Signup for our newsletters

Elizabeth Ludlow Bowman: Tips for the Compleat Gardener


Mile-a-minute and more

Mile-a-minute weed is a nasty, thorny vine known to swamp small trees and shrubs.

I just finished this column and in trying to send I erased it so luckily it is raining.

My favorite wildflower of the moment is called Polygonum pennsylvanicum [po-LIG-on-um pen-sil-VAY-nik-um] or more simply “smart weed,” “knotweed,” “pink weed” and “lady’s thumb.

You have seen it reaching out from roadsides, weaving through autumn fields and moist lakesides, leaves reddening with the frost. According to John Eastman in the book of “Field and Roadside,” it is called smartweed because of the taste on the tongue and knotweed for the bends in the stem.

When it is in a garden I am weeding I often leave it for its pink display especially in beds where foraging deer have feasted, argh! Overnight, promising buds are gone but the smartweed still holds forth stalks of tightly gathered pink flowers, which look more like buds to me.

Apparently this plant is a natural host for many: three or four kinds of solitary bees along with honey and bumbles, many smaller insects eat leaves and roots. Several varieties of turtle enjoy lady’s thumb salad and birds and small rodents eat the seeds, a perfect delicatessen.

Some may jump back at the idea of sharing plants in your environment with so many life forms I say nurture them and put the poison away, nothing kills just one thing.

There are so many members of the Polygonum clan that botanists have trouble identifying them. They wildly interbreed and make new forms but what they have in common is polys, which means many and gonu, which describes a knee joint so the stems of these plants are multi-jointed. (the name for Solomon’s seal, polygonatum, describes rhizomes that have many knees.)

Another member of the clan is my least favorite weed in this area. Polygonum perfoliatum, Mile-a-minute weed because it is known to advance six inches a day, is a nasty, thorny vine with light green, triangular leaves known to swamp small trees and shrubs, dying back to brown curtains of dead foliage that still can rip skin. The plant is called “tear thumb” for a reason and my dog’s tummy gets rash-covered when she runs through the tall grass where it hides.

The small, greenish flowers are unnoticeable but ripening seeds are enclosed by a turquoise shell, which bursts to eject small, black seeds. Perfoliatum {per-fo-li-AY-tum] means the leaves embrace the stems.

This plant invaded my long driveway a few years ago and the choices for control are varied. Any kind of herbicide is out, this plant intertwines with the plants one enjoys such as asters and perennial sunflowers to name just two, and its cousin P.

pennsylvanica, nothing kills just one thing. Taking the time to pull by hand (in glove) when the plant is sprouting is an option as are goats and sheep hired to do the job (an expanding field in weed control) or apparently there is a host-specific beetle, Rhinocominus tatipes korotyaen, which consumes just p. perfoliatum. The plant is an invader from Asia and the name of the beetle sounds like it maybe native to the plant’s source. I’d rather the goats.

Speaking of source this is the time to find out if your candidates for state and local offices owe anything to the chemical companies that are poisoning our world.

All our gardens are maintained without products that end in –cide and we have no infestations, we pull out the weeds and encourage a balanced assortment of bugs let them control each other, it works.

Enjoy the changes.

Join our readers whose generous donations are making it possible for you to read our news coverage. Help keep local journalism alive and our community strong. Donate today.