In my perennial identification class, I always leave 2-3 places for “mature students”, essentially older gardeners who want to learn about perennials.  Usually these are retired doctors, lawyers, football coaches or ladies who simply love plants for the love of them.  One of the reasons I do this is to watch the interaction unfold between the two groups and by the end of the class, everyone is helping each other and the “seniors” are drinking beer with the students at the local pub. This tale of permissiveness does have a point …

            I was on a plant field trip the other day, and this particular class had mostly to do with spring –flowering plants, including natives. As we were exclaiming about the beauty and the demand for spring flowering plants like squaw weed, money plant, Christmas fern and lyre-leafed salvia, one of my “seniors” exclaimed “But, Dr. A, these are just weeds!” (Maturity has so little respect!)

Salvia lyrata 'Purple Knockout'

Salvia lyrata 'Purple Knockout'

            Nowhere in the definition of a weed (“a plant simply out of place”) is anything mentioned about beauty or effectiveness in a landscape or garden.  And the fact is many people would kill for some of these so-called weeds; they are colorful, easy to grow and come back year after year.  Don’t believe me?  Just look around at the movement to native plants in this country.  Nearly every state, sometimes cities, counties and towns have a Native Plant association.  Native plants are now sold by hundreds of native plant producers, mail order nurseries and retailers and every one is a weed somewhere in this country.  My point here is not to tell you about weeds, but to remind you that people’s tastes are different.   As songwriter Paul Simon told us, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”

            You have heard of water gardening and butterfly gardening, have you heard of caterpillar gardening?  I took Ian, my Australian friend, to visit Wilber and Marion Duncan, well known botanists and plant lovers in Athens.  After touring for a time, Marion invited us in for some iced tea.  On the coffee table was not a bouquet of flowers, but rather, a vase of freshly picked wild angelica covered with caterpillars, each one happily chomping away on the stems. (I can’t make this up!)  It was impossible not to be entertained, and there we were drinking our tea and watching those caterpillars.  Ian commented that Americans are easily entertained.  It turns out that garden centers are now selling plants like fennel ornamented with caterpillars.  At one store, prices were $1.39 per 4” fennel naked, $2.69 per fennel about to be eaten to the ground.  Why fennel?  It is the primary host for the black swallow-tail butterfly.  I guess I can imagine people bringing home some stems of fennel with larva chewing away, my wife certainly cannot!    But even I couldn’t see them buying them.  However, if people are into wild life, why not?  It is a lot easier than tramping through the pasture to find them.  Entertainment and environmental stewardship, all on the same stem.  This gives true meaning to the definition of “butterfly gardening”

            The moral of this tale is that there is no such thing as the wrong thing.  So, next time you get tired of growing impatiens and marigolds, do not fret.  There are many more possibilities just waiting for you to explore.  I have a few wonderful weeds I can recommend, and I will be pleased to sell them to you.