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Garden in the City: When a Weed by Any Other Name Is a Wildflower

 Garden in the City: What makes a weed a weed.
Weed or Wildflower?
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LINCOLN SQUARE — What makes a weed a weed?

To borrow from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, most of us assume we know one when we see one.

Except for when we don't.

As more and more gardeners introduce "native" plants — aka, wildflowers — into their landscaping, the line between weed and flower has blurred.

This, I discovered, was the reason behind the decapitation of several of my perennials a couple of weeks ago.

Patty Wetli joins DNAinfo Radio for the 2nd episode of "Garden in the City:"

As I originally suspected, our condo management company had dispatched a lawn service to give our mangy grass a trim — which they completely denied, but that's a whole other story — and some of my landscaping wound up as collateral damage.

When I saw a guy with a mower on the property last week, I confronted him.

Confronted is perhaps too strong a word. Though I had, admittedly, thought and said all sorts of horrible things about this person, when faced with a physical human being — who was beyond apologetic for his actions — I went all soft.

I calmly walked him over to the guillotined flowers and pointed to their decomposing stems and leaves.

"Those are weeds," he said.

"No. Those are flowers," I replied.

"Those are weeds," he tried again, less assuredly this time.

"Nope. Flowers."

In all fairness, the plant in question — meadowsweet — isn't much of a looker.

"This European native perennial grows in many parts of the world, including North America, where it is appreciated more for its medicinal uses," according to one website. (Fun fact: Meadowsweet was a key ingredient in Bayer's original formula for aspirin.)

In other words, meadowsweet is the gal with the "good personality" when compared with beauties like roses or peonies or lilacs.

And that, apparently, is the answer to my question of what makes a weed a weed.

"Weed," it turns out, is not a technical botanical term — there's no such category of plant — but rather an arbitrary, subjective judgment.

Among the definitions that turned up in a Google search: a plant that's considered undesirable, unattractive or troublesome. Also, "blocks superior vegetation." (Italics mine.)

Weeds, like beauty, depend on the eye of the beholder, but not solely. There's a certain amount of cultural education involved in terms of what's "superior" and pleasing to look at.

We aren't born with a built-in weed detector. Ask any mom who's received a bouquet of dandelions from an earnest child who doesn't yet disdain the pretty yellow blossoms.

We learn what's desirable and attractive — rhododendrons, azaleas, tulips — and what's not. The former we nurture and care for, the latter we yank from the ground or douse with Roundup.

The native plant movement has brought about a rethinking of the way foliage is valued.

"It's a shift in aesthetics," Laurel Ross, urban conservation director at the Field Museum, told me when I met her a couple of years ago.

Most Americans grow up with well-manicured lawns and flower beds, she noted. Native plants such as cone flowers and black-eyed Susans tend to have a wilder appearance, like uncombed hair, and spread at will, which is fine for the side of the highway but requires a broadening of perspective when it comes to planting them in our yards.

Some people may have wrapped their heads around the idea that native plants are healthier for the ecosystem — drawing rainwater deeper underground, providing habitat for birds and insects, requiring less cultivation — but they're still far from the norm.

Just ask the gardener who was fined $600 by the city after neighbors complained about her unruly yard. A previously award-winning unruly yard, mind you, that had been praised by experts for its natural landscaping.

I'm as guilty as the next person. Every spring I head off to the garden center with a vow to go native and then return with stuff that's mostly just plain pretty.

My favorite plant in the yard: pieris japonica.

It's native alright ... to Japan.

Veggie garden update: It's been a week of highs and lows over at Global Garden.

First came the euphoria of seeing the earliest inklings of carrots, beans and corn poking their heads out of the soil. Then came the realization that pests — the dread pillbugs and/or sowbugs — were feasting on these seedlings as quickly as they sprouted.

Last year, we battled these critters with beer, grapefruit and our bare hands, clearly to no avail. This year, we're not messing around.

We schlepped to the Menard's in Humboldt Park, the only place in the city where we could find Sluggo Plus (100 percent organic), which members of an online gardening forum promised would eradicate these creatures.

The bugs apparently eat this bait, and then stop feeding altogether. So we're basically causing them to starve to death.

Sounds cruel, I know, but it's either the bugs or the beans and we're Team Bean.