While there are many positive aspects to gardening and enjoying nature, there are also quite a few unpleasant critters and plants. Each year we are faced with cuts, rashes, allergies, stings, bumps, and bruises in the wild west of the garden. Yet, I believe some of these plants and insects deserve forgiveness for what they offer. Today, I want to take this time to talk about some of the benefits of the less desirable parts of the garden.
First up, everyone’s favorite: poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). I foolishly thought I was not allergic to it because I had never reacted to it, and last year I discovered this was untrue. Despite the horrible two weeks I had from that lesson, I still think it offers a lot in the way of aesthetics and wildlife food. Poison ivy turns a deep red in the fall, with small white fruit along parts of the vine. The vines can look beautiful when accompanied by other fall colors or when it engulfs a tree and adds a lot of color to the area by itself. The plant is more than just painful and pretty though. The vine and its berries can be eaten by various wildlife. Birds especially love the berries, which is why these vines seem to pop up out of nowhere. Interestingly, poison ivy is not an issue for other animals. This is a uniquely human problem. It is still best to keep dogs away from it to prevent indirect contact for humans though.
Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are the next on my list! These plants are always a horrible surprise for me since I almost never wear gloves when I am weeding. There are surprising redeeming qualities with nettles. They can be eaten or used to make tea. Most people I have talked to about this have not even considered eating them because it seems like quite a risk to put something so painful in your mouth. They are not dangerous to eat when they are baked or boiled, so take care if you choose to consume! Nettles are actually a great source of protein (especially for a plant); they are about 25% protein by dry weight.
I might cause some disagreements on this next one: Mosquitoes. They have caused us all so much pain from the countless bites we have all had, not to mention how many diseases they can carry. I hate these insects with a passion, but they are so plentiful and an easy food source for wildlife. The eggs are eaten by fish and the adults are hunted by other insects and birds. Some mosquitoes are even pollinators, a true garden favorite.
The last one I want to talk about is leafcutter bees. Some people may not know as much about them, but if you have ever noticed perfect little circles cut out of your ornamentals, it was probably a leaf cutter bee. This is annoying, considering we are growing ornamentals for their beauty, so we do not love having tons of holes cut into them! Thankfully, the only damage they do is cosmetic. Even though they are bees, they are not aggressive or territorial like some bees and wasps can be. They are great pollinators for both native plants and for a lot of the garden and farm crops. I am sure that most of us will happily deal with a few cut up leaves for the health of local pollinators.
I hope I have given a different perspective for the aspects of the garden we might think of as our enemies sometimes. Usually, if it harms us, we automatically dislike it. I would still prefer to keep these plants and insects away from me when I am out in the garden, but they definitely deserve a place in nature. Maybe just slightly further away from the roses.
Cody Hoff, Lead Horticulturist