The Garden Gate: Is yarrow a weed? Or might it be more?

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By Ellen Probert Williamson
Progress means change, but sometimes, things do seem to go around in circles.

So many of our more popular culinary herbs were first developed from wild plants or weeds. The list is long and sometimes surprising, since we are constantly being called upon to revise our thoughts concerning what is and is not a weed.

Perhaps it is because plants are constantly evolving, and what one generation cultivates for medicinal use another tries desperately to eradicate in favor of a more useful or beautiful one. It may just depend upon where you stand.

It is quite amazing how often the dividing line between weeds, flowers and herbs becomes blurred and confused. Some plants considered the worst weeds are the most valuable of medicinal herbs — and some of the prettiest old-fashioned flowers our grandmothers carefully cultivated in their gardens are now classified as weeds by horticulturists.

Did you know, for instance, that dandelions are carefully grown in some parts of the world for use in medicines? Here is an example of how it sometimes depends on which angle you are looking from.

Take trumpet vines, for instance. There are 100-year-old trumpet vines which adorn old farmhouses. Some of these have reached the proportions of trees with gnarled and twisted trunks several inches thick and have cascades of orange-colored trumpet-shaped flowers.

Generations of children have known about pulling the blossoms off the vines and sucking the drops of nectar from them. Hummingbirds are always found near the trumpet vines, almost disappearing into the blossoms in their quest for nectar.

Trumpets are of Mexican origin and were known by the Aztecs by the unpronounceable name of tecomaxochitl. They are the bane of dairy farmers because cows love them but often develop an itching rash after eating them as they grow wild in pastures.

In fact, in the South, trumpet vines are usually called “cow itch.” It’s not nearly as pretty a name, but it’s equally descriptive.

Many old-fashioned gardens had yarrow growing as borders or around porches. It is a pretty lacy-leaved plant with small clustering flowers of pink or yellow. Classified as a weed, it is listed in countless herbals as a most beneficent medicinal herb with many uses.

The Anglo-Saxon name refers to the astringent qualities of this plant. It will stop the flow of blood from a wound and is often used as a herbal tonic and a remedy for colds.

Achilles is supposed to have used this plant to staunch the wounds of Telephus.

No old-fashioned garden would have been without hollyhocks or their relative, the flower-for-an-hour. These, as well as rose-of-Sharon, the marshmallow and some other members of the hibiscus tribe, are members of the mallow family.

The tall stalks of the hollyhock with single or double blossoms in many shades of mauve, pink, yellow and white have been loved by many generations of little girls who either made hoop-skirted dolls of them or strung them on thread to make necklaces. It is hard to think of them as weeds.

A drive along a country road in late summer shows us thousands of the beautiful starry Queen Anne’s lace blossoms that decorate country meadows.

They are really wild carrots and are sometimes referred to as devil’s plague, which tells you how they are sometimes regarded. It is also sometimes called the bird’s-nest plant because of the way the umbrels draw together to form a nest-like hollow form after the flower is gone.

These are popular included in dried-flower decorative arrangements. The lacy, white blossoms can be made into fragile but beautiful Christmas-tree ornaments by spraying them with white paint and then sprinkling a glitter powder before the paint dries.

Wild carrots are edible if they are cooked for quite a long time. They are like the common kind in taste and smell. Instead of the fat, yellow carrots we are used to, they are thin and white in appearance.

Mint is often considered a weed because of the determination it has to take over our garden unless it is firmly controlled.

It was named for Menthe, a nymph who was loved by Pluto, the god of the underworld.

When Pluto’s wife found out about Menthe, she angrily transformed her into a small, green plant which would spend eternity seeking underground water looking for her lost love, the god Pluto.

So whether a plant is a weed or a flower, an herb or a remedy, or a plant to be nurtured or one to be eradicated, it is all in how you look at it, isn’t it?

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.