The Weed that can Snare a Gardener

Was I taken in by this one!

This native marsh marigold is a bright spot in wet areas.  

A very good friend who shall remain nameless gave me this particular weed as a gift. She was as excited to give it as I was to receive it. Marsh marigold, I exclaimed. Yes, she said. And there’s lots more if this doesn’t take.

Warning sirens should have gone off in my brain. I’d only seen marsh marigolds growing deep in swamps. So where did my friend find this mother lode of plants? However did she gather them without sinking into muck and becoming a swamp mummy? No sirens blared. No questions asked. In my enthusiasm I made extravagant promises to give these special plants a good home.

What a show this impostor makes in late winter here in eastern North Carolina

The legality of gathering and growing native plants never entered my mind. This was too great a prize to quibble. Who would be arrested if someone tattled? Would my friend be the culprit and I the accomplice, or would we both go down together? Would the tattler get to take a plant? Much much later these questions occurred to me.

At the time, I was feeling insecure about my gardening skills, which is a delicate way of saying that most of what I planted died summarily. So I nurtured my marsh marigold. When it prospered in our heavy wet soil, and gardeners congratulated me on my great plant, and I could share bonuses with friends, I felt like a proud parent and an exceptional gardener. I was so tickled I began to transplant it throughout the garden.

I lovingly planted up this bed, waited impatiently for it to fill in.

It was hard not to love this plant. Bouquets of flashy yellow buttercup flowers above shiny round leaves that hugged the ground would cheer the flagging spirit of any weeder in early spring. A couple of months later we would have to put up with a short messy period until these little suns set and the entire plant disappeared to rest until next spring. But once the beds were clear, a second act of later bloomers, like Japanese iris, or maybe Mexican heather, or salvia, could take center stage. The possibilities were endless. Wasn’t I the clever one!

After about five years this docile plant became positively cheeky, and I began to suspect something was amiss. Yes, it took me that long. By the time I caught on, the plant had become a tribe of biblical proportions. In their exuberance, the plants clambered over each other, rolling over more polite plants and worming themselves in and around the roots of others in an epic battle for territory.

Lesser celandine loves colonizing shrubs like this still dormant hydrangea, probably because the plant has been regularly fertilized and watered.

The coup de grace came one day when a visitor commented on all the lesser celandine I had, and my, how it had invaded my garden.

Lesser celandine! Lesser celandine! I’d never heard of lesser celandine. Not marsh marigold?

No, she said, but it’s a pretty close look-alike and they’re in the same buttercup family. Marsh marigold only grows in very wet places. Lesser celandine is not native. It was brought over from Europe in the 1800s, maybe for its medicinal qualities – it’s supposed to cure everything. Did you know that Wordsworth loved it, even wrote poems about it? Today it’s an escapee from gardens.

A healthy sample. Stems may look tough but they release willingly. Photo from

Well, I thought, at least my friend and I won’t go to jail. Maybe I could open a pharmacy with this lot. If I had not been reeling from shock, I might have said something insouciant like, oh, but it is such a cheerful plant I like having it everywhere. (Maybe.)

Never mind, I thought, I can handle this. I’m an experienced gardener now. Right? This weed/plant — what’s the name of it again? I can never remember its name, I must have a mental block — is too pretty to pull out. I’ll keep it in bounds. I’ll control it. You’ll see. I’ll thin it. Yes, that’s what I’ll do, I’ll thin it and put the thinnings in a special pile separate from all our other piles, so there’s no contamination.

And that was when I learned about how lesser celandine grows. Talk about hedging one’s bet. These beauties multiply by seeds, by tiny bulbils and by tubers that break away when soil is disturbed. The bulbils and tubers attach to the plant by a wand, no, a thread, of gossamer. If I pull a plant, I get a handful of leaves. It takes a spade to dig up a plant and then a sieve to sift the soil and catch the tubers. One bulbil or tuber left behind and voila! next spring.

Another cutie that took me in. Herb Robert. I actually paid money for this one. Such a cheery spreader, but easy to pull. Oregon Dept of Agriculture photo.

I wonder if Wordsworth ever tried weeding these things before he wrote his poems. I will need an army of sorcerers with full-fledged spades to rout them all out, especially since that “no contamination” idea did not work.

But there’s only me. I look out on my garden of weeds winking at me. I think, well, I can wink back and smile, or I can start digging and leave in their place a monstrous moonscape. Then I can wait for the survivors to wink at me next year.

Another ubiquitous weed I fell for, lemon balm, touted by garden writers years ago. Citrus odor from leaves is its redeeming quality. Strategically located, it might deter rabbit damage. Nice crushed in a glass of white wine.

I Google lesser celandine and I find that it mows down native spring ephemerals in woodlands and has spread throughout northeast and middle atlantic states and is now heading west, apparently on a mission of manifest destiny. Doses of glyphosate (RoundUp or Rodeo) applied before woodland flowers emerge are recommended for eradication.

 I have to think about all this.

The other day a friend who lives nearby commented on how much he enjoyed that little yellow buttercup plant I’d given him several years ago. He was somewhat disappointed it hadn’t spread much.

Aaargh! I’m with you, Charlie Brown.

This entry was posted in Invasive Plants, Native Plants, wildflowers and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Weed that can Snare a Gardener

  1. Thanks for finally writing about >The Weed that can Snare a
    Gardener | A Heron’s Garden <Loved it!

  2. Maggie says:

    Good info. Lucky me I discxovered your site by chance.
    I’ve saved as a favorite for later!

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