I was looking in “Weeds of the Great Plains” published by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture: 2003 and found many things.  Besides the identification of a plant, this book gives some of its past history, its uses and values, if it is poisonous, and a section call “other” which gives some special trait or warning.  The definition of weed is often said to be a plant out of place. As I hunted through out the book I found many of the plants we grow in our garden. The quotes I use through out this article will be from the book. 

          Here in Lincoln I see YUCCA by a number of mailboxes.  Sometimes called soapweed, or Spanish bayonet. “Native Americans used the fibers to make soap, baskets, and sandals.  It is not listed as poisonous”.  The flowers may have a stem 8 to 10 feet tall and are quite dramatic looking.  Their roots must go down extremely deep as once they are growing well in a dry area they are almost impossible to kill. Every time I dig one up I get 4 to 5 new vigorous ones.  They make a huge clump of leaves that cut like knives.  Finally I dug them, leaving only a single plant in each place and painted the cut stems with Brush Killer (BK-82). This seems to have done the trick. I might mention it took a saw to cut the stems off at ground level.

          Helenium autumnale, called SNEEZE WEED (it doesn’t cause sneezing) or FALSE SUNFLOWER in the weed manual, has yellow flowers. Horticulturists have worked with the plant and you can find orange or red ones (or a combination of both) with very beautiful flowers. In my yard they are (1) the first plants up in spring, (2) they bloom in the fall after others have given up, and (3) usually about 3 feet tall. A weed in pastures as it is poisonous to sheep and horses. The SNEEZE WEED part comes from “Native Americans who dried and powdered the flowers and sniffed it up the nose to break up a cold”. I have found that you need to divide them after 2 to 3 years or they crowd out their own roots. It is easy to take a spadeful in either fall or spring and move it to where you want them.  They do like damp soil in full sun. Some people are allergic to their sap. I counted 34 species in my garden plant encyclopedia so the colors and combination of colors is growing.

          Solidago missouriensis or PRAIRIE GOLDENROD is another weed that has been hybridized and is available in many forms in the nurseries.  There are a number of “wild” GOLDENRODS that may show up in your yard some spring and one of them is the Nebraska State wildflower (Solidago gigantea) a tall vigorous plant that likes full sun. There are also some very short ones like “GOLDEN BABY” only 24 inches high with bright gold heads.  The rabbits ate most of my GOLDENRODS this summer and especially the dwarfs. After I used Liquid Fence they recovered but not in time to bloom this year.  “Some native Americans chewed leaves and flowers of Missouri Goldenrod to relieve sore throats and chewed roots to relieve toothache.”

          One of my favorite spring flowering plants is DAMES ROCKET (Hesperis matronalis) a biennial that reseeds itself during the summer so you can have new blooms the next spring.  The highway department planted many of them so we had purple and white edges to the road for a few years. But they mowed them off before the seeds were ripe and they have almost disappeared. I have found that if you remove the flower stalks before the seeds form, the mother plant may live for another spring and bloom again.  When someone sees a bouquet of lavender and white they often wonder how I get phlox to bloom so early. So one of its nicknames is spring phlox. Farmers don’t especially like them in their fields so in nature you will generally find them around abanded farm houses. Birds like to eat the seeds.  For me it grows very well in high shade or full sun with no attention at all.  It is not a native weed as the pioneers brought it with them from Europe.  If I want them in a different area the next year I just throw the seeds on the top of the ground, walk on them, and soon the new plants will be up to bloom the next spring.  Many insects love them but never seem to do much harm.

          Cleome serrulata or ROCKY MOUNTAIN BEE PLANT, or SPIDER PLANT, is another imported “weed” from South America.  It is used by many of us as a background plant about 5 feet tall in lavender, pink, or white and is a good food plant for butterflies as it blooms continuously up the stem from June until August in full sun.  It likes water so in a dry year will be much shorter than in a wet one.  In the last few years a dwarf form has been developed.  Both tall and dwarf plants are in the nurseries in the spring.  Give them plenty of room.  As the blooms develop along the top, long skinny seed pods grow all along the stem below, so once you have them you always will. They are easy to move to where you want them. The earlier in the spring the better they grow. “ROCKY MOUNTAIN BEE PLANT was an important food plant and was cultivated by some Indians. Residue from boiled plants was used as dye or paint”

           KENTUCKY BLUE GRASS is listed as a weed as it interferes with the native prairie grasses. RED CEDAR TREES which are used for windbreaks but can take over a pasture, as well as BEE BALM are all listed as weeds because of some of their habits. I suggest you read the “WEED BOOK” as it has many interesting stories to tell. If you get a chance read the section on dandelions. For a weed, they do a number of useful things. Copyright 2007

Quotes are from “WEEDS OF THE GREAT PLAINS” Published by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture in cooperation with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: 2003. Authors are James Stubbendieck, and L.M. Landholt from the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Mitchell J. Coffin, Bureau of Plant Industry, Nebraska Department of Agriculture.