Are They Wildflowers or Weeds?

By Awake! writer in Canada

Wildflowers are fascinating. Pause and examine their intricately shaped blossoms. Look at their diversity of gorgeous colors. Smell their delightful fragrance. And how enticing it is to reach out and touch their soft, delicate petals! Such regal elegance excites our senses. Even our emotions are stirred by such splendor. Truly, wildflowers beautifully complement our environment. They add a unique dimension to our enjoyment of life. For this we are indebted to their Creator and Designer!

While we admire flower blossoms for their bold colors, shapes, and scents, their main function is to make seeds for the vital process of reproduction. To this end, their blooms are designed to attract insects, birds, and even bats for pollination. Songbirds and butterflies especially seek out wildflowers. “They’re a food source for these flying creatures, while cultivated flowers are not,” says horticulturist and author Jim Wilson. It is of interest that according to The World Book Encyclopedia, “originally, all flowers were wild flowers.”

There are many thousands of flowering plants earth wide. So, then, how can a wildflower be identified? What is a wildflower? In very simple terms, a wildflower is any flowering plant that grows without human intervention. In North America alone, more than 10,000 are identified as wildflowers. “While the term refers in general to soft-stemmed plants with showy blooms, wildflower books also include plants with woody stems. These inconsistencies make it virtually impossible to arrive at an all-encompassing definition for every type of plant we call a wildflower,” says naturalist Michael Runtz, author of Beauty and the Beasts​—The Hidden World of Wildflowers.

Seeds are great travelers. Some are capable of very long voyages by wind or water. Most, though,  have natural limitations because they are designed for specific areas. Winds can carry dust-fine seeds for miles. However, seeds with parachutelike attachments, such as the dandelion, may travel only a fraction of a mile.

It may surprise you to know that if you live in North America, many wildflowers now native to your area have been introduced from different lands. The advent of oceangoing ships and the opening up of new territories spread a host of plants and seeds from their parent lands. Many such plants originated in Europe or Asia. Some were “invited” to come, and others arrived as “stowaways.” In fact, many plants that now decorate the North American landscape originally “came as weeds in agricultural crop seeds; others in cereals and grains; in packing materials such as straw and hay; in ship’s ballast . . . Others were brought as herbs for flavorings, dyes, scents, and medicinal remedies,” says the book Wildflowers Across America. Why, though, are these and countless other flowering plants sometimes called weeds?

When a Wildflower Becomes a Weed

Generally speaking, any plant growing profusely where you do not want it to can be termed a weed, whether it shows up in your lawn, in your garden, or among your crops. “Many plants designated  as weeds could not survive . . . if these artificial habitats did not exist,” states the reference book Weeds of Canada. It adds: “We are largely responsible for creating a suitable environment for the growth of the plants that we are most anxious to eliminate.” Some introduced wildflowers invade the habitat of other less-aggressive, naturally occurring plants and radically change the environment. In this way an introduced plant can go beyond becoming a naturalized wildflower and become an invasive weed.

If you have tried to cultivate even the smallest of garden plots, you will understand what is meant by an invasion of uninvited plants. Open ground is susceptible to rapid erosion by wind and water. At any given time, there are literally millions of dormant seeds from a wide variety of plants scattered over the top inch or so of the ground. When an area is open, weeds are programmed to fill in these areas quickly and hold the soil. While this process may cause an ongoing duel in an open garden, understanding it helps you to be aware of the respective roles of both weeds and wildflowers.

Enjoy This Fascinating Part of Creation

You cannot help but admire the unassisted splendor of wooded slopes carpeted with the spring blooms of white trilliums or the sky-blue chicory blossoms that flower in the morning and follow the sun, folding up by noon on a bright day. These merely  signal the beginning of a procession of natural beauty that continues through the seasons, year after year, vying for your attention. The appearance of some, such as the tawny daylily, is very brief. Others, the black-eyed Susan for one, can be seen blooming in sunny fields or along roadsides from late spring through summer.

Indeed, the world of wildflowers is a fascinating part of creation. When some show up in your lawn or garden or you notice them on the roadside or in the woods, take the time to admire their intricate shapes, gorgeous colors, and delightful fragrances. Recognize them for what they are​—a gift from their Designer, our generous Creator.

[Box/Pictures on page 18]

Did You Know?

The common dandelion was once a complete stranger to all of North America. Now most of the world knows the plant. Some authorities claim it originated in Asia Minor. European settlers in the Americas, accustomed to using it as a food source, took it with them for their new gardens. The dandelion root has been used in many patent medicines, while its young leaves have been served in salads.

Oxeye daisies are among the most common roadside flowers. Their origin is Europe. For the most part, they are a cheerful addition to the scenery. Each blossom is really a bouquet of yellow and white flowers. The center disk is composed of hundreds of tiny, fertile, golden florets encircled by 20 to 30 white rays, or petals, that are sterile flowers​—landing pads for insects.

The tawny daylily, it is believed, came from Asia and was then taken to England and eventually North America. While each stem puts forth many flowers, each bloom lasts only one day. They open in the morning and close forever by the end of the day.

The tall buttercup was also transported from Europe to North America. There, it is generally found in moist fields and along roadsides. At times it grows to six or more feet [2 m] in height. Few people realize, though, that it can be dangerous. Nearly all species of this flower are acrid in varying degrees. For centuries some buttercups have been known as blister plants. Anne Pratt, a 19th-century British writer, stated: “Instances are common in which the wanderer has lain down to sleep with a handful of these flowers beside him, and has awakened to find the skin of his cheek pained and irritated to a high degree by the acrid blossoms’ having lain near it.”

[Credit Lines]

Dandelion: Walter Knight © California Academy of Sciences; tall buttercup: © John Crellin/www.floralimages.co.uk

[Pictures on page 16]

Chicory blossoms

[Picture on page 16]

Tawny daylily

[Pictures on page 16, 17]

White trilliums

[Pictures on page 17]

Black-eyed Susans

[Picture Credit Lines on page 16]

Top left: www.aborea.se; top middle: Courtesy John Somerville/www.british-wild-flowers.co.uk; tawny daylily: Dan Tenaglia, www.missouriplants.com, www.ipmimages.org