Tag Archives: weeds

Pretty Poisonous Pokeweed

mature pokeweed berries

A common sight in Virginia now are the purple berries hanging from green shrubs along the roadside. Pokeweed (Phytolacca decandra) is an herbaceous perennial, considered a weed by most gardeners. Pokeweed is easy to find on roadsides, fields, and ditches as birds eat the berries and drop the seeds. From summer to fall, pokeweed blooms small white flowers on peduncles (stems) making them stick out. In the fall, the berries appear first as flatten green balls with a dimple in the center on hot pink racemes and later, as if they had been inflated, as deep purple, ¼ -inch balls on red racemes. The contrast of purple and red or green and pink is so pretty that pokeweed is often used for fall floral arrangements.

immature pokeweed berries

Pokeweed berries are attractive but it is important to know that all parts of the plant are poisonous. Some people even get rashes from touching the plant. If you have children or see pokeweed in areas where children frequent such as school playgrounds, you should remove the plants. Pull the thick stems after a rain when the soil is loose and when the plants are young. If they mature, they develop taproots, making them difficult to remove completely. If you are not worried about children, consider growing them as a native food source for birds in your garden.

white pokeweed flowers with both green immature and purple mature berries in background

Invasive Balloon Flower Takes Over the Garden

Today I tweeted that it would be good to pull weeds since it had rained buckets for the past few days, thus decreasing the heat and humidity and loosening the soil. For me, the time was ripe to pull an invasive plant from my garden, balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus). “Balloon flowers?” you say, “but it has such pretty blue flowers and the kids love to pop those inflated buds.” Yes, my kids did like to pop the buds on my original plants as they walked to the front door and yes, they do produce pretty blue flowers on tall stems all summer long. But after 10 years, the kids don’t see them anymore (because their heads are always bent down viewing their iPhones) and the original four have multiplied into hundreds, crowding out my other perennials in my Virginia garden.

original four plants have multiplied on left side of walkway and have tan seed pods (directly across walkway is one balloon flower from front garden bed)

Part of problem is that balloon flowers self-seed very fast. The plants could be deadheaded to prevent self-seeding but this is a nerve racking, time consuming task. Each single seed pod has to be clipped off in order to leave the remaining buds or open blossoms. It is not possible to whack the entire plants down a foot. And part of the problem is that they are deer-resistant, drought-resistant, and generally pest free but the worst part is that balloon flowers have long, large tap roots. Breaking off the stem just encourages more stems to grow from the root. Although it is easier to pull and dig after it rains, I still spent hours pulling and digging to get the whole roots out as much as I could. I suspect I did not dig deep enough though, there probably are pieces in the soil that will rise again like the phoenix.

seeds landed on front strip across walkway (blooming with blue flowers)

Interestingly, I have found little reference to its invasive attribute on the internet. I did learn that the Kitazawa Seed Company catalog sells them and according to their description, the root, called doraji, is used in Korean cuisine. It is also used as an anti-inflammatory to treat colds and is considered a cheap ginseng substitute. The root can be dried and packaged for sale in Asian markets.

Unless you want to grow your own doraji for medicinal or culinary reasons, don’t plant this invasive perennial in your garden no matter how much fun you have popping the balloons.

pulling to reveal tap root


Beware the Bradford Pear Tree!

Spring is in the air and so is the white flowering Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana). You have probably seen tons of them in the Washington DC metro area. Right now in March, they are really pretty with so many small white flowers – like giant puffs of white clouds. But then you begin to see them everywhere: along the highway, in vacated lots, and in every industrial park – like weeds. The Bradford pear was originally thought to be a sterile tree. As new cultivars were created, the cultivars were able to cross pollinate, resulting in small “pears” favored by birds (thus spreading the seed). As time has gone by and the trees have matured, we have learned that they are structurally weak. They develop such a steep V-shaped branching structure, they can easily split in half. Recently, I learned another reason to not plant these weeds.

Last week, when I picked up the kids from school, they complaining of a foul, fish-like odor. I said it was probably the fresh mulch the landscapers applied on the school grounds but they said no, it was the white-flowering trees at their school. I pulled down a branch and sniffed. Sure enough, it smelled like fish! I never knew that about Bradford pears – just another reason not to plant them.

February: Time to Pull Weeds in My Virginia Garden

On Facebook I see several countdowns to spring but for me gardening is a year round endeavor. Although we have had and will continue to have snow and freezing rain here in Northern Virginia, I burst outside when an “almost warm day” appears in February, anxious to get a head start. I pull weeds, remove fallen branches, and throw away the invasive ivy. When the snow comes again, I am indoors updating and sorting my list of seeds and planning my veggie gardens on graph paper. It’s not that I have a large garden, we live in a typical suburban house, but I have crammed so much in so little space over the 12 years that we have been here that I have to keep track of everything on paper and in computer files.

This week we did have a passable day so I pulled as many weeds as I could. By this time, it is easy to identify and pull weeds that have settled down the previous fall and are just as anxious as I am for the spring’s warmth. Pulling them now before they flower reduces their population but also it is easier to pull when the soil is moist and the plants are too small to set anchor. Later, I will put down mulch to prevent more weeds but in February just sitting down and pulling weeds is a horticulturist’s idea of fun.

purple deadnettle on left and hairy bittercress on right

purple deadnettle on left and hairy bittercress on right

In my garden I have an infestation of hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta). A member of the mustard family, these young’uns appear as small mounds of subdivided leaves, creating a lacy or scalloped appearance. Later, as the plant matures and grows, slender stems will arise from the base producing very small, white flowers. By late spring, slender seed pods will burst open when touched (called “explosive dehiscence”), shooting seeds as far as 3 feet! Also called shotweed, this weed prefers damp conditions and should be removed as soon as possible.

I also pulled purple deadnettle, a member of the mint family. Purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) is called “dead” nettle because the plant resembles the true nettles (Urtica spp.) but does not sting like a nettle, hence, “dead” nettle. Right now in February, I can only see young, leaves at ground level which makes it hard to identify but in a few months, the striking flower structures will grow tall above the basal leaves and the youngest, smallest leaves at the top will be purple. Tubular-like, purple flowers, typical of the mint family, peep out from under the uppermost leaves.

henbit in foreground and mouse ear chickweed in background

henbit in foreground and mouse ear chickweed in background

A cousin of purple deadnettle, henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), looks similar but does not have the pronounced purple color on the leaves. Purple deadnettle has stalked leaves on the flower stems while henbit does not: “amplexicaule” means leaves grasping the stem. The pretty scalloped leaves wrapped around the stem remind me of Queen Elizabeth I with her ruffled collar. Also a member of the mint family, henbit has small pink/purple, tubular like flowers.

Looking like a cross between a dandelion and a thistle, groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) is a member of the sunflower family. Like a dandelion, groundsel has a taproot and the same feathery type of seed head. It is good to pull while young before the tap root gets established but already in February it is beginning to sport yellow flowers, similar to a dandelion flower but smaller. If I had not been weeding as early as February, the groundsel would have flowered, set seed, and the wind would have dispersed hundreds of seeds to the rest of my property.



Two weeds that I do not have but spotted in my kids’ school garden are common chickweed (Stellaria media) and mouse ear chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum). There are several different types of chickweed, all members of the carnation family. The common chickweed has smooth, small, egg-shaped leaves and is so named because the plant is used as a starter food for baby chicks. The mouse ear chickweed has hairy leaves, slightly larger than the common chickweed, resembling fuzzy mouse ears. Both have tiny, five-petal flowers but the common chickweed is an annual while the mouse ear chickweed is a perennial. These plants have shallow fibrous roots; their stems spread and crawl and are capable of rooting where the node touches the soil.

common chickweed and mouse ear chickweed

common chickweed and mouse ear chickweed

The garden is not asleep in February. Vast armies of weeds are growing and flowering so as to disperse hundreds of weed seeds before I even start to plant the tomatoes.



Weeding and The Pursuit of Happiness

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I spend a lot of time weeding in March and April, partly because I have to clean up from the fall (we never do get all those maple leaves off the garden beds) and partly because the spring warmth and rain encourages weeds to take over like crazy. You have to get them out of the garden bed before the perennials wake up or you just have a tangled mess.
The best time to pull weeds is when the soil is moist, after rain or in the morning. It is an easy thing to fit in for an hour at a time if you have all of your supplies ready. I wear old garden clothes and tennis shoes and literally pull the weeds with my hands. I love my Foxgloves gloves because they fit like a surgeon’s glove; they make it very easy to get down to the base of the weed and pull it out. Afterwards, I can rinse the dirt off with water from the hose, put them in the washing machine, and hang up to dry. I discard the weeds in the large cardboard boxes in which reams of copying paper are sold; we always have plenty at the office. These boxes and lids are very useful for lots of gardening chores and it is best to get the ones with the cut out openings at each end for handles. When the box is full, I dump the weeds in to my Fiskars Kangaroo, a very large collapsible gardening bag – much larger than a kitchen trash can. Lined with large plastic bags clipped on with binder clips, the Kangaroo is really useful for large cuttings of plants or large amounts of plants.
I also use an old kneeling pad but this year, my daughter gave me a new one for my birthday. They are surprisingly expensive but in the spring you can get them at a much reduced price at dollar stores. For dandelions, I use a fish tail weeder. Mine is so old it is bent but still useful for digging them out the long tap roots of dandelions one. Dandelions in the grass don’t bother me but this past spring we had so many large dandelions in the garden beds I used another Fiskar product, Uproot Weed and Root Remover. All you have to do is position the four claws over the dandelion, step down on a lever and pull it out. There is a part of the handle that makes the claw retract so it lets the dandelion loose and it drops to the ground. You don’t have to kneel or bend. I let my son use it on all the dandelions in the garden beds and he loves it (Hint: get a cool tool and you have helpers!!).
The good thing about weeding is that it is a no brainer activity. It lets your mind wander about life and the pursuit of happiness, more plants, more garden beds, and yes, more garden tools. So if you get interrupted three times by your kids, you are okay, you haven’t accidently whacked a new shrub or pulled out the radish instead of the hairy bittercress.