have to add "Some plants really are just weeds!"   I know that I will never have anything nice to say about the weedy grasses and Creeping Charlie that I am constantly pulling out of my garden.  Every gardener has her own weedy nemesis.  But there are some plants that really could be called a weed in one garden and a wildflower in another, depending on the situation and the personal preference of the gardener.  Let's look at a few that have appeared in my garden this summer.

About a month ago, my friend and I were walking around the arbor bed when we noticed these small yellow blooms on a very tall plant.  Now you have to understand that the back of the arbor bed is where I often plant something until I can find a better place for it.  It's also the place where I scatter a lot of seeds in the spring, so when I see a mystery plant, I usually leave it alone until I can identify it.

Something about these blooms reminded me of evening primrose, though I was thinking of the small plants that grow under a foot tall.  Mine was huge!  But when I did a little research, sure enough, it was a primrose--Oenothera biennis, Common Evening Primrose, which can grow to 7 feet tall.

Yellow flowers, which are actually quite attractive though small, appear on the top of the plant and are open from evening till morning, though they may remain open on cloudy days.  The blooms have a mild lemony scent and are attractive to moths, especially sphinx moths;  hummingbirds; and various types of bees and beetles. The seeds are eaten by goldfinches. 

Despite the attraction to different insects and wildlife and the cute little flowers, Oenothera biennis still looks like a weed to me.  As I read on, I found that it has a "fleshy taproot" and its "seeds can remain viable in the soil after 70 years."  That clinched its fate--I promptly removed it from my garden!

Another mystery plant appeared in the Lily Bed early in the summer.  Usually any volunteer in this area that I don't recognize turns out to be a weed.  But the small pink blooms that eventually opened looked promising so that I hoped this might be some unusual wildflower that the birds had kindly planted for me, as they did a few years ago with some Rudbeckia. 

I had no luck in finding it in my wildflower book or searching blindly through websites.  But one day while visiting my parents, I spied the same plant growing near their house.  I was so excited to find it and asked my dad if he knew what it was.  Sure enough, Dad, a farmer for all of his 89 years, immediately dismissed it with, "That's a Wild Four O'clock; it's a weed and will take over if you let it!"

Like other Four O'Clocks, the blooms open in late afternoon and stay open in the evening, closing in the morning.  The blooms didn't seem to last long on my wild plant.

When I checked this one out, it was listed on my go-to-source,, but it was also listed on many other sites as an invasive weed.  According to Illinois Wildflowers, Mirabilis nyctaginea is visited by long-tongued bees, short-tongued bees, moths, and possibly hummingbirds.  But again those warning phrases: "A long taproot" and "reseeds."  This time I decided Father knows best and ripped it out.

This weedy wildflower pops up in different places every year, but it's one I easily recognize now.   Ever since I found a huge specimen of  Phytolacca Americana, better known as Pokeweed, behind our barn several years ago, I have had a few volunteers in the garden every year.  I usually cut them down or try to dig them out (again that taproot, so it's not easy), but I left this one just for this post.  They're really rather attractive plants--if you have the right place for them--especially late in the season when the stems turn reddish-purple and dark purple berries appear.  I've written about Pokeweed before, so if you would like to see the mature berries, you can check them out here.  Despite the fact the berries are popular with songbirds, these are not going to have the chance to mature--I have enough thugs in my garden without encouraging any more.

Speaking of thugs, here is a plant I purposely planted--Physostegia virginiana.  Anyone who has ever planted Obedient Plant knows that it is anything but. Although I would never call this native a "weed,"  I have a love-hate relationship with it.
 I love the white or pink blooms in the fall when so much in my garden is fading away. But it is an aggressive re-seeder.  Fortunately, the seedlings are easily recognizable, and I usually pull out many of them in the spring before they crowd out other natives in my Butterfly Garden.  This one stays--but not all its progeny.

And finally, a new wildflower/native this year that I am truly excited about!  I noticed these yellow blooms from a distance last week and thought at first they were more yellow coneflowers.  But closer inspection revealed something different altogether.  The blooms looked so familiar to me, but I wasn't sure until I looked through my wildflower book.  These are Sneezeweed, possibly Helenium autumnale.

It looks like some critters are already enjoying these tasty blooms.
Like the yellow coneflowers I featured in my last Wildflower Wednesday post, these were purchased last year at a prairie plant sale, but didn't bloom until this year.  Either they needed two years of growth to bloom, or the wet conditions this summer were ideal for them.  The native Sneezeweeds are attractive to all kinds of bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, and beetles and provide nectar for them in the autumn. While they are not as showy as the Helenium hybrids I've always meant to plant, I do love these perky yellow blooms that fit in nicely with the yellow coneflowers and Rudbeckias. 
These are definitely a keeper!
Wildflower Wednesday is hosted the fourth Wednesday of every month by Gail of Clay and Limestone.  Thanks, Gail, for always helping me to learn something new about native plants!


  1. Wow, that's a huge Evening Primrose! I have some smaller ones in my garden and they haven't caused a problem at all. In fact they're a host plant for the White-Lined Sphynx moth (Hummingbird moth). Your photo of the Obedient Plants is so pretty! I've been thinking about adding them to my garden--especially because the pollinators love them and they bloom in late summer. Lovely!

  2. I have those Common Evening Primroses, and it took me awhile, too, to figure out what they were because they were just so incredibly tall! I've seen goldfinches perched at the very top of them. I also have tons of Pokeweed. I actually love how they look and love seeing the birds on them eating the berries, but I really don't love how many seedlings they spread. I have a patch now that is getting overgrown and needs to be cut down before it starts going to seed! The Sneezeweed is definitely a keeper, though!

  3. while the obedient plant is pretty and you can always count on it blooming through drought or flooding I hate it. Nuf said. Happy WW.

  4. Beth, this is definitely a case of a plant being in the wrong place. After I cut down the one Evening primrose, I discovered several others growing--I can see it taking over this part of the garden, and I don't want that!

    Indie, I do like the pokeweed, too. Sometimes I let some grow until the berries have all been picked off. But this is another plant growing in the wrong place. I'm so happy about this sneezeweed, though!

    Lisa, you're welcome to some starts of Obedient Plant if you change your mind:)

  5. Love Sneezeweed and it is definitely a keeper. I have Obedient plant thugging its way all over and will be pulling lots of it and laying down landscape material to stem the rhizomes from reaching areas I am trying to grow other things...wish me luck. I do love it though as it is a must for butterflies and hummers especially the hummers.

  6. It is so interesting to see the wild flowers in other countries and to learn what is invasive for other people. I have Obedient plant in my garden and it never seeds around or gets any bigger. The tall yellow Evening primrose can become a nuisance here though.
    A lovely post.

  7. A weed with a taproot does seem to be a bad combination. We have pokeweed here on the edges of our woods we've never been able to get rid of, and the birds happily seed it everywhere. And even small seedlings are very firmly anchored in the ground! I actually love the way it looks with the purple berries, but we try not to let any of it go to seed. When we first moved to this property, we found a pokeweed "tree" out back --honestly, it was just enormous!

    The other native "weed" we have a lot of is motherwort. But I actually kind of like it on the edges of the woods, and it's easy to pull from gardens.

  8. I have loads of obedient plant, too but I love it. I have oenathera, too, but mine's biennial. It's great for night pollinating moths. Those four o'clocks are pretty even if they are weedy.

  9. LOL, Rose, I kept reading about plants, and then that you pulled them out. I have never heard of that primrose. I have areas across the street where I garden where I don't pull the 4 o'clocks. I also let ground cherries grow in a different area. I allow one pokeweed to grow and produce berries for the birds. I also have an area with non-native lambsquarters that I eat. I do have to admit, though, that I am behind in my weeding over there.

  10. I may pull the Oenothera, thanks for the heads-up. Helenium is a plant I am trying to grow from seed this year that has not done well producing new plants, so I don't know if it will grow for me. I have a number of plants that have turned into rather widespread weeds, one is Self-Heal, but it remains green and blooms so well in the dry summer here, I'm actually considering encouraging it. I know there are developed varieties with other colors of blooms. A pokeweed mysteriously appeared at my MIL's after she cut down a large tree. I haven' seen one here. I enjoyed your list of flowers that can be weeds. Obedient plant is one that didn't succeed here for me.

  11. Oh yes, if in doubt rip it out is my motto. I once let two rather ugly 'plants' grow to quite a height in my garden thinking they were something I'd planted, only for them to turn out to be invasive weeds! I do rather like your Evening Primrose though.

  12. The common evening primrose makes a neat seed head that is fun in dried flower arrangements, but I've never grown it in a flower bed. I've actually got several different Oenotheras: Missouri, pink, and stemless are ones I've planted intentionally; I've also got cutleaf, which is rather weedy.

    Pink evening primrose winds itself through other plants and would drive someone who wants everything growing "neatly" quite crazy, but it never overwhelms the plants it grows through and it creates some wonderful serendipitous effects in my garden beds.

  13. Hi Rose,

    You certainly have some pretty wildflowers in the garden.
    I love Evening Primrose, its scent is beautiful. I love to watch the moths feed at dusk, they are really drawn to it.

    Obedient plant is lovely, I think plants that are invasive are fine, as long as you keep an eye on them, and pull the seedlings.

    Lovely selection of wildflowers.

  14. I think the primrose plant is one I am familiar with. It grows wild hereabouts.

    Your weeds are very pretty anyway!

  15. Well, weeds or not, they are sure pretty, all of them! But plants that takes over the garden has no place in a garden so good for you identifying them all :-)

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  17. I have a spot for the yellow primrose that I allow it to grow. It does have medicinal purposes and can be tough and pretty. Hubby and I were talking about flowers in the wrong spot and I disagreed with him since we were watching a garden show on medicinal herbs. All the herbs she used were common 'weeds' on my farm. You would at first think a flower out of place but these weeds were not improved upon varieties and to me just weeds. There is quite a difference between the wild 4 oclock and the cultivated kind. Not sure I'd call them flowers. Guess the name 'wild'flowers is apt. I am trying to learn them but there are so many. I love obedient plant. So far mine has not spread but I am watching it!

  18. I do love pokeweed. It has those magenta stems and while it does like to 'poke up' where I don't want it there are still volunteers along the field and walls which get to show off their wonderful colors.

  19. Truly an excellent post. Clearly many invasive weeds are great for wildlife but not so great for gardens. Another plant in this category is Deadly Nightshade, it is actually quite pretty and birds love the fruit though they are toxic to people. I believe there is a white cultivar of Obedient Plant called 'Miss Manners' that is not so aggressive.

  20. Donna, I really do like Obedient plant, too, but it certainly can take over if left alone. I usually pull a lot of seedlings every spring to give everything else a chance to breathe.

    Chloris, I so agree--I've seen posts from other parts of the world where people plant something that I wouldn't dare plant here. I guess it depends whether a plant likes its environment so much it takes over.

    Cassi, Not everything with a taproot is bad, such as Baptisia, but if it's something you don't want, it can be impossible to dig it all up! I have enough of those problems already without encouraging any more.

    Casa, If the primrose had come up out by the outbuildings, I wouldn't have minded. But when I found several, not just the one, I could see it taking over!

    Sue, To be honest, I haven't pulled the pokeweed out yet--I do have a soft spot for it. I'm behind in weeding, too, but these were all pretty obvious and definitely in the wrong place.

  21. Hannah, Everyone has different tastes, not to mention different weeds. I've had trouble establishing certain natives I really want--like milkweed--yet these weedy plants just thrive!

    Paula, If I don't know what something is, I usually let it grow. I've cultivated many a weed that way:)

    Gaia, I like the small evening primrose, but this plant looks weedy when it's not blooming and really sticks out. I don't have the pink primrose you mention, but I do have something similar. Cardinal or cypress vine has reseeded everywhere and winds through other plants like Jack's magic beans. Fortunately, it's delicate enough it hasn't strangled anything--yet.

    Cheryl, I wish I had smelled those blooms before I cut the plants down! I have quite a few aggressive re-seeders, so anything new has to be something I really, really like before I allow it to stay.

  22. Don't know what your mystery flower is. At first looked a bit like a Pelargonium but then I noticed the fuschia like flowers!
    I guess someone will know!

    We're experiencing a little warmth & return of summer after the coldest August on record.

    Lovely photos.
    Maggie x

    Nuts in May

  23. How interesting, Rose. You say that Physostegia is an aggressive plant (in your country) and here many people want to have Physostegia in their gardens but it winters badly and may disappear in next spring. I read that it starts to bloom from top to lower buds, don't know. Mine died on second year. I think it's not a weed (here :))

  24. Sneezeweed? Never heard of it, but what a name! I wonder how many people are allergic to it? LOL.

    Love evening primrose and I think I would have left those yellow flowers alone - but I do get it - you have to be selective or your garden will be overrun.

    Thanks for visiting my blog. Yes those 2 children in my header are my grands (age 7 and 5). Time sure flies doesn't it?

    Looking forward to more of your flower posts - your pics are lovely.

  25. Wanted to mention something about dear old Dad, but forgot. LOL.

    So comforting to still be able to go to Dad for the right answer.

  26. I wondered what the difference between evening primrose and sundrops were other than time of flower opening, and the difference is striking. I didn't know evening primrose grew so tall!

    Pokeweed can be pretty but wow is it prolific. I spend a lot of time cutting it down wherever it comes up.

    The tiny wild sneezeweed grows wild all over here. The cultivars can be amazingly striking.

  27. Interesting post about the wildflower vs weed topic, I truly enjoyed reading it! That is amazing that a evening primrose root is able to stay viable for 70 years!
    Clear yellow is a color that I try to stay away from in my garden, but white I love. So the obedient plant really caught my eye. I bet that it even looks good in small bouquets in the vase. I will research, if it is growing in Southern California as well. Warm regards,

  28. Liz, Some of these weeds really are pretty; I just wish they wouldn't multiply so!

    Helene, There are a lot of weeds that I don't know the name of, but I just know they don't belong in my garden! These three are on the edge of do I keep them or pull them?

    Tina, I love a lot of the weeds that grow along the roadsides like Queen Anne's Lace and chicory. I think the deciding factor is when they start to take over other plants.

    Layanee, I have to agree--I have a soft spot for pokeweed, too. The berries in the fall are really pretty.

  29. Jason, I have a lot of aggressive growing in my butterfly garden, so I try to keep the thugs out of other areas. I've heard of 'Miss Manners' before; it would be a great alternative to the common obedient plant.

    Maggie, I'm learning little by little to identify plants I'm not familiar with, but sometimes it's not so easy. We've had cold then hot weather, too.

    Nadezda, Isn't that the way it always is? It's not a weed here, but it is very happy--too happy--in my garden. But I don't think that's the case in other parts of our country.

    Wendy, Thanks so much for stopping by--I've missed visiting with you! Time certainly does fly by; seems like your grandkids were just babies not long ago. Yes, I'm very fortunate to have Dad to go to for some answers. He's slowed down considerably physically, but his mind is as sharp as ever.

    Sweetbay, The height of this primrose is what threw me, too; I had no idea they could get so tall. I've always intended to plant some of the fancier Sneezeweed cultivars, but I'm happy to have this native.

    Organicgardens, This is not the only weed I've heard of that has seeds that last so long. It's no wonder we gardeners are always battling the weeds:) Thanks for stopping by!

  30. I enjoyed reading about your wild flowers or should I say weeds Rose. Here evening primroses have been lighting up the way alongside the railway line when I travel into town.

  31. I have seen the Evening Primrose in a nearby field, but it has never appeared yet in my garden. I do have one Pokeweed plant that I am keeping on probation. I love that it gets about 6 feet tall and has those weird berries. Last year I religiously removed all the berries at first frost and put them in the garbage for fear of them seeding in my compost pile. I figure I need to take strong measures so it doesn't get out of control.


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