What is a Weed?

A weed is actually by definition "a wild plant growing where it is not wanted".  So actually, if you really think about it, they are just like any other plant, not inherently evil as so often regarded-- but maybe just plants that often find themselves not in the right place at the right time? So why do we discriminate?


Tree of Heaven

It's actually pretty interesting how weeds all got started, and if you are interested, Peter Del Tredici is a rockstar in the plant world, and has written a fantastic book called Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast.  In this book Del Trdici speaks scientifically about the positive contributions of hundreds of plants, considered to be "weeds", but are actually just seriously hardworking and adaptive plants that are usually unwanted where they establish themselves. In his book he talks about urban plants and their ability to overcome the so many urban stresses, whether caused by paving, salt, soil compaction drainage problems or air pollution, and their story makes you root for them (no pun intended) because they are the over- performing and under appreciated underdogs. In a way, the plants that have been able to use and transform human disturbance to the best of their ability in order to thrive and act positively with benefits to the environment are the plants we are most often pulling out of our gardens.  might think of weeds as an invasive plant, i.e.crowding out native vegetation, which is not good especially if you are a farmer or just someone trying to grow a vegetable garden. While others might think of them as just the ugly plants that were not planted intentionally, looking unkempt, and have connotations of a space that is not "cared for" or too much letting go.

Queen Anne's Lace

Del Tredici specifically looks at 222 plants that spontaneously germinate in the urban context, and while you might not read it all in one sitting,or at the beach, it is an excellent reference especially if you are curious when you pass a vacant lot and wonder what is growing in it. He uses the Tree of Heaven as a perfect example of plant discrimination. The Tree of Heaven is a tree that grows anywhere and everywhere, and now that I have mentioned it you will see it on the sides of highways, growing out of buildings--everywhere. IT is actually the Tree that is featured in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. However the Tree of Heaven was never included in any of the city tree inventories because it is hardly ever planted. However, of course this type of tree is just as capable of absorbing carbon and casting shade on a paved surface as any tree that is planted with purpose.


Chicory is one of my favorite weed plants by the roadside.  They grow July through October in areas with high lime content and higher acid level (so roadside is it's perfect habitat) and are pollinated by bees.  Looks great with Queen Anne's Lace and fescue.


Tall Fescue is one of those grasses you see all the time in medians between lanes or by the side of the road. I personally find it incredible that such a beautiful grass grows naturally...it's also called Kentucky fescue, tall Ryegrass and gross up to 2' tall. IT was introduced in the late 1800's as grass for livestock. It grows in sun or shade, germinates from seed and is wind pollinated.

Red Sorrel

Red Sorrel is a semi-evergreen perennial that grows to 18" and does well in full sun and poorly drained soils. It speaks through rhizomes so it can form large colonies.


White Clover

White Clover is a mat forming ground cover that has been a crop for farming since the 1700's and can actually improve the nutient content of disturbed soil. It is commonly seen in minimally maintained lawns although has recently gained momentum as a natural component in organic lawns.

Del Tredici research all points to a very important fact  that "weeds" are actually just incredibly successful reproducers and are doing a better job at co-existing with human development than other species. The "playboys of the plant world, if you will. In the age of climate change urbanization, and a rapidly warming globe, these fighting plants are actually more valuable than we know. Their ability to spontaneously adapt and regenerate will play a bigger role in our future ecology.  

Chicory is one of my favorite weed plants by the roadside.  They grow July through October in areas with high lime content and higher acid level (so roadside is it's perfect habitat) and are pollinated by bees. 



Peppered has flowers that are dense spikes with white and  green flowers. Native Americans used  it to treat diseases and rashes. It colonizes empty lots and bare soils.

So based on the research as Del Tredici presents it, we should learn to appreciate this brave new ecology we have imposed, and learn to appreciate weeds as the opposite of our enemy--they are actually the plants that are working the hardest on our behalf.


You can find Peter Del Tredici's book Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast here.