Weeds: Wonderful or Woeful?

by Rebecca Shankland
April 2001

The wet winter has produced a prolific sprouting of roadside vegetation and lawn intruders. Dandelions, mustards, stickseeds—we mostly dismiss them as weeds, and rip them out or spray them with something whose label we’d rather not read too carefully.

But Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Victorian priest-poet of Romantic sentiment, had another perspective:

Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush...

Did he have a point, or was he ignorant of the difficulties of raising a golf-green lawn?

Let’s start with dandelions, the most ubiquitous and easily recognized “wheels.” If you don’t like them, they’re deep-rooted and hard to dig out. Those splendid little lollipop seed-heads are a Darwinian masterpiece—not only do they sail off like small umbrellas to colonize uncharted territories, but they get our children’s cooperation in setting them off in the breeze. Are they pretty? Look at the airport road strip or any nasty, trash-ridden scrap of dirt; then look at the tailored lawn by the police station and Ashley Pond—probably dandelions get an A when they peek up from a concrete slab and an F when they dare to spoil a solid sweep of labor-intensive, man-made green. Even if you love their bright yellow cheerfulness (as evident in Jim O’Donnell’s wonderful recent Monitor photo), you may be surprised at the same spot when the flowers all go abruptly to seed, looking like a bunch of dust kitties under the bed.

But you must also give dandelions credit for their usefulness to humankind. They’ve long been recognized as being tasty salad greens (field greens bring $7.99 a pound in the supermarket) and as a natural diuretic. The scientific name is Taraxacum officinale—the latter word always refers to plants that are used medicinally. The French are more specific about its effects: they call it piss-en-lit, suggesting that a large dose may result in wetting the bed.

The mustards have won the population race this year. I’ve never seen so much of the frail, skinny, grey-leaved stalks of tansy mustard. It’s everywhere—along nearly all the road edges like State Road 4 in White Rock and shooting upward in unmowed grama grass lawns. In well-watered areas it begins to branch and gets bushy. Up to three feet tall, it makes a cloud of pale yellow with its tiny four-petaled heads at the tops of stalks. The give-away characteristic is the seed pods or siliques: they march down the main stalk below the flowers and have a 1/2-inch stem and a 1/2-inch silique, a tiny hot-dog shaped seed pod. The siliques are numerous, slightly upturned, quite decorative, but eager to spread their seeds in abundance. The grey-green leaves are heavily dissected, like parsley.

Tansy mustard is scientifically Descurainia richardsonii, the first name referring to a French apothecary and the second to an English naturalist. Like the dandelion, it can be useful—Native Americans grind the siliques into food and pottery paint.

Mixed in with tansy mustard, one may find the occasional shepherd’s purse. Again the siliques are the obvious characteristic, in this case giving the plant its name. Imagine tiny perfectly heart-shaped pods on tiny stalks below the minute white flowers—much like tansy mustard but with distinctly green foliage and fatter leaves. The fat pods reminded pastoral people of purses carried by shepherds, and the connection is shown in the scientific name Capsella bursa-pastoris, (translated as “little case” and “purse of shepherd”). Grigson’s “Englishman’s Flora” points out that the resemblance to a purse is made by inverting the pod, then hanging it from a string around the waist of a poor man (shepherds were always considered to be at the bottom of the economic ladder), and thinking of the seeds as money. These purses can be seen in Renaissance paintings of peasants, such as Brueghel’s. Interestingly, the French and Germans use the same name: malette de berger and Hirtentaeschen.

Another white mustard similar to shepherd’s purse (also about 1 1/2 feet tall) but with round siliques is peppergrass. This forms lovely white masses in a few spots around town—my favorite is just below TA-66 on the south side of Pajarito Road. This year its survival is remarkable since the road edge was pounded mercilessly by heavy equipment building the infamous post-fire dam in Pajarito Canyon. The white cluster is unmistakable as you drive past, and yet the ground around it is completely bare.

A new discovery for me this year is a purple mustard with coarse dark green wavy-edged leaves and a thick, hairy stem 1 to 2 feet tall. The elongated violet-purple flowers are a mere1/4 inch across, but that’s big enough to show the four-petal structure that is always a characteristic of the mustard family, which used to be named Cruciferae for the cross-shaped flowers it bears. I finally found the plant in Robert DeWitt Ivey’s excellent “Flowering Plants of New Mexico,” which lists it as local to just our region. It has a strange name, Chorispora tenella; “chori” means “separated,” “spora” is “seed,” and “tenella” is simply “narrow”—all of which describes the inch-long narrow silique with its tiny circular bands separating the seeds. Evidently its only common name is purple mustard.

Look for a weedy abundance of this plant in disturbed ground such as west of the Pinon School parking lot, a bank at the corner of Sycamore and 41st, or on the trail by the water tank at the beginning of Quemazon Trail.

How to rank the mustards? Tansy mustard is a scraggly plant with nondescript flowers; its only virtue is its usefulness and perhaps the view from a distance—a pale yellow vision along the abused road edges. Shepherd’s purse wins my vote for its charming and imaginatively named siliques and its rarity compared to tansy mustard. Peppergrass’s shimmering white fairy-cloud makes a bright impression on the passing motorist and this year it gets high marks for surviving the trucks on Pajarito Road. Purple mustard was new to me, so I’m still impressed even though the single one in my untilled garden may return to plague me later. Mustards have a way of mimicking the advice to voters: bloom early, bloom often—and every bloom becomes a silique-pouch of seeds.

A final notable in the current catalog of weeds is stickseed, Lappula redowskii or marginata. It starts life as a 12-inch tall plant with long, narrow, fuzzy leaves clasping the stem. The pale blue flowers are like miniature forget-me-nots, which are members of the same borage family. The flowers are almost invisible in their clumps at the tops of the stems; then they rapidly turn into little round burs with tiny claws waiting to hitchhike on your socks or pants. Of course the burs are less visible than the flowers, so the passerby hasn’t a chance to escape without contributing to stickseed’s survival. If you’ve ever had to de-bur your socks, you will find this the least appealing of the weeds.

My conclusion: when weeds pop up in wasted areas or when they create a wash of roadside color, Gerard Manley Hopkins is right. But when they invade the lawn or garden, outnumber the flowers you prefer, and have nasty reproductive habits, then they’re woeful weeds.