Choice Words

Weed or grass companion?

Words are very important. Advertising agencies know this quite well, and toil in search of the perfect, most evocative term, the one that carries most impact. Politicians also do this. Words like “leaf damage”, “blemish”, “weed”, and “pest” carry a heavy stigma, whether they deserve it or not. I struggle to find better ways to express certain ideas, words that convey a deeper truth, one that often escapes those unaware of the interconnectivity of all life. Sometimes it is possible to come up with a better term; other times the alternative is cumbersome or confusing. I invite all of you to bring your suggestions. Here are a few examples:

Certain so-called “weeds” have a place in the native plants garden and should be welcome. If you Google “broadleaf weeds”, you will find thousands of entries; most of them calling them a problem and providing instructions on how to get rid of them. I have talked about their presence in lawns in “Lawn for Pollinators. Grass Companions“. Some, especially the native ones, are beneficial to pollinators and, perhaps, we would be more inclined to accept their presence in lawns if we called them “grass companions”.

Last week, I heard a conservation biologist lament: ‘We have to change the name of butterfly weed. No farmer is willing to plant anything by the name of “weed” near their fields, even if he is interested in helping pollinators.’

Leaf damage or ecosystem taxes?

“Leaf damage” or “blemishes” in the foliage. I love some of the Dutch floral paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries. They are realistic to the point of including partially eaten leaves and even a caterpillar or two. I wish I could find a good term for leaf damage. We know that these signs of insect activity are a good thing. They tell us that the ecosystem is healthy; the plants are providing food for insects, which, in turn, maintain the entire food web. But what terms can we use to replace the ones with such bad connotations? I talk about “signs of feeding insects” or “signs of insect life”. We could even call them “signs of ecosystem services” and we would be describing their role in the biological community more accurately. I haven’t come up with better ones. Have you?

Balthasar van der Ast. Still Life with Flowers, Fruit, and Shells, detail. Wikicommons

(Other Dutch paintings with caterpillars or signs of insect feeding: 1, 2, 3 and 4)

A pest or bird food?

Caterpillars, wood borers, leaf beetles—when are they “pests”? If they only do a moderate amount of damage, shouldn’t we call them something else? Once again, I am at a loss for words, but depending on the circumstances, I may find a word or phrase that emphasizes their role as part of the food chain and de-emphasizes the damage to plants (“bird food”?). At this point, it is good to remember that most native herbivores seldom cause serious damage. It is the introduced non-natives that can destroy plants and entire forests. They can bring species to the brink of extinction. They do deserve the name of pests, don’t you think?

“Native” is a perfectly good word; in fact it is part of the name of this blog for good reasons. However, all organisms are native somewhere and non-native elsewhere. What we really mean is that they are an integral part of the ecosystem; that they have coevolved with the other components of the community. The word “native” has given rise to all sorts of misunderstandings. Sometimes the recommendation to use natives is interpreted as nostalgia for the past or, worse yet, as xenophobia. It is also confused with national status by those not well informed who fail to see that political frontiers are irrelevant; it is the ecosystems that matter. So, I use words as “community member”, “ecosystem member” and “coevolved organisms” whenever possible.

Bare spot or pollinator habitat?

Bare spots” on the ground are, to me, “bee habitat”. If they have some moisture, they can be “butterfly rest stops”.

A large expanse of manicured lawn is, according to Doug Tallamy, a “wasted opportunity”.

I think that these words are not embellishments of the truth. On the contrary, they depict the truth more accurately than their counterparts.

Can you think of other examples?

And here is a term that captures the imagination: “Homegrown National Park“. It is the name that Doug Tallamy wants to give to our urban and suburban gardens, 20 million acres of them, if they were turned into native plants and wildlife gardens. It would be the largest national park, available to all of us by just stepping out of our houses.

A few sights of our Homegrown National Park above and right.

© 2012 – 2014, Beatriz Moisset. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Beautiful post – such an important concept! In one book I have, Weeds of the North Central States (an agricultural bulletin put out by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), the following are listed as weeds: wild onion (Allium canadense), Arkansas rose (Rosa arkansana), St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), eastern whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), heath aster (Aster ericoides), white heath aster (Aster pilosus), plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum), common sunflower (Helianthus annuus), prairie sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris), Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani), Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), cupplant (Silphium perfoliatum), gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), rigid goldenrod (Solidago rigida), and western ironweed (Vernonia baldwini). [Note: all names used are from the text.]

    It is SO important to remember that labels are not necessarily truth.
    Gaia gardener recently posted..Bits and Pieces on May 1st

  2. says

    You have such a great point about labels. There was an interesting article lately about how “pink slime” as a label is so damaging to the meat industry. (I’m not going to get into whether “pink slime” is okay or not.) They’re trying to encourage people to use the scientific name so as to rework the way people think about it.

    I’ll think some more on ways to re-label some of these (GOOD) things for our yards and will use the more positive descriptions when I write about it. :)
    Jen Rothmeyer (EmSun) recently posted..Mid-Way Through Chalk the Walk 2012, Part 2

  3. says

    I have been using the “lawn companions” and the leaf damage as “leaf art”. I saw a bee going into the garden soil and leave a tiny hole. I left a marker so I wouldn’t rake it up, but I don’t know what kind of bee it was..but at least I am looking now thanks to you…Michelle
    Rambling Woods recently posted..Rose-breasted Grosbeak-The male’s lilting musical carol has been compared to the song of “a Robin who took singing lessons.”

  4. says

    great post. we actually just decided to call common sneezeweed Helen’s Flower at the nursery this year – bc everyone thinks it will make them sneeze so they don’t buy it! we will see if it makes a difference. I like to try to use the most commonly used common name – to help try to avoid confusion (of course for those that read the fine print we always have the scientific name – but not all gardeners do). we were thinking of changing golden ragwort to something else – bc ragwort is pretty unappealing sounding as well – but the other name I know for it is – butterweed – which isn’t much better – bc it still as weed in it! anyone have any ideas for that one?
    Emily DeBolt recently posted..Comment on January’s Plant of the Month by The Secret Lives of Dioecious Plants

  5. says

    on our farm we are pulling the mustard and planting blueberries..seems simple enough, and what a great reward for us and the hundreds of insects that lifecycle through on blueberries..we just have to beat the birds for the ripe berries!

  6. says

    Good, thought-provocating piece. Nothing like leaf miners meandering through a leaf to draw your attention. I call leaf “damage” by insects, “leaf etchings”. They are little artists hard at work for their meal (no starving artists here). Agreed – that we must come up with better names and get away from “weed”, unless it is non-native. Milkweeds, Asclepias, “Monarch magnets”, deserve a better name particularly when butterfly milkweed, A. tuberosa, doesn’t even have milky sap.

  7. says

    Great piece Beatriz. You know me and my weeds ;)

    Last year, at one of our conference planning meetings the very subject of plants being looked down on by having “weed” in their name came up.

    It was mentioned that several years before some tried to advocate on behalf of changing common names but after preliminary brainstorming realized it is a herculean undertaking and probably wouldn’t work. It was also pointed out that the common names varying from region to region.

    I think that it is easier to make the word “weed” a positive thing.

    Milkweed is a good example of getting people to mellow on the “weed” designation since most kids are taught in school about monarchs and their need for this weed. The metamorphasis is a powerful tool so the next generation will be more adaptable since “weed” in this case will be a good thing.

    We set up an information table with our potted “weeds” listing the names and putting a photograph of the butterfly that is the result of those important larval hosts. It had an amazing affect! I’m always on the “weeds that WOW” campaign. As Eeyore said, “Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them”.

    Keep up the conversation! I’m going to use that “bare spot” phrase. You are very clever!
    Loret recently posted..2012 Bird Broods II

  8. says

    Great post! It also seems that people hear “weed” when we say “native”. I think we need photos of exquisitely designed landscapes with packera and Aster divaricatus – something that would appeal to Garden Design and Fine Gardening editors – and call them something like “eternals” or “work-horses”…

  9. says

    We have been encouraging farmers to use goats to eat thistle and other plants usually sprayed with chemicals and wasted (worse, they then become pollution of a different type). We call these nutritious plants fodder, not weeds.

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