“Weeds” for Wildlife

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A pair of Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies mate upon the ferny foliage of Yarrow, a common but non-native species in Virginia.
A pair of Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies mate upon the ferny foliage of Yarrow, a common but non-native species in Virginia.
A pair of Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies mate upon the ferny foliage of Yarrow, a common but non-native species in Virginia.

One of the best ways to obtain plants for wildlife is simply to allow “weeds” to grow. Many of these so-called weeds are quite useful to wildlife and they can also bring great beauty to your yard.

For example, readers who find violets (Viola spp.) in their lawns write to gardening magazines asking how to get rid of them. Some folks want their lawns to be a carpet of green, no matter how lovely a flower appearing in the middle of it might be. That’s a loss for the owners in more ways than one.

If they get rid of the violets, they not only miss the opportunity to enjoy the loveliness of their blooms, but also the beauty of the rather large orange-and-brown butterflies—Great Spangled Fritillaries—that are attracted to these plants to lay eggs. Additionally, people also negatively impact the number of “Frits” when they destroy violets that already have caterpillars on the plants.

Another example of a useful but unwanted flower in the lawn is the Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). To me, it’s such a bright and cheery yellow that it’s quite uplifting to see one after a cold winter. Its blooms enliven the landscape with the color of the Sun and herald the warm weather to come. It should be a welcome sight to all!

Because dandelions are one of the first plants to flower in the spring (some of these plants even flower during the winter), I feel sure that they are indeed a welcome sight to the first insects to become active at that time of year when not a lot of plants are blooming. Take a close look and you’ll probably spot numerous species of insects, including tiny bees and butterflies, obtaining nectar from this much-despised flower. Eastern Cottontail Rabbits feed on the leaves (as do some people) while American Goldfinches eat the seeds.

Some of the flowers that might appear on their own if you leave a patch of ground bare or do not pull out every volunteer plant that comes up in your cultivated beds are: Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis), Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), goldenrods (Solidago spp.), and asters (Aster spp).

During the blooming season, their blossoms provide nectar to insects and the greens are sometimes food for mammals and caterpillars. The insects themselves are a potential food source for other insects, spiders, lizards, amphibians, small mammals, and birds, and all of these creatures may end up as nourishment for raptors (larger carnivorous birds) and mammals (such as foxes and raccoons). Later, after the spent blooms have matured into seed heads, some birds and small mammals will eat the seeds during the fall and winter months while other animals search over the plants for insect eggs or hibernating insects.

If you pay close attention, you will be able to observe these interactions and learn just how the natural world functions. However, you will have to disregard a lot of the traditional ways of thinking and caring for your lawn and garden.

If (as I do) you decide that a lawn consisting of plants other than just blades of grass is much more vibrant because of all of the forms of life it attracts, you should not buy fertilizer containing herbicides. And you should accept a few chewed leaves on plants instead of thinking you need pesticides.

Put simply, if you want a yard filled with wildlife, you must not poison it.

Naturalist Marlene A. Condon is the author/photographer of The Nature-friendly Garden: Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People (Stackpole Books; information at www.marlenecondon.com).  If you have a question about plants or animals, or gardening in a nature-friendly manner, send it to [email protected] and please watch for an answer in this paper.