To weed or not to weed

Why it might be worth keeping those weeds in your yard

Discovery Place Science

Dandelions are a funny plant. The bright yellow flowers and pillowy tufts of seeds are tons of fun, but they also spread like wildfire and are considered a weed in most places. Many flowering plants that pop up in your yard like dandelions are non-native and, as any gardener or landscaper could tell you, can quickly invade an area. Though they may break up your lawn, these plants may be more important than we give them credit for.

Plants like the dandelion, wild violet, henbit, and chickweed, though often considered weeds, provide a great foundation for the many pollinators in our community. Bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and flies will visit these flowers to collect pollen or nectar.

When many bees emerge from hibernation in the spring they need to start finding food pretty quickly. While other plants are still emerging and preparing to flower, dandelion and henbit are already in bloom. These plants provide food in the early spring and late winter months, ensuring that our bee and butterfly populations remain healthy.

2 bee on flower

These plants aren’t just useful for pollinators, though. Henbit, a member of the mint family, provides nutritious nectar to the butterflies as well as edible leaves poultry, turtles and other animals. The leaves of both henbit and chickweed are also edible for people and can be compared to spinach, containing just as much iron as well as calcium, potassium and other key nutrients, and as such is often used as poultry feed.

However, both you and pollinators need to be careful about eating from plants in your yard. To keep unwanted bugs and plants off the lawn, many people use pesticides and herbicides, chemicals designed to kill insects and plants. The pesticides and herbicides can weaken or kill pollinators and may pose long-term health risks to people. Removing these plants from your yard also reduces the available food for pollinators. Lawns with only grass may be more popular and look better to people, but they create food deserts for pollinators, especially in areas without natural green space.

Although non-native plants like dandelions can provide food for pollinators better than a grassy lawn, native wildlife, including the many pollinator species of native bees are better able to use native flowers. Areas with more native plants also support other native species better than areas where non-native plants are more common.

3 leave weeds be

So what does all of this information about weeds mean for us? Pollinators need flowers, and if native plants aren’t available or plentiful, “weeds” can offer much needed food. If you can plant native plants you should! They are beautiful and often require less maintenance than non-native flowers and grasses. If you can’t plant native plants, let the weeds be.

While you may not want weeds in your yard, there are compromises to keep both you and pollinators happy. One solution is to create a designated “weed garden” where weeds can grow freely. If you need to remove weeds, try pulling them instead of using herbicides and only apply herbicides and pesticides when flowers aren’t present.

Learn more about pollinators and native plants through the North Carolina State Extension, US Forest Service, and Pollinator Partnership.

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