April 08, 2020

Wishing for weeds wards off winter> Book’s tales of wondrous wildflowers, pesky plants relieve ice storm blues

The ice storm cast a bleakness over Maine’s landscape that I’ve not seen before and would just as soon not see again.

I don’t want to think about branches big and small littering the yard and the paths through the woods. Nor do I care to contemplate the altered tree line along the back yard where trees bent and sometimes broke.

For a few moments, I want to look to spring and its evergreen promise of renewal. Even if I have to find it in that seed buried under the snow and ice.

The seed that fell from that pretty weed the past few summers.

The seed that this new book says has a 50-year viability.

That seed and all of its siblings.

Please cover your ears while I scream now.

This vexing information comes from “Weeds of the Northeast,” a 1997 book by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal and Joseph M. DiTomaso, and published by Cornell University Press.

I bought this book with the hope that I might be able to better identify the plants that plague me and nip them long before they bud. I knew I had a winner when I saw the cover photograph of the plant I had let grow just once to see what it was and have been reaping over and over again.

Velvetleaf is its name, with aliases the length of your arm: pie marker, buttonweed, Indian mallow, butter print, velvet weed, butter-weed, Indian hemp, cottonweed and wild cotton.

Scientifically speaking, velvetleaf is Abutilon theophrasti Medicus and part of the mallow family. Its heart-shaped leaves are as soft as velvet, which belies the strength of the plant’s stem. Fortunately, the roots are shallow and easy to pull.

However, my garden’s weeds are a perverse lot. The more I pull them, the quicker they are to set seed even if the plants are miniature. The velvetleaf in my garden has topped out around 6 feet, but with persistent weeding, the plants were blossoming at only a foot or so high. Some, of course, might say it’s just because it’s later in the season, but I prefer to think the plants are doing it just to spite me. It would seem that a 50-year seed viability period just isn’t a bad enough sentence for me.

Besides getting my dander up, “Weeds of the Northeast” is a book I also admire. The simple format makes it easy to track down suspect plants, with the left-hand page listing all of the pertinent information and the right-hand page displaying a series of photographs showing the plant from babyhood to maturity.

The list of “weeds” made me laugh, if only because some of them I refuse to pull and some I’ve paid a pretty penny for.

I am partial to the wispy flowers of Queen Anne’s lace, or wild carrot (Daucus carota), and the wispy leaves of common yarrow, Achillea millefolium. Both of these are growing in my lupine bed, providing a cool spot of white later in the season.

Along the east end of the house is an expanding line of the tropical-looking milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. The plants have claimed the bone-dry expanse of soil next to the foundation, making a lush backdrop for some day lilies, hostas and astilbe.

Across from the front door is a rapidly expanding plot of Helianthus tuberosus, better known as Jerusalem artichoke. This “weed” has edible roots, but I grow it for sentimental reasons: My grandmother gave me the original clump. There are few things nicer than the sight of a glowing yellow flower of Jerusalem artichoke on a rainy August afternoon.

I’m still trying to establish star-of-Bethlehem, or Ornithogalum umbellatum, a spring-flowering bulb widely available in stores and catalogs. The dainty, six-petaled flowers are a waxy white with a green stripe along the underside.

When conditions are right, star-of-Bethlehem can produce a multitude of bulblets and sometimes even drop seed. The book says it is a weed of turfgrass (down with lawns, I say).

I consider all of those weeds to be wildflowers, but “Weeds of the Northeast” did reveal the identity of a true, bad-seed weed, the worst I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet: hairy galinsoga.

Let’s just call it common quickweed, with the emphasis on the quick. The more I read, the more I wished I hadn’t. “Seeds apparently have no dormancy,” the book says, “and can germinate soon after shedding, so there are often several generations per season.”

Then came this line: “A single plant can produce up to 7,500 seeds.”

After that, I thought this statement somewhat unnecessary: “Hairy galinsoga is one of the most difficult to control weeds of vegetable crops.”

I’d compare its reliability to death and taxes.

Common quickweed’s leaves are egg-shaped to triangular, pointed at the apex, toothed on the edges and covered with dense, sometimes coarse hair.

The flower head has a combination of yellow disk flowers and small white flowers with four or five three-toothed petals.

Found throughout the world, common quickweed is more common in the eastern United States, mostly in my garden.

Despite all that, when spring finally arrives, I will welcome it, even knowing something wicked this way comes.

As long as it’s not ice.

Janine Pineo is a NEWS copy editor.

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