Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Ashley’s Evolving Relationship with Weeds

This post was written by Ashley Oblander, one of our Hubbard Fellows this year. Ashley came to us with strong experience in land management, including invasive plant control. She and our other current Fellow, Dat Ha, introduced themselves recently in a previous post. I hope you enjoy Ashley’s thoughtful essay about weeds.

Since beginning my career in conservation, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds. During those conversations, a topic that has stuck out and interested me is weeds. In my opinion, the definition is quite simple: a plant that is growing in a place where it isn’t wanted. What I find more compelling than a definition is differing opinions of what is truly a weed and how my perspective on that has changed.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

As a young kid, I remember picking bouquets of dandelions to bring to my mom and urging her to put them in a vase in the windowsill. Since my dad kept a clean, short lawn, these pops of color seemed like a treasure. As I grew, I thought of them more as weeds and would pick them with the sole purpose of wiping the yellow color of its pollen onto my friend’s shirts. But now that I’ve become more educated on the topic, I see dandelions as a possible resource for pollinators.

In an urban setting where there are fewer floral resources, especially early in the growing season, the nectar from dandelions and other lawn weeds can be a crucial food source. A research project done on lawns in Kentucky found 25 species of bees visiting dandelions over two growing seasons. When I become a homeowner, not only will I opt out of spraying species like dandelions, but I plan to plant native species throughout my yard as well. If that is something that would interest you, there are great resources online, including lists of native species based on where you live from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. A few of my favorites from the Northern Plains Region handout are eastern pasqueflower, wild bergamot, and stiff goldenrod.

Velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti)

When I first saw this plant, I couldn’t believe how soft its leaves were! Walking through nature, I like to feel the textures of different plants, so this got my attention right away. On top of that, the seed capsules of this species are so strange looking (they’re the circular capsule with spines at the top in the image above). I really enjoy seeing plants that are unique. However, I learned recently that the positive view I have of this plant is not shared by everyone, and farmers may consider it a weed. Not having grown up on a farm, I had no idea that it was perceived this way. Farmers see this plant as a weed because it grows in their crop fields competing for light and moisture which can reduce yield. In a pasture it may grow in a space where grass could be instead, but in this case, I’d consider it more of an opportunistic plant. I think Chris covered this concept well in a past blog.

Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota)

Before working the Prairies for Agriculture Project (PFA), you could’ve shown me this plant and I would’ve thought it was beautiful! I’ve seen people stage senior photos by it, and it looks like it belongs on the roadsides. However, after working for the PFA for two years and hand pulling Queen Anne’s lace out of research plots, the sight of it makes me cringe. What’s interesting is that after working on other preserves with areas larger than 9x9m research plots, it doesn’t seem to be as a big of a concern. While it is still considered invasive, a plant with the ability to outcompete other species and diminish biodiversity, it’s not usually on the top of the priority list at most sites I’m aware of.

Crown Vetch (Securigera varia)

A species that is usually toward the top of priority lists is crown vetch. It may seem like any other pretty legume, but don’t let it fool you. Once it establishes, it can cover huge areas where it is the only species you’ll find. Not only does that negatively impact the other species of plants that it outcompeted, it also lessens the value of an area for wildlife. If there is only one species of plant around, animals that rely on a diverse diet or specialize on certain native species can’t thrive. I became very familiar with this plant while working for The Nature Conservancy in Iowa, and now it feels like I see it everywhere. I haven’t worked in a great number of places, but it seems like every preserve I work at has a species that I worked hard to control and that will follow me for the rest of my life. That’s the unfortunate reality of the battles of stewardship.

Musk Thistle (Carduus nutans)

I also learned from working in conservation about noxious weeds. A noxious weed is a plant that is particularly troublesome and could directly or indirectly injure or cause damage to crops, livestock, etc. A local example for Nebraska is the musk thistle. If this species is on your property, you are required to remove it. In Nebraska, the removal of this species is monitored by each county’s weed superintendent. So, although pollinators may visit it, the negative effects of this plant outweigh the good, and it has to go.

At the end of the day, the biggest lesson I’ve learned about weedy plants is that they are not all created equal. While they may not be ideal in the eyes of a human, they could be exactly what a pollinator or other critter need. It’s important to assess whether a species is being aggressive to the point of being invasive and pushing other species out, or whether it’s taking advantage of preferable conditions this year and while it may flourish, may be gone or not an issue the next. I think it all comes down to perspective. And perspective comes from what you have experienced previously and how long you’ve been in the weed-killing business. It’s a nice reminder that someone’s opinion may be different than ours, but that doesn’t always mean they’re wrong.

I would love to hear about a weedy species that you have later found value in, one that has frustrated you, or one that you can’t help but love even if it is a “weed”.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

20 thoughts on “Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Ashley’s Evolving Relationship with Weeds

  1. Thank you so much for sharing Ashley! I learned so much about weeds and their pros and cons, and how people perceive them differently.

  2. I too am biased against QAL forever after pulling so many! Fun to see another Dutch alum joining the land trust life—congrats on the fellowship, Ashley, I hope you have an amazing year with TNC!

  3. I love this topic for discussion. Probably one of the few. “Weeds” that have gone from foe to friend have been the common violet which is a great native ground cover but not so great in vegetable garden. My little meadow is currently filled with hairy bittercress, deadnettle and speedwell which I’m hoping will be place holders until I can plant some native grasses and other emerging natives can fill in. I find it pretty interesting that many plants now known as “native” plants are plants people used to and many times still call weeds. You are so right about perspective.

  4. Oh, boy. As Aldo Leopold noted, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” I’ve been a volunteer helping to restore forest preserve land in the Chicago area for over ten years now, and sadly spend most of my time killing buckthorn, purple loosestrife, teasel, and other weeds. It will never end. I love being out in our preserves (which include prairies), but wonder about the long view of this problem.

  5. Weeds are food and nutrition in this time of lack. Most of my salads these days are so called weeds, dandelion being a favorite, chickweed, and nettles. Take time to try some.

  6. Nice shot of the male Speyeria idalia, one of my favorite obligate prairie species! The first one I ever encountered was a female nectaring on Cirsium flodmanii in the fall.

  7. Did you know velvetleaf was also known as butterprint b/c early settler wives used the pod to form a print on butter patties.
    Steve

  8. The velvet leaf (buttonweed) makes decent toilet paper, as it is soft! The seeds last a long time in the soil, there are stories of buildings that were torn down that had been there for 100 years, and the buttonweeds grew thick! Their seeds last for a long time. Their relatives the mallow, Are also long lived. the seeds look very similar! Sometimes they are called flower of an hour. My aunt had a technique of popping the leaves but it isn’t impressive.

    Lloyd Crim

    On Mon, Apr 13, 2020 at 8:12 AM The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: ” This post was written by Ashley Oblander, one of > our Hubbard Fellows this year. Ashley came to us with strong experience in > land management, including invasive plant control. She and our other > current Fellow, Dat Ha, introduced themselves recently in a” >

    • Here is what the stewards of the North Branch are doing about crown vetch.

      http://woodsandprairie.blogspot.com/2018/06/finding-and-doing.html

      My observations from other people’s efforts are that Transline does not work. After spraying crown vetch, the leaves are killed but it just grows back as if nothing happened the next season.

      In a native plant garden, I have been digging it up by the root. This is both labor intensive and difficult. Crown vetch has a network of roots that are very hard to remove. Some roots are always missed which means you will be trying to get them when they grow again next year. However, over the course of a few years I have been able to nearly remove it from a garden with this method.

      In a native prairie, where I want to limit soil disturbance, I have been trying hand wicking with glyphosate dispensed from a foaming herbicide applicator. At first, I tried the method in the video in the below link.

      However, I found it to be too tedious to locate stems and apply herbicide to a bend near the base. It required spending too much time bent down to the ground searching and crawling around.

      I tried hand wicking crown vetch with an eight percent solution of glyphosate in a small area of remnant prairie. I noticed impacts on adjacent vegetation from rain splashing herbicide off the target species and onto the quality vegetation. Consequently, I decided to do the following trials.

      In a disturbed area that is a monoculture of crown vetch, I tried hand wicking different concentrations of glyphosate to determine the minimum that is needed to be effective. My hope is I can find a concentration that will kill the crown vetch, while minimizing impacts on adjacent plants. My results were a three percent solution of foaming glyphosate only top killed the crown vetch. The crown vetch then regrew from the roots. A five percent solution killed the crown vetch. This season, I plan on repeating the trial with solutions between three and five percent to better determine the minimum concentration that is effective.

      Unfortunately, I later observed that tall goldenrod had seeded into the small area of remnant prairie where I had applied eight percent glyphosate to crown vetch. Even though the crown vetch was killed, the quality prairie plants being weakened by rain splashing some herbicide on them gave the tall goldenrod an opportunity to get a foot hold. It is also possible the tall goldenrod was taking advantage of the opening that occurred when the crown vetch died.

      When I determine the minimum concentration of foaming glyphosate that will kill crown vetch, I plan on hand wicking with this solution in another small plot of remnant prairie. Hopefully, I will be able to kill the crown vetch without facilitating the invasion of other non-natives or aggressive species. If this does not work, my last remaining option would be trialing stem injection.

      If you do try hand wicking, use shoulder length gloves. The herbicide will run down your arm to the bend in your elbow. Shoulder length gloves have enough length to stop the herbicide from running down your arm.

        • Thanks for sharing, James! That was a lot of great information. On the preserve where I worked, we sprayed the crown vetch with Garlon 3A. It was definitely effective in killing the plant initially, but since I only sprayed last summer, I can’t say what the patches will look like this coming growing season.

          • Loess Prairie Rose, no, the patches I was spraying were in a part of the preserve that was a restoration with relatively low diversity. I think for treating in a remnant, I would look into the more precise and tedious methods. Good luck! It’s not a fun plant to have around.

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