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The Worth of Weeds

Like a lot of plant nerds, I first became interested in plants for their edibility. My very first public program for the Clayton County Conservation Board was a wild edibles walk at Bloody Run.

I pulled out all the stops; I had breaded dandelion heads, goosefoot salad, garlic mustard horseradish, plantain chips, mulberry fruit leather, and sautéed burdock root.

Some of it turned out great (who doesn’t love fruit leather?) and some of it turned out… edible. I guess most importantly, no one reported major gastric distress after the backyard buffet.

Foraged plate

But the more I ventured into the woods to forage, the more I found myself distracted by other plants, and before you know it, I was leaving the foraging basket at home in lieu of a hand lens and a field guide. My “digital herbarium” has developed quite the catalogue, but I rarely pluck plants to eat anymore unless I have them readily available.

Which, since I’m lazy, happens often. I don’t exactly have the most neatly manicured lawn, and I hate mowing, so each year I surrender more and more of my property to Queen Anne’s lace, foxtail, smartweed, and the like.

White vervain gone to seed in my yard

Just the other day I had a salad of goosefoot and Queen Anne’s lace root (AKA “wild carrot,”) pulled from under my deck, and began to ponder the value of weeds.

Talk to any old-timer ecologist, naturalist, botanist, or wildlife biologist around here and you’ll hear a common refrain when it comes to biodiversity and population declines among our wildlife: species were doing better when our landscape was weedier.

Burt Walters, DNR conservation officer and local expert rattlesnake wrangler, recently evicted a timber rattler from a home in New Albin and asked if we’d like her here at Osborne.

I enthusiastically accepted, and I always relish the chance to talk snakes with Burt. I told him I’d been laying cover boards at Motor Mill and Bloody Run this season because I simply could not accept that these perfect habitats didn’t have any rattlesnakes. Bloody Run, in particular, lies less than a mile from a known den site, making it well within range for a dispersing population to take up residence.

Alas, no luck yet (if you call finding a rattlesnake lucky, which I do), and Burt even confirmed records of them on site back in the 50’s. I asked him what he thought might have happened.

“Our farming practices changed. They’re very sensitive to chemicals, and if you walk a conventional cornfield these days you don’t see anything growing or living at ground level besides corn. Those chemicals work their way up the food chain and can be very hard on snakes.”

Burt’s comments echoed a sentiment I heard from John Pearson, DNR botanist, while we chatted about monarchs during a survey at Joy Springs.

“40 years ago, you’d look at a soybean field and every other row had milkweed in it. We all remember going out and dealing with that stuff by hand, but these days they spray the field and forget about it until it’s time to harvest.”

It makes me think about the strange relationship humans have with weedy plants. A weed, everyone knows, is simply a plant growing where we don’t want it. But most plants we consider weedy share a few common characteristics: rapid growth, adaptability to a wide range of conditions, remarkable capacity for reproduction, and tolerance of disturbance (or, said another way, resistance to control measures).

It makes sense that humans have waged war on weeds since the dawn of agriculture, but ironically a lot of the species we presently consider weeds were actively cultivated. Europeans brought dandelions from the old world for food and medicine. Ditto garlic mustard.

Here in the new world, Goosefoot has a long history as a staple crop of the indigenous people. These days we still eat the seeds as a hippie food called "Quinoa." I always find it funny that we pull one Chenopodium whenever it pops up in the veggie garden, then turn around and pay handsomely for a bag of it from the grocery store.

Goosefoot seed head

We have also had plenty of non-food reasons to introduce plants that we would later spend millions of dollars annually trying to control. The “living fence” of multiflora rose, the “erosion control” of bush honeysuckle, the “forage quality” of reed canarygrass, etc.

Conversely, a lot of present-day crops stamped their ticket to the cultivation club because of their weedy nature. Humans cultivated plants that produced the highest yield (high reproductive capacity) in the shortest amount of time (rapid growth), that could grow easily in a lot of places (adaptability).

Plants like oats, turnips, lettuce, and beets most likely have their origins as weeds in other agricultural settings, becoming “secondary crops,” kind of like a little bonus treat, until eventually they found their way to the center of farming operations.

Avena sterilis, ancestor of cultivated oats

In this sense, I must disagree with Ralph Waldo Emerson when he called a weed “a plant whose virtue has simply not yet been discovered.” It seems like most of the time, we very much discovered its virtue and simply forgot it or decided other things held higher priority in our limited garden space.

But like humans do, we got a little carried away. Somewhere along the line, we decided that certain plants who sucked up water and sunlight in our gardens had no business doing the same in the crack of our sidewalks.

We started spraying dandelions in our lawn for no reason other than they’re not grass. We started spraying grass in our gravel driveways for no other reason than it’s not rocks. We keep huge areas of our properties mowed for neither hay nor for play. But the neighbors do it, and city ordinances demand it, so here we are.

Big beautiful HOA violation

We also fertilize the spots in our fields and yards, trying to force things to grow where they don’t want to, in lieu of the plants who would happily volunteer in even the poorest soils and conditions.

Thistle rosette thriving in my drought-stricken lawn

In the last hundred and fifty years or so, we became masters of altering floral ecology. Our chemistry became more refined, our application methods more effective, our machinery more robust. Now we’ve reached a point where much of the planet is a green desert, vast parcels of manicured turf grass or monocultures of crops.

I think we really need to rethink this approach. Now, I do spend a *lot* of time controlling “undesirable vegetation.” This summer I spent several days trying to eradicate crown vetch from one of our prairies here at Osborne. But I did feel a little guilty; the sprawling, matted tendrils of the pink and white flowers seemed beloved by bees, and here I am burning and spraying and ripping just to try to get rid of it.

I do these sorts of things in the hope that something better can grow in place of the “weed.” While the vetch provides nectar to generalist bees, other plants might provide more, and of course certain pollinators require specific native plants – like milkweed and monarchs.

The vetch also draws my ire because of its bully status. Certain “weeds” don’t play well with others, overtaking other established plants and dominating an ecosystem to the detriment of everything else.

But a lot of things we consider “weeds” are really just pioneers, taking advantage of recent disturbances and disappearing when the competition gets too thick. And a lot of these weedy fellows can have considerable ecological value.

I rarely worry about ragweed, for instance (though I'm not an allergy sufferer). An annual plant with tens of thousands of seeds, this plant rapidly colonizes any patch of bare ground excavated by burrowing animals in our prairies. But it never takes over, merely holding the soil down from wind and rain until the more conservative plants get reestablished.

While those "better" plants work their way in, the ragweed offers an extremely protein-rich food source for wildlife. Deer browse the leaves, and game birds happily munch the seeds when food grows scarce in the winter. The same goes for foxtail which makes up a large portion of many songbirds’ diet.

When available, many of those same birds will relish the seed heads of thistle – after the beautiful pink blooms get pollinated by bees and butterflies, of course.

Some folks want to control weeds because they attract insects, and don't want to invite wasps or mosquitoes to the yard. However, the actual science kind of points in a different direction. A study by the Xerces society of “weedy buffers” in orchards found that these weed patches actually decreased pest problems. The bugs were going to try to live there regardless, and by giving them a different habitat – one that the orchard owners didn’t care about – they happily spent time there instead.

That gets to the heart of my pitch: before attacking a weed, consider why it needs attacking. Bully plants that provide no value to native wildlife and have the capacity to degrade the ecosystems around them? Sure, let’s get them out of here.

But let's do away with the idea of weeding for the sake of weeding. A native or naturalized plant growing somewhere not intended for any other use? Can you live with an untidy yard? Because a lot of creatures can't live without it.

Landscaping for wildlife doesn't have to be complicated. Sometimes it's as simple as just letting go. Nature abhors a vacuum. You might be surprised at just how pretty some of those weeds can be - especially when the wildlife comes to visit.

Looking Back

It's August so we said goodbye to our seasonal staff. They grow up so fast. Many thanks to Christian Cutsforth (seasonal naturalist), Becca Patten (Motor Mill intern), Will Koether (seasonal maintenance), Reilly Franzen (seasonal maintenance), and Connor Trickett for helping us keep things moving this summer.

We also welcomed a few new non-human faces! A new rattlesnake joined us here at the Osborne Nature Center, a bald eagle named "right turn" arrived after some rehabilitation at Wild Thunder in Independence, and a new timber wolf pup arrived from Minnesota Wildlife Connections. Come on out and meet the gang!

Wolves can derp too

Meanwhile, we had a ton of public programming take place to wind down the summer.

Our seasonal interns hosted the ever-popular Motor Mill "STEAM" camp on August 11th, introducing kiddos to the intersection of nature, art, and science through a full day of crafting and exploration.

The O.W.L.S. took a ride on the Maiden Voyage out of Marquette. Captain Robert Vavre, as always, had an endless supply of tales as a lifelong river-rat and consummate student of the ecology of the Upper Mississippi.

August also kicked off the Master Conservationist program, co-hosted with Fayette County Conservation and the Iowa State University Extension. Prospective masters took a trip to the Boehm Farm and the Kerns Farm, two exceptional private properties demonstrating the principles of conservation in northeast Iowa.

Lastly, you might notice things look a little different when you come to Osborne this fall. Our ash trees, across our parks, have started to succumb to Emerald Ash Borer. Little by little we'll be working on removing and replacing these trees, so if you see some fresh stumps, doff your cap and observe a moment of silence.

Ash borer galleries under the bark of a tree in the pioneer village

Looking Forward

TONIGHT (if you're reading this on Sept. 1st), at 5:00 PM, come out to Osborne for a monarch release party! We've got a few butterflies reared here at Osborne ready for tagging ahead of their trip to Mexico, and you're encouraged to bring your own as well.

On Sept. 23rd, at 10:00 AM, meet at the Osborne Pond for a prairie hike in celebration of National Public Lands Day! Osborne is a unique spot, with prairies ranging from tiny remnants to decades-old reconstructions to prairies in just their second year, presenting an opportunity to explore how the art and science of prairie conservation has changed through time.

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