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Weed or Habitat?

ELA invited a couple of members to identify the “weeds” they like to leave in the landscape for their habitat value.


Leslie Duthie, Horticulturist, Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary, Wales, MA

Ellen Sousa, Garden Coach, Designer, and Author, Turkey Hill Brook Farm, Spencer, MA

Leslie: I have put some thought into this and realized that there is not much that I “weed out” of my garden unless it is

  1. Annual
  2. Invasive
  3. Ragweed

We all know that a weed is just a plant out of place and something that might not be appropriate in one space, is perfectly fine in another. That being said, I met someone in the store the other day who took our asters and goldenrods class at Norcross, and he told me that he always thought of asters as weeds.

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum – Calico Aster. Photo: Luteus, Wikipedia Commons

So, my answer is native aster species. Especially some of the small Symphyotrichum species such as S. racemosum (small white aster), S. dumosum (bushy American aster) and S. lateriflorum (calico aster). These species may not be the showiest, and they may be a bit “weedy,” but they have important ramifications for fall wildlife. The small asters provide some nectar and pollen for late season pollinators, but to me the most important part is that many of these species provide rich, oily seed needed for fall songbird migration. The seeds of Symphyotrichum, Ionactis, Eurybia, and Oclemena are important sources of high-energy food for the birds. You often see a variety of sparrow species looking for these seeds at this time of year. It is important not only for birds that are moving south from here, but also those which have travelled from the north to arrive here.

Ellen: We covet our native Joe Pye Weed (Eutrychum maculatum), Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), American Aster (Symphyotrichum), Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), and Violets (Viola sororia) because of their tremendous value to pollinators, plus they love to inhabit areas next to our barns and paddocks where we struggle to cultivate anything but “weeds.”

The Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) would probably cover every square inch of our property if we let it, but we leave scads of it because when it blooms in late summer, bumble bees and hummingbirds favor it above all else blooming at the time!

Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia) grow profusely as a spring-blooming groundcover in difficult planting areas of overly rich soil next to our barn paddocks. Their May flowers feed many bees and Viola foliage is an important host plant for Fritillary butterfly caterpillars.

I never planted this white American Aster blooming now (Oct 9). It acts as a wildlife feeding station with its profusion of flowers which hum with pollinator activity, plus the seeds feed overwintering Sparrows and Juncos.


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