A look at five native plants and their relative weeds
Just like camels, what constitutes a weed is definitely in the eye of the beholder. Because a weed is defined as a plant that grows outside of its desired location, the plants you consider to be weeds may differ from what your neighbor might think.
What you consider a weed in one place in your garden may be considered a desirable plant in another. So let’s explore five native plants and their relative weeds.
Indigenous Trio: Weeds or Desirable Plants?
I once heard one of my fellow volunteer gardeners say that she hated our first candidate, the partridgeberry (Michela repens), which is vine-like and ground-hugging. It has white, four-petaled flowers in late winter and early spring and produces bright red berries in the spring and summer that last a long time, often through the winter.
Partridge berries I have volunteered in several locations in my garden, and with the exception of the grassy lawn, I am fine with it spreading elsewhere. In fact, I encourage this unassuming little plant in my front yard where I have a large, very shady covered area for grass, and it is slowly filling this area with green as a desirable ground cover. I actually consider this one of my favorite plants.
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is also a vine, and although it will easily crawl across the ground at a rapid rate, it will also climb onto stationary objects using its sticky discs, reaching a height of about 40 feet. If you try to remove this vine from the wall you climbed, the discs will remain fixed and be difficult to remove.
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The species name is a reference to the fact that its leaves have five leaflets, and it is sometimes confused with poison ivy which has leaflets in groups of three. Virginia creeper can be used as a ground cover, but it can easily overrun garden beds because its seeds are easily spread by birds.
In my garden I consider it a weed except where it climbs an intentional pine snag. Although it is deciduous, most of the year it has attractive, glossy leaves that turn red in the fall before falling.
Southern dew (Rubus trivialis) is a perennial vine or shrub, and gardeners who have tried to remove this plant can attest to its resilience (it regrows easily if you cut it back) and its wicked prickiness. It grows in shade or sun, but if you want this plant to harvest delicious berries that look like small blackberries, a sunny location is best. Beautiful white flowers are followed by fruit that turns from red to black when ripe. It can be eaten raw or cooked into a variety of desserts.
The leaves resemble those of Virginia creeper but can have a reddish tinge, especially in winter. In my garden, I consider sundews a weed anywhere, but I have fond childhood memories of picking sundews along railroad tracks and eating as many of them as I could while leaving enough for my mother to bake into a cobbler.
Two native shrubs: friend or foe?
I encourage a number of volunteers American Beauty Berry (Callicarpa americana) shrubs in my garden. This fast-growing native plant forms a somewhat irregular, rounded shrub, five to eight feet tall and equally wide. Its branches form long arcs that curve toward the ground and lend a weeping habit to older shrubs.
The light green deciduous leaves are combined with small lavender-pink flowers that are densely clustered on the branches from June to August. This is followed by a riot of very small, showy cluster berries surrounding the woody stems. These bright purple fruits are very attractive to birds, and if they are not devoured whole, they will remain on the stems for several weeks after the leaves fall.
Birds distribute the seeds easily, and I find more volunteers in my garden every year. To keep these shrubs more compact, pruning in January will encourage the development of additional branches. If you have space in your garden, this could be a great addition in a sunny location. It is attractive in group plantings, and I have seen some beautiful hedges formed with cranberries. Those who view them as weeds may be responding to their tendency to volunteer for unwanted sites.
Finally, let’s consider a plant that many would consider a weed if it appeared anywhere in their garden. Biden Alba is known by common names Spanish needles or beggar’s tick. I believe this is an underappreciated native plant as its flowers are highly visited by a range of pollinators and butterflies.
This upright annual may grow to three feet tall with an even spread. It bears delicate white flowers from March through October and grows easily in a range of soil and light conditions. It is often seen on the side of the road or in other unmaintained areas.
Once established, Spanish needles can handle drought conditions and still reseed abundantly. It is often considered a nuisance weed not only because of its tendency to spread but also because of its annoying habit of attaching its seeds to the clothing and fur of animals, including pets.
For a while, I allowed this plant to be in my garden in a sunny area that would have been easy for me to ignore. But in the past few years, the American mulberry has taken over this area, and I remove the Spanish needles by pulling them up, which is an easy enough task.
Therefore, consider the dual nature of these plants. Are they herbs? Or are they desirable plants? Only you can make this decision based on where they are located on your property.
Susan Barnes is a volunteer Master Gardener for UF/IFAS Leon County Extension, an equal opportunity organization. For gardening-related questions, email AskAMasterGardener@ifas.ufl.edu.