With the spring plant swap a week away -- Saturday, April 21, a biannual meeting of gardeners and would-be gardeners when bunches of us meet and greet most informally to give away plants that are overtaking our gardens instead of struggling to stuff them, sticks and all, into black plastic bags, dragging them to the curb only to get tossed into our burgeoning hills of landfill -- I’m not sure this is the appropriate time to talk about what I just read in the January journal of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants: “Garden Weeds in the Age of Jefferson.”
But here goes. What the heck. We’re adults. We believe in full exposure. We’re after the truth. After all the lies, big and small, we’ve been through the past seven years in Washington, D.C., we can take most anything, right?
Well, here’s the skinny. Here’s the warning. Don’t say I never told you.
As blameless as they may look, the piles and piles of free plants, carefully packaged seeds, roots, bushes and trees you choose to gather at the upcoming plant swap, all these jewels and gems that you stand over and analyze, that you carefully pick up, toss into your little red Radio Flyer and haul to the back of your truck or the back of your car, beautiful as they are, promising as they appear, exciting as the price may be, quite possibly could contain a sprinkling of “exotic invasives,” a fancy phrase for weeds.
There it is. That’s the disclaimer. And while you may not see such an advisory posted at any of the big box garden centers, it could happen there, too. Weeds are tenacious, determined and hell-bent on furthering their cause. They’re sneaky and underhanded. They could take over your garden. But for the occasional gardener who doesn’t like to be pinned down to cultivating and nurturing, is that so bad?
Take “butter and eggs” (or toadflax), a wildflower I coveted and got at a recent plant swap and work so hard to keep alive.
Beautifully featured online by many garden websites, including the Connecticut Botanical Society, butter and eggs is in the figwort family or, for the scientists among you, a Linaria vulgaris. I love the delicate yellow and white colors (thus the name), its miniature aspect, its modest appearance.
Now I ask you. Could this sweet little innocent plant be the same species that John Bartram, known as the father of American botany, called “troublesome” and “mischievous”?
Apparently so. The “stinking” Linaria, according to Bartram (according to the folks at Monticello), was impossible to eliminate, pernicious, problematic and unprofitable.
I should have such a problem.
Then again, I’m the wrong person to ask about weeds. I love poke weed. I love Queen Anne’s lace, which is in the carrot family, something I discovered when I let my carrots go to seed one year. I even like dandelions. Who can argue with that color, sometimes the only yellow around?
But all three, along with plantain, horse nettle, briars, broom sedge, the admittedly noxious nutsedge (eergh!) and bermuda grass (which came to us from Africa in the bedding of slave ships), made the same list as the 20 worst weeds in the early 19th century.
And we thought things change.
Jimson weed is also on that same list. Strangely enough, with white flowers that open and close at night, jimson weed is a member of the datura family, which makes it kin to moonflowers, whose twisty-curvy, tubular white flower is a close relative of the angel trumpet or brugmansia, which is one of the most coveted items at the plant swaps.
One man, a regular, grows the plant in his garage under artificial lights. When he comes to the plant swap, he can barely set his seedlings down before people start to snatch them up. Go figure.
Maybe Jefferson, who never met a plant he didn’t like, who came to recognize that certain plants were “out of place” just didn’t know any better. He did after all consider poison ivy, with its striking autumn color, an ornamental, “suitable for shrubberies,” Maybe he was naive. Maybe, as the Monticello Journal suggests, he was living in a “virgin age of innocence.” But he had another view on weeds.
“The spontaneous energies of the earth are a great gift of nature,” he wrote. “But they require the labor of man to direct their operation.”
That’s your job this week. Direct your energies to the earth. Decide what you’re tired of. Determine what you can give away, what you can live without, what you need to pull to make room for something new, weed or not. Leave the issue of “invasive species” to the experts. Get ready for the plant swap.
For questions about the swap, call 484-3045. The swap is held from 9 to 11 a.m. April 21 at 415 West Boundary Street, about a mile south of Louisville Road. There is no charge.