Miss Floribunda - June 2008

Dear Miss Floribunda,

I am another gardener new to the area. This is my first spring in the house I bought last summer. One of the main attractions of the house was its already established garden with some nice plantings. The soil seems pretty good. Last fall I planted bulbs, and had good results this spring. In mid and late April I planted seeds, mostly collections of annuals and wildflowers, sun-loving and shade-loving. There are lots of little things coming up, but some I suspect are notwhat I planted. They might be nice plants that self-seeded from established areas of the garden but some I am pretty sure are weeds. I am always pulling out little sprouts with acorns attached, and even I can figure out they are oak seedlings put there by squirrels with a reforestation project. Because I have no oaks I have potted some of these to places elsewhere. I've potted some others that I can't identify but the stems are woody and the roots relatively long so I'm almost sure they are little trees. I also can recognize dandelions. What I can't identify is something that that looks like a chrysanthemum but with a different though equally acrid odor. It smells like some kind of medicine. In addition, I am finding quite a lot of fluffy things flowering so early I can't believe they come from the seeds I planted. They don't look like anything I've ever seen for sale. They look almost like mint, without the minty smell, and have sprigs of cute little lavender flowers. Also, I have some clumps of little turks-cap-shaped flowers,
white with pink stripes. Do you have any idea what they are?

Sign me, Mala Hierba
Dear Mala,

Your letter has inspired the Hyattsville Horticultural Society to devote our next meeting, June 21, to weed identification and
informal plant exchange. Please bring your pots of mystery seedlings. What one gardener finds a pest might be a boon to someone else. Some people would love to have an oak seedling. Personally I am thrilled to find volunteer althea (rose of sharon) seedlings in my garden, and have been transplanting them to the edge of my property to form a privacy hedge, but other gardeners find them noxious. I pot the seedlings from my redbuds because they make welcome gifts. On the other hand, I ruthlessly extirpate the seedlings from the mulberry tree that I only permit to live because the birds love the berries, and I love the birds. One specimen of this invasive tree is quite enough. Another seedling you probably won't want to tolerate is that of the controversial bradford pear. This is a tree developed by a Dr. Bradford at the Glenn Dale USDA in the 1950s from the Callery Pear, seeds of which came from China around 1920. After being released commercially in 1963, it became very popular because it grows fast and is ravishingly beautiful when in bloom. However, its life span is not long, only fifteen years, and with an ugly last period of demise. Falling branches can damage cars and other property if you have it in your yard or along a street. The thorns can puncture tires. Perhaps to make up for its short life span, it reproduces, hybridizes and mutates frantically. This seasonally beautiful monster is very invasive and has become a threat to native species in woods and along highways . En masse, its pungent odor can be really unpleasant. Though it was designated the official tree of Prince George's County about thirty-five years ago, it may lose that honor soon. About that "chrysanthemum"--I know it well. It also is of mixed value. It is mugwort, or artemisia vulgaris--a wild form of wormwood. It tends to repel insects and other weeds, which is good, but aleopathic excretions from its rhizomes can kill the plants you want to keep. In addition, it's another very invasive plant and is well-nigh impossible to extirpate once it gets established. I heard that adding lime to the soil, would help but it's still a problem. Be vigilant and dig up those rhizomes ASAP. It really does smell and taste like medicine, and in fact has medicinal uses. I asked my learned friend Dr. R. Cain what they might be, and it would take an entire column to repeat all the lore. A brief run down of properties attributed to it by different cultures through the centuries are diuretic, diaphoretic, and emmenagogic, as well as an antidote to toadstool poisoning. It has been considered a cure for epilepsy, jaundice, "the ague", plus protection against sunstroke, evil spirits, wild beasts, and the common cold. As if this weren't enough, my enterprising friend Dee Ellis has managed to make absinthe out of it. Though now legal, the stuff Dee has concocted so far isn't really potable--maybe with time she can bring about a better less brutally brackish batch of bitter brew.

Less of a problem are those shallow rooted little flowering weeds. The first I guess to be a plant with the uncharming name of "dead nettle." The second is almost undoubtedly the adorable "spring beauty" wildflower. Bring them in to our meeting and let a panel of experts make a decision. In fact, we invite all readers to come to the Municipal Center at 10 AM on Saturday, June 21, with all the plants that you wish to have identified. Challenge us!