Rough and tumble, tenacious and pernicious: weeds are the archenemy of the gardener’s law and order. But are they really? Many weeds are reviled for no good reason—blacklisted for a lack of good looks. The truth is, these hardy denizens of the garden fringes are often important to the environment. Whether they serve as food for birds, nectar sources for butterflies, or they’re just good for our own health, many weeds deserve a second chance. Here are eight you should let be. (Whether you're starting your first garden or switching to organic, Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening has all the answers and advice you need—get your copy today!)
Bane of the lawn gardener’s existence, dandelion is virtually a pan global species, sprouting up in yards from Argentina to Siberia. But before you decide to wage war on it, consider this: Dandelion leaves contain many essential nutrients, like iron and manganese, and are an almost unbeatable source of vitamin C. Chop the raw, young leaves into a salad, or steep for a few minutes for a healthy tea. For nursing mothers, dandelions are an excellent way to naturally boost milk production. Try these four delicious ways to cook dandelion flowers.
Red clover has been popular for its medicinal properties for hundreds of years. High in phytoestrogens, a tea of the plant’s leaves and flowers is used to control hot flashes, breast tenderness, and other symptoms of menopause. Red clover isn’t just good for the body though—it’s good for the garden, too. An excellent source of nectar, clover is a favorite of honey bees. What’s more, all species of clover belong to the legume family and fix life-sustaining nitrogen in the soil. (Red clover makes our list of edible weeds; see what else is good to eat.)
The goldenrod genus Solidago occurs all across North America in a variety of different habitats. More often than not, it pops up in garden beds and the fringes of the backyard, too. Goldenrods are one of the most important sources of food for migrating butterflies and other pollinators active in early to late fall. Be pollinator-friendly and let it thrive.
Here’s a weed only a die-hard wildlife afficionado can love. But as nasty as poison ivy can be, the white and waxy berries formed by the vine come fall are second to none in terms of nutrition content for birds. Learn how to distinguish poison ivy’s tri-lobed leaves and it’ll make tolerating this plant in your yard easier. Once you know where it is, you’ll quickly discover another loveable characteristic of the vine: blazing scarlet fall foliage! (Touched some by accident? Here's what can soothe a poison ivy rash—and what you should definitely NOT try.)
Not a common backyard weed, if you find Jerusalem artichoke, you’ve hit the jackpot. This aggressive, leggy relative of the sunflower likes rich, moist soils and will take over a ditch or other wet spot if given half a chance. Fortunately, controlling this weed is utterly delicious: dig up Jerusalem artichoke and harvest its tubers. They’re earthy, nutty, rich and make an excellent alternative to the potato. A word of caution, however: the reason they’ve never enjoyed the same popularity as the spud is that they tend to cause flatulence!
If you haven’t already heard, monarch butterflies are experiencing a population crash of epic proportions. The government is even considering putting them on the endangered species list because their numbers have plummeted so low. Monarchs rely on one group of plants on which to lay their eggs: the milkweeds. Unfortunately their migration route over the breadbasket of the midwest takes them through acres and acres of milkweed-free agricultural fields (farmers view the plant as a nuisance). If you have any of the milkweed species growing in the garden, do your part for conservation and leave them up for monarchs to chew on. Another little known secret: the flowers of common milkweed are incredibly aromatic. (Try planting these flowers to attract monarchs).
The pillowy umbels of Queen Anne’s lace mean "summer" across a broad swath of North America. This wild relative of the carrot isn’t native, however. It actually comes from Europe. Luckily that doesn’t seem to bother the beautiful anise swallowtail, which uses the plant as its larval host (and lots of other plants in the carrot family). Moreover, it’s a great nectar source for pollinators of every stripe.
Preserving this weed might be a little difficult to stomach, but if you’re a nature lover, it’s really a no brainer. Prickly though they are, the many native thistles of North America are great fodder for birds, like the colorful goldfinch, and the many creepy crawlies that are integral to a healthy food chain. Garden designers like Piet Odoulf have begun embracing these striking, purple headed plants in formal settings too, letting their jagged silvery/grey foliage stand in contrast to more common garden choices. A word to the wise: there are several nasty invasive thistles that aren’t good for the environment. Ask your local extension office which ones to look out for and how to identify them.