Weedy Plants for Pollinators

Weedy plants in our gardens? In our neat and tidy garden spaces, we do not like the word “weeds”. But weedy plants may not be all that they are made out to be. Many native and naturalized plant species are great plants for pollinators and other insects. We need to determine which to keep and where.

Yes, it may be necessary to keep most of these plants out of the main areas of our gardens and lawns. But there are ways of keeping some and timing removal may actually benefit pollinator species. For example, most homeowners see dandelions blooming in spring, and treat for them then. But dandelions are best treated chemically in autumn, when they rarely bloom. By waiting until fall, we get to get rid of the weed, and keep the pollinator alive.

In my own garden beds I sometimes purposely leave what most call weedy plants. I do this because I want to protect natural ecosystems and habitats for the fauna around me. If something becomes too much of an issue or too aggressive, I remove as much as possible, at the proper time (spring or fall usually).

What are some of these weedy plants?

Native and Naturalized Weedy Plants

Many of the most annoying weedy plants are actually annual and perennial natives. These plants are often short lived perennials or annuals that reseed quickly and vigorously to keep spreading. Gardeners often get very frustrated with some of these plants. But we need to focus on keeping some around, if not for their beauty, then for the insects.

List of Native “Weeds”

  • Fleabane, Erigeron species
  • Hairy Aster
  • Prairie Petunia
  • Hemp Dogbane
  • Black Snakeroot
  • Wild Lettuces
  • Tall Thistle
  • Ironweeds
  • Wingstem
  • Virginia Stickseed
  • Flowering Spurge
  • Snow-on-the-Mountain
  • Common Evening Primrose
  • Gauras
  • Maryland Figwort
  • Mullein False Foxglove
  • Violet Woodsorrel
weedy plants
Weedy Plants of the Central Great Plains

These so-called native “weeds” are an important part of many different ecosystems. Some grow in shade. Others in full sun. Many of them are host plants to various butterflies and moths. And if the pollinators do not have them to use as host plants, guess what? They eat your prized landscape plants first.

Now, I know we are not really talking about small, urban or inner-city garden plots. But rural communities near agricultural fields, national parks, and state parks are very likely to have some of these plants jumping into the garden.

Naturalized “Weeds”

What does naturalized mean? These are plants that are a part of our ecosystems and are here to stay, but are from another continent. I would not consider these to be invasive or ecosystem dangers, but rather friends that are here to stay. The few that I mention are good for pollinators and good for us too.

  • Dandelions
  • Clovers
  • Wild carrot
  • Dianthus
  • Self-heal
  • Purple Dead Nettle

Where to Keep Weedy Plants

Obviously I am not advocating for you to let your gardens go to the weeds and sit back and enjoy. That would never work. Not with us, not with the neighbors, not with HOAs. But we can leave spaces for most of these weedy plants within the landscape that can look natural. Meadow gardens, Monarch Waystations, hell strips, and brushy areas are all good places for these plants.

The meadow garden may be the most important place for some of these weedy plants to be left alone to thrive. A meadow garden is filled mainly with grasses and wildflowers. Wildflowers are often these weedy plants.

In my own yard, I have a place under the power lines that I have purposely left unmowed, allowing the wildflowers and native grasses to flourish. I mow a path through it for walking, but otherwise leave it alone. Many of the above plants live there.

Lawns

I know the lawn is considered sacred ground for many gardeners. You all spend countless hours mowing, fertilizing, and weeding. But the lawn is often a home to some persistent weedy plants, such as dandelions, woodsorrels, clover, and violets. The problem comes in the spring when you see these plants blooming and decide “I need to spray now!”

Unfortunately, early spring pollinators including early bumblebees, honeybees, and other native bees are out foraging. And what do they get? A shot full of chemicals. Most of them die within a few hours of exposure to herbicides. So, if you want to remove those weedy plants from the lawn there are 2 better options: remove them mechanically by digging, or spray them in the fall when they are not blooming.

Or just let them be a part of the lawn like I do. I know, I should have an immaculate lawn for everyone to see, but I hate grass. I like mowing however, so having a lawn full of weedy plants means I get to mow more often! My lawn is comprised of all the above lawn “weeds” plus fescue, crabgrass, bentgrass, zoysia, and creeping Charlie.

Pollinators of Weedy Plants

The photos below will show you just how many pollinators visit our weeds in the landscape. These are just some of the pollinators that use weedy plants in the landscape. Hundreds of native bees, wasps, and flies use them, as well as moths and butterflies.

insects on weedy plants
Bee, Wasp, Fly, and Beetle Pollinators of Weedy Plants
moth and butterflies on weedy plants
Moth and Butterfly Pollinators of Weedy Plants

Weedy Plants are Hosts for Moths and Butterflies

Going through the list of moths and butterflies that use these various plants as hosts for their larvae, I was amazed. Even the nonnative, naturalized white clover hosts dozens of native moths and butterflies. I am going to list the big players in the pollinator host list.

  • Fleabane (Erigeron species) – hosts 11 moth species.
  • Nonnative Clover (Trifolium species) – hosts 52 moth species and 4 butterflies.
  • Hairy Aster (S. pilosum) – hosts 40 moth species.
  • Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) – hosts 17 moths and 2 butterflies.
  • Evening Primroses and Gaura – hosts 5 species of moths.
  • Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) – hosts 3 moth species and 1 butterfly.
moth caterpillars on weedy plants
Just a few moth caterpillars on weedy plants

3 Reasons to keep weedy plants as hosts for moths and butterflies

  1. So they will be less likely to go after prized landscape specimens
  2. More caterpillars means more birds (birds eat caterpillars)
  3. Protect and maintain natural ecosystems of which you are a part

Conclusion

Weedy plants play a valuable role in the local ecosystems as hosts for various butterflies and moths, as resources for pollinators, and as food for other insects and wildlife. Keep them out of your main landscape and encourage them in meadow gardens, woodland edges, and pollinator habitats.

Happy planting!

author of weedy plants

One thought on “Weedy Plants for Pollinators

  1. YES, Dandelion seeds are for sale in packets in the UK. I’ve seen them. and Snow on the Mountain seeds are in seed catalogs in the USA. I even planted some here in Illinois to remind me of the pasture in southern Kansas. I’ve done my share of nurture of orange bush Milkweed for memory. Weeds are simply put: unwanted plants. Old timers around here speak of “dandelion wine” with wistful voices since it isn’t possible anymore. One can’t be judgemental about tasty herbs that are just weeds, someplace. I remember as a child when we could drink raw fresh milk that changed flavor in springtime when the cattle were let out to pasture.

    Janet Macomber [email protected]]
    Urbana IL 61801

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