It would be wrong to say that a plant only has value in my garden if I happen to find it pleasing for some reason or another. I don’t want to limit my understanding of a plant (or animal or anything else) only to my opinion of it or my use of it, although I recognize that those two factors greatly influence what I choose to grow. I would like to be able to appreciate plants for their plantness, to be able to see them regardless of whether or not they are beautiful or useful or delicious. Maybe this stems from a desire as I get older to be seen just as I am, not judged to be good or not good, not reliant upon values or opinions. Just to be. To have a patch of this good earth where we can live under the warmth of the sun. People and plants have a fair bit in common.
As for the volunteers in my garden…
I talk about plant uses below simply because it’s the most obvious part of what I’m learning about them. It is in no way the only reason why I keep them. I keep them in my garden because they belong there. It’s my tithe to the genius loci (hums “Getting to know you…”). It’s just how it is. I am cool with being a weed gardener, although I prefer weed steward. I don’t grow them, after all. I just care for them and keep them.
Some so-called weeds fall under the category of “beneficial weeds”, meaning that they in some way help the plants that people actually want growing in their gardens or are in some other way of use to people. So why are they called weeds at all? I think only because they don’t tend to do what people want them to. They don’t like to be obedient like good bedding plants. Weeds are independent and resourceful survivors. They don’t need us.
Queen Anne’s Lace
Many of these beneficial weeds are considered such because they attract predatory insects or provide some type of companion growing relationship to other plants. One such plant is Queen Anne’s lace. Although not native to North America, it has become widely naturalized and is seen growing with abandon in fields and roadsides all over where I grew up. It is one of my favorite flowers as much for nostalgia as anything else. I recently learned that Queen Anne’s lace is a beneficial weed in that it provides shade for other plants, attracts wasps (which kill pesty insects), and is said even to boost tomato crops if interplanted with them. So sayeth Wikipedia, so it must be true.
I brought seeds of Queen Anne’s lace from the Farm a few years ago and planted them in the dry, hot west bed which runs between the house and driveway. I’m always looking for hardy plants to grow there, as the hose won’t reach it. Plants in this bed must tough out the summer on their own. Early each summer, our driveway is lined with Queen Anne’s lace that has seeded itself everywhere but where I planted it. It’s a little piece of the country, a balm to me here in a city I don’t want to be in. It was only fairly recently that I learned that Queen Anne’s lace is also a dye plant. I haven’t had the heart to to cut off the flowers to dye with, though.
Another favorite volunteer plant that I take great delight in is plantain. It is the bane of lawn gardeners everywhere. Little do they know how much good is packed into this unassuming plant. There are lots of types of plantain, the most well known being plantago major, or broadleaf plantain. What grows in my yard is another common type of called buckhorn, ribwort, or English plantain—plantago lanceolata. Give it a nice spot in a garden bed, and it will grow HUGE. And it also does fairly well in the cracks of my sidewalk.
Plantain is edible and said to be very nutritious. It was actually brought over by European settlers as a potted herb for both culinary and medicinal purposes. I’ve read that a tisane of the leaves is very effective for coughs, although I’ve not tried it. I have, however, used it to good effect on poison ivy. I just chewed up the leaves and stuck them to my forearms over said offending rash. Hey, I was desperate. But for something more sophisticated, Sarah Powell of the excellent Lilith’s Apothecary gives a wonderful DIY recipe for making infused oils or salves of plantain and violet. Her Etsy shop is full of fantastical goodness, too.
It’s taken me longer to love the goldenrod. To be honest, it’s been a pain in the ass—always growing in the most inconvenient places. I try to give it a home in the west bed, it wants to grow with my herbs. I try to give it a corner in the east bed, it wants to make a wall across the sidewalk. I feel obligated to give it a home, as I’m dedicated to the idea of native gardens. So, when this year a big bunch of it came up around the telephone pole at the end of the driveway, and I said good, you can grow there. Peace for both of us. It’s gotten taller and taller, and I’m learning to like goldenrod. You have to be patient with it—it starts out tidily enough, but soon gets leggy and straggly, and it takes until late summer/early fall for it to bloom. But it is beautiful when it does. Goldenrod is also a dyeplant. We’ll see if I have the heart to use it. I can’t help but feel bad about cutting down the flowers it worked all season to make. But a dyer’s garden is all chopped off stems and no flowers—like something out of The Addams Family. If I want to dye, and I do, I have to make peace with that.
goldenrod phone pole garden
Goldenrod is much more widely accepted as a garden flower now. It also has been used traditionally as a medicinal tonic. It is also considered a companion plant, beneficial for attracting and hosting predatory insects. Every time I look at goldenrod, I think of Little House on the Prairie, Melissa Gilbert style. Maybe I will dye with it after all. Ma Ingalls would be proud.
Finally, we have sambucus canadensis, the American elderberry. These sucker up all over the place, but this is the first one to grace my yard. I am thrilled. Elderberries have a ridiculous number of uses—culinary, medicinal, dye, winemaking. It provides food for birds and other animals, too. Care must be taken with it, though, as parts of the plant, including unripe berries, are somewhat toxic. I am mostly interested in the berries for dye. But I am also content just looking at it. It’s very pretty. There’s something very seventies about elderberry. It’s all beaded headbands and macrame and Mother Earth love. Maybe it’s those great big flowers. I smile every time I see it.
Elderberry farming is slowly but surely becoming a thing here in Missouri. A few foreward looking farmers as well as Missouri State University are working both on developing elderberry farming techniques and marketing. I hope it catches on—in a sustainable way. What better to grow than a native plant with such a variety of uses? I’m glad to be a volunteer elderberry farmer.
I talk to my plants a lot. To me, they seem to have spirits, personalities. Maybe that’s my synaesthesia talking, but that’s how I experience it. One is not like another–even the same species. I do my best to be a good steward of the land and to balance my wants with the land’s wants. And while it’s fascinating to see all the different ways that plants are useful to me, I am trying to see past that to how a plant is intrinsically valuable to the earth. There are connections from one living thing to another that go far beyond what we observe, especially if our view is narrowed only to how we are affected or benefited. Part of cultivating awareness here is just watching and listening and letting things grow.