We are so accustomed to landscaped yards that when we see an uncultivated area many people think it’s just “a bunch of weeds.” But, many plants growing in ditches and cracks in the sidewalk are useful, even critical to the survival of species, including us.

Those plants that spring up on their own are usually a mix of native wild plants with a few opportunistic invasive plants tossed in. In these days of saving disappearing bees, helping all pollinators survive so they can pollinate our food crops, providing native areas for the survival of native species of birds and mammals and more, those plants are highly useful to other species and in a significant way that is vital for us as well. Their survival is essential to continue the cycle, and it’s worth getting to know what’s growing there for a few reasons. You may be surprised to find what “weeds” are growing along your fence, or in the untended areas around your favorite trail.

“All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild.”   
   – John Muir

Nature’s pharmacopoeia

Pictured above, hyssop’s blue flowers bloom wild along a trail attracting a pollinator, a cabbage white butterfly. Hyssop was used since the Greco-Roman era as a cough suppressant and cold medicine. Today it is prized for attracting bees who pollinate the plants and then produce an excellent honey.

Pictured below, yellow flowers of St. John’s Wort brighten the area along a trail. The extract is said to brighten our mood, naturalized in many areas of the world from its Mediterranean origins.

Imagine a world without antibiotics, pain relievers, vaccines, or any of the other life-saving and comforting medications we take for granted now. How did humanity survive without them? In many ways, not so well. Death was common, many children did not survive childhood, adults met with accidents or health conditions for which there was no modern treatment. Prior to modern medicine’s findings was a pharmacy based on what was available from the area around you encompassing plants and trees and animals to be harvested and made into herbal compounds to treat everything from a toothache to heart disease.

We may not use these plants directly today, but many of today’s medications are based on what these plants gave us. For centuries people chewed willow bark; today we take aspirin. New compounds are found in plants all the time, so those uncultivated plants still have much to give us.

Ecology and habitat

Humans have adapted to just about everything the world has tossed at us, but most living species on Earth have adapted to a very limited diet, climate and breeding space. American goldfinches wait until thistle plants have bloomed in midsummer to build their nests so they can line their nest with the down of the flower, then they wait to migrate until the same plants have gone to seed so they can stock up on the rich nutrition in the tiny seeds to make their journey. Thistle is not a pretty plant to most people, nor is it a cultivated plant, and even if it was the cultivar might be so modified from the original that it might not provide the down or seeds the goldfinches need, and they might not even recognize it to use it. If it disappears from the fields, goldfinches will not be able to reproduce. This is only one example of thousands of species whose lives depend on what we consider weeds, but all species of bees and butterflies who pollinate our food plants are among those dependent on native plants.

Get yourself a guidebook

I was always curious about the plants growing in the overgrown pasture across the street from our house, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I felt as if I was walking among people who were familiar but were speaking a language I couldn’t understand, and I wanted to learn that language. I asked professionals for recommendations and found guidebooks for birds and for native wildflowers for my area.

Identifying wildflowers begins with a blooming flower, counting the number of petals, the color of the flower and size of the flower and continues with working your way through the plant’s description for the stem and leaves using carefully drawn and painted illustrations. Once I learned how to use the guidebook and began identifying wildflowers I’d seen all my life I was surprised at how many native plants had just a century ago been used as medicines gathered from the fields, as well as species that were the predecessors to the annuals and perennials I cultivated in my own gardens. I had always thought “herbal medicine” happened in some distant land, but here it was literally in my own back yard.

I began with Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide and relied on the precision of the illustrations to identify the details of the plant in front of me. I’ve also used a variety of other guide books that are local and regional and which use photos, but I always return to Newcomb.

Many resources are available online and through apps as well, so research what’s available and find what works best for you. Get out there and and you’ll find yourself moving from flower to flower. Before you know it you’ll have walked miles and spent a wonderful day of getting to know your world a little better.

 

Resources

About aspirin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_aspirin

About plants used as a source of drugs: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0041010100001549