Habitat at Home: What’s That Weed?!
Spring has officially sprung, and not everything is coming up roses!
Each year spring arrives with dazzling redbud, daffodil, and dogwood blooms – but these aren’t the only signs of spring! In this month’s Habitat at Home, learn about some of the ‘lesser’ signs of spring in your yard and what you should (or shouldn’t) do about them.
Clover is most known for its three (or four!) leaves, but its blooms are almost as recognizable. Clover blooms in early spring and throughout the summer, and is often the first source of food for pollinators when they emerge. While some consider clover to be a nuisance in a yard, it can be a great alternative to grass because of its hardiness and tolerance to drought.
How to identify – stems have 3 round leaves (4 if you’re lucky!) with a lighter v-shape. Flowers are small and white or sometimes pink/purple.
What should you do? Leave it if you can! If you must mow it, try to avoid mowing the clover blooms until more plants are blooming around your yard, ensuring a stable source of food for pollinators.
This one can be a nightmare if you like to have a neat garden! Hairy bittercress sprouts up everywhere. It is an introduced weed that spreads quickly due to its unique method of spreading seeds – the pods burst when touched (or even jostled by wind!) sending seeds flying up to a foot away.
How to identify – Tiny cross-shaped white flowers with seed pods growing below the flower and above the leaves. Tiny seed pods point upward.
What should you do? It can become invasive so pull it if you can. Be sure to pull it before it seeds in early spring! Touching it later in spring can just spread more seeds around. You can also eat hairy bittercress, as the small leaves at the base are edible and have a peppery taste when eaten raw.
Lunaria annua, Annual Honesty, or Money Plant
Looking a bit like phlox, this introduced ornamental flower has been popular in gardens because of its good looks and ease to grow. Once planted, it will usually become ‘normalized’ and come back each year. Translucent seed pods appear mid-summer and can be harvested and dried for flower arrangements!
How to identify – 2-3 feet tall with white or violet 4-petaled flowers and oval or heart shaped serrated, pointed leaves. Will produce transparent seed pods in midsummer.
What should you do? Leave it if you like it, but watch it! Annual honesty can become invasive if left to its own devices. Pull up any extra plants in the spring before they go to seed. A native replacement for this could be golden ragwort.
Garlic mustard is a non-native, invasive herb that is commonly found along forest edges or in the understory of forests. It is one of the few non-native plants that can thrive in a forest understory and spreads quickly. It can crowd out native forest plants, reducing the plant diversity in a forest. This means less food for forest pollinators and other native animals.
How to identify – First-year plants have dark green, kidney-shaped leaves with scalloped edges. Second-year plants grow a long stem with triangular, alternate, sharply toothed leaves with vertical seed pods similar to hairy bittercress. Small, white flowers.
What should you do? Pull it, then eat it! This plant is highly invasive and can quickly overtake a yard or forest understory. Conserving Carolina’s Conservation Easement Manager, Torry Nergart, turns his garlic mustard leaves into a tasty pesto! Like hairy bittercress, pull this early in spring to avoid spreading seed.
If you have seen purple deadnettle, you have probably seen a lot of it! This little ‘weedy’ plant tends to grow in groups – taking advantage of the space it has in early spring before other plants have emerged. Like clover, deadnettle flowers early and throughout the season, so it can be a good source of food and pollen for bees. It is originally from Europe and Asia, and can become invasive if given the space.
How to identify – square, 4-sided stem, has upper leaves that are purple-tinged.
What should you do? Leave it or pull it – your choice! If you leave it, it will wither as soon as summer heats up, re-emerging in the spring, probably with more plants. If you pull it, (pretty easy to do with this plant) you may have to do it for a few seasons before it stops popping up.
Creeping phlox seems to be all over the yards of WNC. While not considered a weed, it is a common spring-time bloomer that deserves some attention! Creeping Phlox comes in a variety of bright colors, returns each year, and is relatively low maintenance so it is a popular staple in home gardens.
How to identify – flowers ranging from light blue to deep purple have 5 petals. Foliage is low and needle-like. Creeping phlox will often appear to ‘flow’ over curbs and container edges.
What should you do? Leave it! Not only is it beautiful, but it is a native flower to WNC. Phlox can be cut back after blooming to promote a second bloom in summer.
Don’t see your backyard weed listed here? Send a photo!
Send your unidentified spring plants to email@example.com and we will do our best to identify them! Remember – do not eat anything you cannot identify with 100% certainty.
Habitat at Home is a monthly segment dedicated to providing you with tips to make your yard and home a better habitat for native plants, animals, and insects. Written by Kelly Holland with contributions from Emily Powell.