by Marjorie Rachlin
Wildflower or weed? It can be in the eye of the beholder. Take a look at some of the interesting summer wildflowers you can see on roadsides and meadows nearby. Rock Creek Park and the Broad Branch stream restoration are good places to start.
In early August this lovely native pink milkweed blooms on a slope in Rock Creek Park near Military and Glover Roads. It is a favorite of bees, monarch butterflies and swallowtail butterflies, all of them seeking nectar and pollinating as they get it. In a few weeks the plant will have sturdy green pods, ripening with downy seeds.
Milkweeds are a critical plant for monarch butterflies. Like many butterflies, its caterpillar is fussy and eats only one food plant. Modern farming has cut the habitat for these milkweeds, and it is one factor in the falling population of monarchs.
This orange milkweed was photographed at the Broad Branch stream restoration. Like all the milkweeds, it is an important monarch host.
It also makes a good garden flower for hot dry places, and nurseries have been selling it for some years. I grow it on my tree lawn because I like that vivid orange.
This thistle with the purple flower and the bursting seed pods is a native plant that grows in the Broad Branch stream restoration area. Look at the bulging area beneath the flower, and you can see its relation to the artichoke (cardoon), a distant cousin.
Thistles may look nasty and prickly and weedy, but they are rated among the ten best plants for nectar. This nectar bounty is so important to bees and butterflies that experts are urging farmers to let them grow. As you can see in the photo, this thistle’s seeds are ripe now, each one with a thistledown parachute to carry it away on the wind.
Thistles make hundreds, perhaps thousands of seeds, because wind dispersal is a hit-or-miss project. Most of the parachutes will not land in a place they can germinate. (Dandelions and milkweed produce hundreds of similar wispy parachutes for the same reason.)
Just before we snapped this photo, a pair of goldfinches were busy eating the seeds. Thistle seeds are a must in your winter feeders if you want to attract goldfinches.
Many of these weedy plants have been in Europe and the U.S. for hundreds of years, and over that time humans have found a way to cultivate and use them – usually to eat or for medicinal purposes. If a plant is aromatic (like the mint family) it may have an amazing variety of uses, different wherever it grows. Today we also recognize that most of these “weeds”, whether native or foreign-born, are needed for many species of insects and birds.
I love the particular sky blue color of chicory, another “weed” of roadsides and meadows. It is not a native – it came here from Europe where it was known by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Horace, a Roman poet, is said to have eaten chicory leaves every day – they are quite bitter but full of healthy chemicals.
Nowadays chicory is still cultivated for salad leaves. Its relatives, radicchio and endive, are also popular salad ingredients.
Chicory root is widely used as a cheap coffee substitute, particularly in difficult times like the Great Depression. The root is bulbous and tough, and can be roasted, ground and used when coffee is not available. New Orleans is famous for its chicory coffee, (one part chicory to two parts coffee), a substitute which arose when that city was blockaded during the Civil War and coffee was scarce.
This time of year I look for river oats to make a bouquet for the house. I admire its graceful stems and flat seed heads. It is a grass, like many of today’s grains, although not a true oat. Grasses like these were domesticated by the Mesopotamians several thousand years before Christ, and one grass (emmer) is thought to have eventually become the wheat we grow today.
In the Washington area you can find our native river oats along woodland edges, the Potomac River and at the Nature Center garden in Rock Creek Park. Also called “Indian river oats,” it was probably part of the diet of the American Indians who lived here before the settlers. In all likelihood they harvested bunches of it and winnowed out the nutritious seeds.
This lavender flower probably looks familiar – along with a red species it has become a common garden plant. It is a favorite of hummingbirds.
Bergamot is a native member of the mint family, and its aromatic leaves have a spicy oil that has been used for medicinal purposes in many countries over the ages. The National Conservation Resource Center of the USDA lists eleven different Indian tribes that used bergamot for an astounding variety of purposes. Leaves and stems were used as a poultice for skin wounds, chewed for dental pains, boiled or crushed for stomach gas, applied for headaches, colds and fever. Indians also used it as a flavoring in cooking.
Bergamot is a source for a chemical called “thymol,” which is found in many commercial mouthwashes today. This tells me that Indians using it for dental problems were smart.
Joe Pye weed
Nectaring on this Joe Pye weed blossom are two yellow swallowtail butterflies (above and below the sign) and a little yellow butterfly (to the left of the sign). This plant is a native all over the U.S., but you can see this one behind the Rock Creek Nature Center.
Like all aromatic plants, Joe Pye weed was used as an herbal remedy for many ailments by Indians and early settlers. The name comes from an American Indian healer named Joe Pye (actually Jopi) in Massachusetts in the 1740s.
There are a lot more “pretty” weeds out there now – grasses, Queen Anne’s lace, fleabane, mallow and small-flowered sunflower species. As we get into September, we will see goldenrod, ironweed and purple asters, all natives.
And while you are looking, watch out for dragonflies flying over the grassy slopes around Pierce Mill and in the Rock Creek Park meadow near Military and Glover Roads. Forest Hills offers a surprisingly diverse plant and animal life to the interested observer.
Information in this article comes mostly from Wikipedia and other internet sources. Most photos are by friends – Marlene Berlin, Sarah Conezio and Georgia Telmo. The chicory photo is by Carson Maynard from Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.