The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Plant names can be deceiving

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

"Grumpy", "Frumpy", "Stumpy"...People and plants can suffer from nicknames. Botanic names are assigned by certain agreed criteria. However common names of plants are coined after people, places, past lives and peculiar relatives. Just wander through a garden center and a bewildering collection of plant names vie for your attention. However some plants suffer needless scorn due to their unfortunate common names. No marketer would dream up a plant name with "weed" in it, yet many quality plants are ignored due to its inclusion.

For example few people would look twice at a garden-worthy plant named Sneezeweed. As a North American native Sneezeweed, Helenium autumnale, shows its daisy fall-colored flowers in late summer as most plants are winding down. The common name of Sneezeweed refers to its unfortunate association with ragweed which blooms at the same time. Sneezeweed does not cause sneezing nor is it a weed. It is insect pollinated so the pollen is sticky and does not blow in the wind as ragweed.

Sneezeweed can get up to 5 feet tall so it's best in the back of the border or as a lovely late summer addition to a naturalized area. Its long bloom period starts in late summer and can continue for 8-10 weeks into fall. Some of the taller cultivars need someone to lean on and are best planted next to tall grasses such as Big bluestem. Otherwise they may need staking or a heavy pruning in June.

Sneezeweed is best as a perennial in a sunny moist area. A few cultivars are smaller at 2-3 feet tall. 'Crimson Beauty' has mahogany brown flowers. 'Wyndley' bears larger flowers at 2-3 inches in diameter of coppery brown colors. A new name for sneezeweed? I'm thinking Cinderella's Coach or Rodney Dangerfield's Darling.

Some common names have a split personality. For instance, Butterfly weed. The "butterfly" part sounds good but there's that disturbing "weed" name again. Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, is named after its association with monarch caterpillars and the milkweed family. As a native perennial Butterfly weed has "knock your socks off' Illini orange flowers in summer. Butterfly weed's relative Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, can be quite the troublesome weed in fields. The name milkweed was assigned to all the plants with the same genus Asclepias. Milk in milkweed refers to the milky sap exuded if the stems are broken. We now understand the importance of milkweeds for providing the required food for monarch caterpillars. Pretty much all the milkweeds are adored by plant sucking aphids but they are generally not a huge problem. Just wait for a hungry ladybug aphid feast or a heavy stream of water will dislodge the plant suckers; just don't drown the monarch caterpillars. Butterfly weed is slow to establish and slow to emerge in sprlng. I wish it would reseed and become a "weed" in my garden. In Sandy's world Butterfly weed is called Monarch Magic.

Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, also suffers from the same undeserving shame by association as Butterfly weed. Monarch caterpillars love this milkweed and the rosy pink flowers on 3-4 foot tall stems are perfect in the back of a flower garden. Despite its name swamp milkweed does well in moist as well as well drained sites. Many different butterflies enjoy the sweet nectar of all the milkweeds.

Ironweed, Vernonia fasciculata, and rosinweed, Silphium integrifolium, are additional native plants deserving more use in gardens.

Don't let common names keep you from adding fascinating plants to your garden. Do a little homework or ask your local UI Extension office. When I wander garden center aisles my observation is that plants deserving the term "weed" in their names don't have it and the ones with "weed" in their name don't deserve it.

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