Native plants vs weeds?

Asked July 4, 2019, 12:35 PM EDT

I live in a very shaded property, and I want to promote native ground cover. I've been starting some research on native plants, and I've already asked a few questions here to identify what's already growing in my yard. A lot of the answers have come back that the plants I have are "weeds," but when I look them up, they're also native. So I guess my question is what is the difference between a native plant vs a native weed, and are weeds always bad? Should I be pulling the weeds that I have, even if they're native, and planting different native plants instead?

I'm planning on a slow process for converting my yard into something more native and sustainable with lots of diversity and places for animals and bugs to live and eat. Preferably, I want something I don't have to mow so I don't disrupt things too much, but I know I will probably always have to manage invasive species to some degree. I'm not planning on ripping everything out on sight this year, more like a process of focusing on small areas at a time. But I guess for my long term goals, I'd like to know if I should be planning to get rid of all weeds or if they can serve a purpose in my native yard.

Prince George's County Maryland

1 Response

This is a great question!

A popular definition of a weed is "the right plant in the wrong place." It's completely subjective most of the time. Except for non-native invasive plants (and possibly non-native occasional volunteers), any native should be fine. Our culture doesn't have much tolerance for plants that are not listed as ornamental in a gardening book, or found in a nursery.

There are many native "weeds" that are perfectly good players in the environment, but they seed or spread themselves in ornamental beds that are a intended to be a particular predetermined design. Or, perhaps they look good in the spring and brown out mid-summer, or, for some other reason, are not very ornamental.

However, if you are trying to nurture a natural area, many are terrific! They make great groundcovers, for example Persicaria virginiana (painter's palette), Geum canadense (white avens) or even poison ivy. They will show up as volunteers probably. Usually, deer don't eat them, or rather deer don't kill them. They feed wildlife. Obviously, they are adapted to your environment.

So, as you are already doing, get to know what you have, rip out invasives and enjoy.