The Weed this month is one of the most beautiful typical North American native: fleabane! You’ve probably seen this lovely daisy-like flower in fields, along fences and buildings, as well as on roadsides during the spring and in the beginning of summer. A variety of fleabane species that look very similar are found throughout areas around New York City area–Erigeron philadelphicus, E. annuus and E. strigosus. In a sort of role reverse, the same three fleabanes are now the weeds of Europe. (It’s typically the other direction; lots of European plants are now plants that are weeds in the US.)
Fleabane flower heads vary between white and pinkish, all the way to pale purple. The only way to reproduce is through seeds. it is simple to control through pulling or mowing–no persistent taproot to remove and rhizomes that keep growing to uncover and a booming seed production to fret about. This easygoing way of reproducing and its attractive appearance makes it a great plant!
Fleabane is part of the vast aster family (23,000 species) and includes many beloved garden plants like cosmos, sunflowers, mums, zinnias, marigolds, and dahlias, among other varieties. Take a closer look at a fleabane bloom, and you’ll see that it’s, in fact, a small cluster of flowers that are grouped together to create the illusion of a large flower. This is the characteristic of the aster family of flowers. Their flower heads feature an outer line made of “ray” flowers, each having a single, dazzling petal. In the middle are the “disc” flowers, which each has one tiny tube petal. The clusters of flowers are used to attract pollinators and also produce seeds in a way that is efficient.
The hairy stems of fleabane are the reason for the name of the genus Erigeron, which roughly translates to “old man in the spring.” The common name similar to other “-banes”–wolfsbane, leopard’s blunder, dogbane henbane, alludes to the myth that they possess the power to kill or repel bugs. In the past, it was dried or burned in sachets to repel insects such as fleas and gnats, flies and other small, nascent creatures, but there is no evidence to prove its effectiveness as a repellent for insects.
Crab spiders often use fleabane flowers as hunting grounds. Photo by Saara Nafici.
Much like many of its prettier aster relatives, the fleabane offers nectar for hungry, overworked pollinators. It’s also a favorite location for crab spiders to feast on insects, and also is a nursery for the Lynx flower moth. I’ve read that the seeds are a favourite food source for American goldfinches ground finches, as well as sparrows. With its rich history and its unobtrusive appearance, you may view this tiny interloper more positively than more invasive weedy plants.
The Weed of the Month series examines the ecology and background of commonly-used wild plants that gardeners view as weeds.
Saara Nafici is the executive director of the Added Value/Red Hook Community Farm. She was also an ex-coordinator of the Garden Apprentice Program at Brooklyn Botanic Garden and is a long-time activist as a feminist, bicyclist, feminist, naturalist and youth educator. Follow her adventures with weeds through Instagram.