I know that most gardening columns are filled with advice on how to get rid of weeds. But I want to put in a good word for them. I’m looking at one really huge one right now just outside my kitchen window: the Box Elder tree (Acer negundo) that is wildlife Grand Central Station all year long, right here in the middle of Saratoga Springs. Of course, that could be because of the seed and suet feeders we hang from its boughs, and the discarded Christmas trees we cluster around the trunk in the winter, and the birdbaths we keep filled in every season –- including a heated one providing liquid water through 25-below-zero nights. But I’ve also read that — even without our additions — the Box Elder tree is ranked among those with the highest value to wildlife.
That ranking is probably because of its seeds that, unlike those of other members of the maple genus, hang onto the boughs until well into the winter, providing food for squirrels and birds when most other seeds are gone. Another positive attribute is its ability to spring up from seedling to tree in a hurry, or as some might say, “grow like a weed.” That’s what our neighbor (who actually owns the ground this Box Elder grows from) said about this tree when he wanted to cut it down. “Just look at the mess it makes — bugs in the summer, seeds all over the place, leaves plugging up the gutters.” Well, we begged and pleaded and pointed out how its boughs provide privacy for his tenants, and he relented. Sort of. He cut down about half of it, but what do you know, it grew right back to its original height (and more!) in just about a year. Ha!
Here’s the thing: if you love the birds and butterflies and want to have them around, you just have to learn to love bugs and weeds. Some people think I’m kind of a nut about that. Two years ago, I led a wildflower walk in downtown Saratoga’s Congress Park, a park more known for its Olmsted-designed formal gardens than for anything allowed to grow wild. But (oh happy fault!) there are geologic faults that run right through Congress Park, creating the springs that Saratoga is famous for, as well as steep banks and marshy spots where the mowers just can’t mow. And there’s where the wildflowers grow, dozens and dozens of beauties most often overlooked: Birds-eye Speedwell, Canada Anemone, Willow Herbs Northern and Hairy, Buttercups, Forget-me-nots, Cuckoo Flowers, Cattails . . . I could go on and on.
And I was going on and on, extolling at length the virtues of one particular plant that spreads through the grass, Ground Ivy. I had read in a wonderful book by Hannah Holmes (Suburban Safari: A year on the lawn) that patches of this lovely little flower, as pretty as any orchid (click on photo above), are sought out by crows in molting, when their new feathers are poking through skin and causing them pain. Apparently, this Mint-Family plant has both analgesic and antiseptic qualities that soothe their pain and prevent infection, and the crows will roll around in it. Now, I found that pretty fascinating and was sharing my enthusiasm for Ground Ivy when I was interrupted by “Ugh! That’s Creeping Charlie! [Another name for Ground Ivy] I can’t get rid of it in my lawn! That’s a weed!”
Well, yes. It is. But such a nice one. I don’t think she thought I was nice when I responded to her revulsion: “Why would you want to get rid of it? Get rid of the grass instead.” Because, you see, that really is my ideal. Why would anyone prefer plain old grass to deliciously herby Ground Ivy (what a pungent, minty scent it emits when mowed)? Or to Speedwells of every kind, dainty little striped blooms in shades of blue from royal to mist? Or to Violets, white or purple or yellow? Or to Strawberries, Buttercups, Daisies, Clover. . . good lord, even Dandelions! All carpet the ground no taller than ankle-high, so they don’t need frequent mowing. All grow without needing to poison the soil with pesticides or chemical fertilizers. All thrive without being watered. All provide food for butterflies, caterpillars, ants, worms, birds, and bees. All are as pretty as pretty can be. And every single last one of them is a weed.
Let’s hear it for weeds!