Weeds to Admire

Dear Carol Ann:
I enjoy and appreciate your articles in Forever Young, thank you. Neighbors and I are wondering what to do about those pretty little blue flowers with dark green leaves that look like violets, but are spreading rapidly and taking over our lawns and flower beds — apparently by underground corms. Do you know what their name is and how to manage them? The blue ones stay green and get bigger all summer. Pretty, but too much of a good thing! Please keep on writing. Thanks, G.

Recently I received this email from a reader. I mentioned this gentleman’s concern to a friend who said, “Yes, they’re terrible.” I would like to share my response with all of you.

"Aren’t violets beautiful in the garden in the spring?" I innocently said to another neat-garden friend. (I am not a particularly neat gardener I am afraid.) She responded, “Are you kidding? Once you have them they are everywhere! They’re weeds.” I countered “But they’re pretty and edible too.” But she was not to be swayed. Some species of sweet violet came from Europe. They are all perennials that will grow almost anywhere. Sweet violets and English violets are not fussy about the soil. Spring violets reproduce by stubby rhizomes and by seed dispersion. The genus viola to which spring violets belong, is divided into the sections Nomimum(the true violets) and Melanium(the pansies). These species are promiscuous; that means they hybridize or cross with each other quite easily. This drives botanists crazy as it is often difficult to distinguish between species.

The flowers vary in color all the way from dark purple to white. Violets actually have two types of flowers, the open ones that we see in the spring and closed flowers (cleistogamous) that develop in summer. The summer flowers have no petals and are self-pollinating. Both spring and summer flowers also produce seed that may help to explain the success of this species.

The leaves also seem to change with the seasons. Spring violet leaves are shinier and are about as wide as they are long. The leaves that develop in summer are longer and sometimes are hairy. (I can envision all of you looking at your violets with a magnifying glass to see all this.) Violets have some fragrance but this is extremely variable. Cultivars are grown overseas. They are believed to have developed from mutations of the original V. odorata. Sweet violets are offered in Logee’s catalogue although the description really doesn’t distinguish between the wild and the domestic violet. An essential oil is extracted from violet leaves for aromatherapy. The oil is said to help people relax, be comforted, and inspired. It is often blended with jasmine, clary sage, lavender and sandalwood. (You may be interested in knowing that the African violet is not a true violet. This tropical plant called Saintpaulia belongs to the family of Gesneriads.)

Spring violets are of course just one example of plants that compete well against more desirable species in our gardens. So I suppose we will have to call them weeds after all.

Although I certainly do take the time to weed the garden I know there will always be weeds.  The idea is to keep undesired plants at a level you can live with. Weeds are simply trying to do what everything else in your garden is trying to do — reproduce. They simply do it better than most of the plants we like.

Why do weeds reproduce better than so many other plants? The flowers of weeds are often not noticeable and as attractive as those of cultivated plants. Many of the weeds are pollinated by the wind so they don’t need to use energy to develop pretty flowers to attract insects. Many weeds reproduce by underground stems (runners or rhizomes). This means that just a piece of the weed can grow into a new plant. In my earlier garden days I worked ever so hard to eradicate a bed of bindweed (also called wild morning glory). I pulled and dug and hoed that bindweed. Every little piece grew into a new plant! Needless to say I helped that weed reproduce in the best way possible.

And then there are weeds like the dandelion that produce flowers which are pretty but do not even need to be fertilized or pollinated by any other agent at all. They simply produce hundreds of seeds without any pollination. These seeds are carried everywhere. And then there are the taproots of dandelions. A little piece can grow into an entirely new plant.

Let’s face it — you have to admire weeds.

Forever Young Magazine June 2006