What should be our plant of the month for May?

If you are an iris fancier, certainly the gorgeous bearded iris would get your vote. We’re at the height of the bearded iris season and, after all, it is our state flower. But get ready to weed them regularly for 11 months before the next (brief) appearance. 

Then there is the rose, known the world over as the flower of royalty. Wars were fought over them. A caveat there, too. Get out the sprayer and the poisonous pesticides and fungicides and be prepared, in our muggy climate to souse them for blackspot, mildew and other assorted maladies to which they are particularly prone. 

Or, how about any number of spring shrubs, including the later flowering azaleas? I will say that one late azalea is worth a passel of those that flower earlier, all at once. 

We could go on and on here. May was my mother’s favorite month and she often commented, “May is such a pretty  month.” And it indeed is. 

You will be surprised at my vote(s) for the month. I have three that are tied. 

One is the golden ragwort, which has graced our fields and ditches (and several tamed somewhat in our garden) with bright yellow flowers. 

Farmers fight it with a vengeance. To them it is a weed, and hundreds of acres of ragwort are sprayed with herbicides every spring. Such a regimen has no permanent effect, but it does clear the fields for edible crops for one season. 

Well, a rose is a rose is a rose, and by any other name would smell as sweet, but ragwort to the vast majority of people is termed a weed. 

Why? Because it is usually found where it is not wanted. A weed can be anything unwanted, from a huge oak to a tiny chickweed. If a plant is wanted where it is, it is not a weed. 

Ragwort is botanically Senecio aureus, but that shouldn’t bother anyone. Just call it ragwort and let it go at that. Other, more uncommon, names are squaw weed and life root (it once was used as a medicine for “female trouble” as my mother used to say). 

Almost any unplowed ground will grow up in ragwort sooner or later, probably sooner. It is extremely invasive, producing thousands of seeds from a single plant.

If that hasn’t scared you, let me make a plea for ragwort on a semi-domesticated basis. If you have some fallow land that could be brightened up, sow some ragwort seeds collected from the wild, and they (and multiple progeny) will be there for a lifetime. Don’t forget the caveat of invasiveness. If you can’t control it, let it stay in the wild. 

I have managed to let some ragwort stay in our “orchard” which no longer harbors fruit trees. It is intermingled with earlier bulbs, ajuga, wild spring phlox, Spanish bluebells, and a number of other things that precede the ragwort. The yellow of the latter offers a nice contrast to lengthening grasses and other wildlings. 

I have to be very conscientious about knocking the seed heads off the ragwort before they dry and blow thither and yon. Otherwise, there is no trouble.

Ragwort can be annual or short-lived perennial. Either way, common herbicides will control it, if you want it controlled.

Next week: another “weed.”


JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.

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