When Is A Weed Not A Weed?

May 5, 2009 | By | Comments (13)

This was the question posed to me by the Dolly Llama, a buxom beast with an enormous blond wig. I had journeyed for days to meet her in her mountain hideaway in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, known far and wide as the “Temple of Enlightenment.”

“It’s a simple question, honey,” said the Dolly to me. “Two plants sprout in my garden. One is a weed I will pull up and throw away. Which one is the weed?”

“Ummm, I’d like to use my lifeline,” I said meekly.

“This ain’t ‘Cash Cab,’ honey,” the Dolly replied. “You have to figure this’n out by your lonesome.”

Oh no. Now I know how W felt when Dick Cheney was in the bathroom and the generals needed to know whether to push that button now. There was only one option. I had to stall.

“So, what do you think about A-Rod and those steroids?” I ventured. “Shoot, what’s wrong with a guy raising artificial cows?”

But the Dolly wouldn’t bite, which was fortunate, since her gigantic, white canines could do considerable damage. “The Dolly’s patience wears thin as her waist,” she said menacingly.

I had to be like W — say the first thing that came into my head.

“The weed is the plant you don’t want,” I said. “That’s what makes it a weed.”

“Ah, Grasshopper, you are wise beyond your years,” said the Dolly. “Now shoo, honey. I got a semi truck full of lipstick due any minute now.”


My visit with the Dolly Llama came to mind this week as my wife, Judy, and I gazed at our front flower bed overflowing with pink flowers. “Are you going to leave those weeds there?” asked Judy. “Aren’t they the ones you see along the highway?”


Well, yeeeessss. Her implication was that any flower that grew by the side of the road was unworthy of a cultivated garden. But these flowers are pretty. Known as pink or prairie primrose (Oenothera speciosa), this perennial wildflower (which is not a true primrose) is native to much of the South. It’s 2-inch, pink flowers bloom profusely in late spring and early summer. Then the plant kind of dies down and disappears. But it’s sneaky. Not only does it spread by seed, but its insurgent rhizomes slither beneath the soil in all directions until by the following spring, you discover you have almost nothing but primrose.

I didn’t plant it. One plant came up and I let it stay. So like communism and Geraldo Rivera, it must be contained. Now I let it bloom in the spring. When it’s finished and before it can set seed, I yank up as much of it as I can find. Next spring, I’ll have just as much as I had before.

So is it a weed? You tell me.

I sometimes think it would be cool to build a raised bed and plant one each of the most invasive plants I could find and let them duke it out. I’d plant pink primrose, wild ageratum (Eupatorium coelestinum), horsetails (Equisetum hyemale), gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides), artemisia, common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata), mint,  tawny daylily (Hemerocallis fulva), bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea picta), and Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) and see who emerges victorious. It’d be like gardening on WWF.

So are they weeds to you? Which one would you bet on?



  1. Gromie

    I can see I am a few months late finding Grumpy’s wonderful/funny words of wisdon, but I believe any plant with pretty foliage or blooms is a flower and should be left alone, with minimal control or relocation, wherever it appears. Husband, on the other hand, believes any plant that appears out of place is a weed and should be yanked! He’s in big trouble each time I find a poor lifeless plucked flower!

    December 7, 2009 at 7:51 pm
  2. Grumpy Gardener

    You should be generous and share them with a neighbor.

    May 10, 2009 at 11:15 am
  3. bluedoodle

    Hmmmm….let’s add the tall version of Mexican Petunia to that list…it was a pass-along from my mother-in-law, only I planted it the wrong flower bed. Very invasive. Another plant winning the turf battle is Southern Shield Fern, which I love, but am constantly digging up and relocating.

    May 8, 2009 at 11:55 pm
  4. Helen Yoest @ Gardening With Confidence

    Oh how funny! I love evening primrose as we call it in Raleigh. There are a couple of gardens on a hill, (as you know, Raleigh is kinda hilly) where it just flows. I have it in my garden, Helen’s Haven; I love it.!

    May 6, 2009 at 10:09 pm
  5. Anna/Flowergardengirl

    I have new gardens and right now if it blooms it’s almost a keeper. I had some manure delivered to amend my beds over a year ago—well–never again cause it was full of weeds.

    May 6, 2009 at 5:08 pm
  6. Jean

    One more note, primrose coming up here and there in the bed, yarrow is spreading…and then there is the ribbon grass.I will let you know which one wins.

    May 6, 2009 at 4:52 pm
  7. Kim

    If there is moisture at all, the gooseneck loosestrife wins. It has choked out even ‘wild’ day lilies. love it, tho

    May 6, 2009 at 12:46 pm
  8. Grumpy Gardener

    Why don’t you just call it “shamrock”? I bet she’ll like that. I think that old Oxalis is pretty. Liz Tedder in Newnan, GA has a big sweep of it in her garden and it’s a knock-out.
    I would have included kudzu, but how would I keep it in the bed?

    May 6, 2009 at 11:52 am
  9. Pam/Digging

    I’m into native plants, which many people consider weeds, so I’m with you—those pink evening primrose are garden worthy, not weeds.
    As for the invasives bed—awesome! Please do it and let us know the result. But what, no kudzu?

    May 6, 2009 at 1:49 am
  10. chathamcorabbit

    Oxalis is the best “weed”! Mine came to me from my mom, who got some from her mom, who got hers from my great-grandmother. Breaking with “passalong plant” tradition, I am allowed to thank Mom when she shares the oxalis, but there is a catch- she insists that I call it “thrift”. I do my best to keep my high-falutin’ names to myself.

    May 5, 2009 at 10:27 pm
  11. Grumpy Gardener

    Sheryl, loved your essay! Grumpians, you need to read it. I agree — there are some “weeds” I just like, such as the dayflower Sheryl writes about or chicory with those incredible blue flowers.
    Jean, didn’t mean to disparage your primroses. You can buy them at nurseries here too.

    May 5, 2009 at 3:26 pm
  12. Jean

    These are not weeds and here is the reason why. I PURCHASED 2 pots of them at the local garden center last year. So far…they are winning the battle with the voles but who knows about next year? I had seen them in another garden and wanted some to grow along the street. Say hello to Dolly

    May 5, 2009 at 12:12 pm
  13. Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

    Hi there! You might enjoy reading my essay on the topic : “Weeds Redefined.”

    May 5, 2009 at 10:55 am

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