Reframing Weeds: The Benefits of Vilified Plants

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Many of us are familiar with the term "weed". We typically use this as a blanket term to include any species that is unwanted in the area that it is growing. There are even definitions that describe weeds as valueless plants that grow wild. Or plants that grow on cultivated ground, to the detriment of the desired crop. Often, the discourse of "weeds" are tied to monoculture crops, which can include manicured lawns. Plants such as dandelions are widely disliked due to their fast-growing nature, which allows them to suffocate the grass. However, when labelling a plant a weed, we rarely consider why it exists in the first place or how it contributes to our ecosystems. Unfortunately, humans often fail to realize that each organism has a role to play in the ecosystem that it exists in. I want to take a minute to run through some common "weeds", and how important they are in our ecosystems, especially to our pollinators. 

1. Dandelions 

Dandelions have a pretty bad reputation. And some lawn-owners spend a lot of time and money to battle these little yellow flowers. But what if we re-framed our thinking? Dandelions are quite bright and pretty, especially as one of the first things to bloom in the spring. During early spring they are an incredibly important source for pollinators like honey bees. Consider doing our pollinators a favour and cease to battle these yellow blooms, at least at the beginning of the season when they provide a really important resource. 

Honey Bee on a dandelion in Early May. Photo by Kristen Martyn

2. Goldenrod

Goldenrod is often given a bad rap due to being mistaken for Ragweed. While it is similar in appearance, Goldenrod does not cause seasonal allergies like Ragweed can. Goldenrod has basically become guilty by association as it can look similar to ragweed and blooms around the same time. The major difference, and important to allergy sufferers, is that Ragweed air pollinates. It's light, windblown pollen causes seasonal allergies. Alternatively, goldenrod has heavier, sticky pollen and relies on insect pollination.  Goldenrod is quite beautiful with its brightly coloured flowers and is a valuable and favoured food source for pollinators such as Monarch Butterflies. Because it blooms late in the year, it is particularly important for monarch migration. Many songbird species such as American Goldfinches, Dark-eyed Juncos and this Black-capped chickadee are among the birds that can commonly be observed feeding on goldenrod seeds. Goldenrod is actually a really important part of our ecosystem and provides food and shelter to many species.

Black-capped chickadee on Goldenrod. Photo by Shayna Hartley

Monarch Butterfly on Goldenrod. Photo by Heather Kerrison

3. Milkweed

Until a few years ago, milkweed was listed as a “noxious weed” by the Ontario Agriculture Ministry, which required it to be destroyed on crop-land.  Noxious weeds are described as plants that are harmful to living things such as crops or livestock. However, as milkweed was widely destroyed on agricultural land and land near it, monarchs suffered. Milkweed was removed from this list in 2014. Essentially, Monarchs exclusively lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Even further, monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed, this plant is vital to the continuity of the species. Monarchs are a Species at Risk in Ontario and you can help them by planting milkweed in your own yard. 

Common Milkweed. Photo by Kristen Martyn

And don't forget to check the leaves for Monarch caterpillars! 

As you can see, the term "weed" is often used to describe plants that are not directly beneficial to humans. However, it is important that we recognize and remember that there are a lot of other species in our ecosystems, their roles are important, and some "weeds" serve a purpose. Maybe start to reframe some species that you have catalogued in your mind as weeds as the helpful ecosystem components that they are. 



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