In my area of southern Illinois, there are plenty of roadside weeds that homeowners and road crews fight against during the growing season. While many of them may be considered nuisance weeds, they are in fact, wildflowers or weedy plants that can have a place in your yard or landscape. Most people try to keep weeds out of their yard and gardens but I am often teased because I put weeds into my flower garden.
Queen Anne’s Lace
Queen Anne’s Lace is a member of the parsley family and can be found growing along roadsides, in ditches, in disturbed dirt and in fields and yards. Queen Anne’s Lace can grow to be very tall and in fact, I had one plant that grew to almost six feet in height.
Queen Anne’s Lace is a biennial which means that plants will not bloom until their second year. This plant spreads easily through reseeding and can become invasive if you are not careful, but when allowed to grow in moderation it is a great addition to a butterfly garden.
Black Swallowtail butterflies use plants from the parsley family (which includes Queen Anne’s Lace) as host plants. The caterpillars will feed on such plants before transforming into adult butterflies. In my area, Queen Anne’s Lace is sometimes referred to as “chigger weed.”
Plantain is a common weedy plant in many yards, especially in Illinois. There are two types of Plantain that grow in my yard and most yards in Illinois: Broadleaf (or Common) Plantain and Buckhorn (or Narrow Leaf).
Plantain of any variety has medicinal properties but the Buckhorn Plantain is best for this use. Tea from the leaves can be used to diarrhea, dysentery, cough, and hematuria. My experience with plantain has been with crushing the leaves and putting them on scratches, insect stings and blisters but it is also effective in treating ulcers, sores, swelling, earaches and even eye problems. I have made salve from Plantain leaves that I keep on hand for treatment.
Plantain is also a great weed for butterflies and is a host plant for the Buckeye butterfly that can be commonly found in Illinois.
If you drive through southern Illinois, you might notice a tall, blue-colored flower growing along the road. Chicory is a common weed in Illinois but it is also a beautiful wildflower. The pretty blue flowers will bloom for the day then fade by late in the day. The leaves of Chicory resemble Dandelion leaves.
Chicory can be used as a wild food as the young leaves have often been eaten as salad greens. The roots of Chicory plants have been roasted and ground to brew as a coffee substitute. The flower heads and leaves have been used for dyeing and the roots and foliage have been used for medicinal purposes.
Chicory attracts bees and butterflies which is a great benefit for a garden. Chicory is a perennial.
Mullein is a very tall weed that has velvety leaves and yellow flowers. It is very common along roadsides and in farm fields around Illinois. This plant is actually considered a biennial herb and can reach seven feet tall, making it a very noticeable weed in the wild.
For medicinal purposes, Mullein has been used as a tea or a salve for lung diseases, rheumatism, burns, earaches and rashes. Mullein attracts a number of butterflies and bees, making it a great addition to any garden.
In Illinois the Evening Primrose grows wild and is often considered a nuisance weed. I often see these pretty yellow blooms in the evening along roadsides and actually have several of this plant in my butterfly garden. Evening Primrose reseeds easily and once you have a plant, you can rest assured you will have several more over the next few seasons.
This plant will bloom around dusk and by late morning the following day the blooms will close up, making it a unique addition to any garden. Evening Primrose is a biennial herb that grows to be very tall. I have had Evening Primrose plants as tall as six feet.
Evening Primrose seeds have been used for both food and medicinal purposes and are the source of Evening Primrose Oil. Roots have been boiled and eaten and poultices have been made from the leaves as treatment for hemorrhoids and bruises.
Evening Primrose is a nectar flower that attracts a variety of butterflies and bees.
This prolific weed is best known for being the host plant for the Monarch butterfly. All species of milkweeds attract butterflies but the Monarch lays eggs on Milkweeds and the young caterpillars will eat the leaves and stems.
In my area, I have encountered Common Milkweed, Butterfly Weed (also a Milkweed) and Swamp Milkweed. I have these varieties growing in my butterfly garden. Milkweed is highly toxic to poultry and if ingested in large quantities, to livestock. Milkweed is slightly toxic to humans if eaten in large quantities. It can cause dermatitis in some people who have sensitivity to the plant. Native Americans have used the milky white sap as a type of glue and the fibrous cords within the stalk of Milkweed have been used for twine or rope.
Thistle is not the type of weed that you would want much of, but I am happy to have one or two Thistle plants in my Illinois garden. Thistle attracts not only butterflies but also wild birds. The Goldfinch will build a nest in a Thistle plant and Painted Lady butterflies will use Thistle as a host plant for their eggs and caterpillars.
As long as you don’t have to touch it, Thistle is actually a beautiful plant with its pink flowers. If my children were small, I would not have Thistle in my yard or garden as the stalks have thorns that can be quite painful if touched. Also, Thistle plants can become quite invasive and I will only allow one or two plants in my garden. I usually eliminate others that pop up.
Learning More about Weeds and Wildflowers
Check with your local library for books about identifying weeds and wildflowers. Check also with your local Department of Natural Resources office for more information about weeds and wildflowers in your area.