Evil Weeds

By Devon Higginbotham, Suncoast Native Plant Society
(originally published in the Plant City Observer)
Spanish Needles is NOT a weed.
It is native, a great pollinator plant and edible!

“Is that a weed?”  That’s my sister, Candi.  She lives in one of those golf communities where the maintenance crews mow and primp everyone’s yard as well as all the common areas.  I think they allow her a 3 square foot area to “garden”.

“No, that’s a Spanish Needle.  It’s a native plant that’s edible and the pollinators adore the flowers”, I replied, sounding a bit defensive.  “Oh” she replied.  She was trying to sound chipper but I knew what she really said was, “I’m not eating any weeds!”

She’s my big sister which should explain everything.  Her house and yard are always spotless and manicured, whereas my yard is 15 acres in the middle of nowhere. Anywhere farther than 10 minutes from the nearest grocery store was nowhere to her.  Even her dog smells good, whereas, mine smells like she’s been chasing varmints all day and swimming in the pond, which, alas, she has.

Skunk Vine was purposely introduced from Asia as a potential fiber crop.
That didn't work out so well for us, but the Skunk vine loves it.
It has invaded much of central Florida is now considered a number one
"Florida Noxious Weed." It smells bad too (as the name implies).
We wandered along the dirt path amid the butterflies and bumblebees zipping along.  Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted two hummingbirds jostling for territory in a firebush. Suddenly I shouted, “THAT”S a weed!”, as I spied a skunk vine trying to gain a foothold along the path.  I promptly ripped it out of the ground and flung it on the trash pile.

So, what is a weed?  I accuse my sister of calling a plant a weed if she doesn’t know the name, but according to the dictionary, it’s “a plant that is not valued where it is growing and tends to choke out more valuable plants”.  

Most people know about the Brazilian pepper, Australian pine, melaleuca, air potato and kudzu.  But have you heard about Caesar’s weed, Japanese climbing fern, coral ardisia, cogon grass, Mexican petunia, chinaberry tree or nandina?  Most varieties of lantana and Mexican petunia are invasive but are still sold in abundance at plant nursery centers, and most homeowners would be miffed to discover their camphor trees are on the noxious plant list.
As pretty as it is, Chinaberry is a successful weed. A popular
ornamental, when it escapes to the wild it tends to form dense thickets
and crowd out native vegetation. Yapon Holly and Redbud would be
better native choices and are just as pretty. 

Many invasive plants were deliberately introduced into Florida as long ago as 100 years as an “ornamental” or cultivar that “escaped cultivation”.   Without natural controls of insects and diseases these plants had in their native habitat, they grew rampant, blocking out sun and nutrients for native plants. 

Camphor trees were listed in a mid-1900’s forestry guide as “native friendly”, appropriate for streetscaping.  It takes a long time for us to realize we have a problem on our hands and, by then, it is nearly impossible to control.  Birds, wind and time spread the seeds into natural areas and soon the exotic plants crowd out the native plants and create monocultures, dramatically change the landscape. 

Hydrilla, an invasive aquatic plant native to Asia,  have choked our waterways for years and were just recently discovered to harbor a blue-green algae on the underside of their leaves that has proven deadly to birds.  Coots eat the Hydrilla and Eagles eat the dying Coots and end up dying themselves.
Caesar's weed, from India and Asia, has made itself at home in Florida.
where it has no natural enemies, it grows rampantly in many
natural areas, destroying habitat and crowding out native plants.

To be fair, not all exotic plants become invasive.  Most are quite docile and well behaved, but it is impossible to determine in advance which will become the rogue plants, spreading unabated into our natural areas never to be stopped, like a villain from a superhero comic.  

Unfortunately, we don’t have a Batman or Incredible Hulk to come to the rescue.  Our municipalities are financially stretched and don’t have the enormous resources of manpower and herbicides required to combat them.  And if we remove them at the wrong time of year, they immediately drop thousands of seeds only to re-sprout, carpeting the ground with offspring.

But, as consumers, we can help.  By knowing what plants are native and which are exotic, you can be a better consumer by buying only plants that are known not to invade.  To be safe, choose native plants which have existed in Florida for centuries, providing habitat, food and shelter for our wildlife since the dawn of time, without going rogue.  Educate yourself on identifying evil weeds so you know them when they sprout in your yard and you can remove them before they get mature enough to reproduce.

As for my sister, Candi, she called yesterday and said she planted milkweed in her “garden” for the Monarchs.  Maybe we can all learn something from each other.

To learn more about evil weeds, visit the website of FLEPPC - Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council.   

To find native plants, visit the Florida Association ofNative Nurseries website at  or visit the native plant sale sponsored by a local chapter of the Florida NativePlant Society .  


Gaia Gardener: said…
Your opening made me laugh - I am the "big sister", but in my case it's my younger brother who has the manicured home while I have the native plant garden where Bidens is welcome (within limits) and ornamental exotics are weeds!
Ginny Stibolt said…
Good reminder, Devon.
Anonymous said…
I love this blog and am trying myself to make our surroundings native-like.

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