Question: There are a lot of plants with the term “weed” in their name; some are sold in nurseries and in catalogues. I think several are beautiful plants and I’ve purchased them for my flower garden. I have the same question about “worts”, or rather plants that include the term in their names. What is the deal with naming plants after “weeds” and “worts”; why not rename them so people would use them more in their gardens?
Answer: We have to name objects and items, it’s just in our nature. And if we don’t know the “proper” name, a nickname does just fine. As with people, whom we name “tiny”, whether they’re 2 feet or 7 feet tall, plant names are usually descriptive, affectionate, or informative.
Weeds, often described in less than polite terms by those attempting the “perfect” lawn, garden, or landscape, are mostly plants growing where we don’t want them. Even that assessment is changing however, as biologists and ecologists are recognizing weeds for their role in the food web, and ability to prevent soil erosion in difficult environments.
A good example of our confusion with “weeds” are the Milkweed plants. One example, is known botanically as Asclepias syriaca, this is the only food the very picky Monarch butterfly juvenile (caterpillar) will eat during this phase of its life. If in our efforts to eradicate “weeds”, Milkweed plants are whacked, Monarch caterpillars won’t have anything to eat. No Milkweed, no caterpillars, no Monarchs.
Other plants named “weed” that are really likable once we get to know them: Joe –Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), a ‘tall Paul’ in the landscape, but attractive to butterflies and gardeners alike.
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is related to Milkweed, and sports bright red/orange flowers that attract as many children as they do butterflies and hummingbirds. Monarch caterpillars eat this plant too; in fact all Asclepias sp.
Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) attracts birds and butterflies to its reddish-purple flowers which top stems that reach 6-7 feet in height! A “wallflower” this isn’t!
“Worts” on the other hand, are non-woody plants historically associated with medicinal cures such as those described in the Doctrine of Signatures, which suggests that plants resembling various body parts can be used to treat ailments of those parts. Therefore, lungwort (Pulmonaria sp) would cure diseases of the lung, spleenwort (Asplenium sp) of the spleen, and liverwort (Hepatica nobilis) … well you get the picture. All of these plants however, have a definite place in the landscape, growing in conditions ranging from shade to sun, acid to alkaline soil, with flowers in white and shades of pink, blue and purple. Other “worts” that add either interest or color to the garden, or both, include bladderwort, lousewort, moneywort, pennywort, and St. John’s wort. This last plant, Hypericum perforaturm, in addition to its use in the landscape, is considered a medicinal plant with anti-depressant and anti-inflammatory properties. In the landscape or flower bed, its bright yellow flowers add color during summer months. St. John’s wort and most of the weeds and worts mentioned in this article are perennials, returning year after year.
The bottom line: just as “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, consider that “weeds” and “worts” have qualities more lovable than their nicknames might suggest. Check out the Birmingham Botanical Garden’s Spring Plant Sale and try growing a few in your yard!
written by Sallie Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
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