Down to Earth

Plant Terrorists: These plants like to move in and take over.

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“I hate violets,” a woman said, pointing to a small violet colony growing under the baptisia.

“Why would you hate such lovely plants?” her companion asked.

“Because they’re terrorists,” she replied. “They just move in and occupy an area, driving out everything else.”

It was a beautiful sunny morning, and the woman’s remark disturbed me. I have always felt that every plant is a part of nature and that no plant is any more or less worthy than another. Admittedly, I have my favorites, and I don’t like horseweeds growing in my parsley bed, but I’d never considered a plant worthy of hatred.

Upon reflection, the episode of the Woman-Who-Hated-Violets reminded me of a plant that I had come to like less than the rest. I didn’t hate it, but it could readily be called a terrorist.

When I first moved to the farm fifteen years ago, a small patch of ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) grew under my bedroom window. The plant looked innocent and took up a space no larger than a chair cushion. In full sun in that spot, it seemed an attractive ground cover.

I recalled that my grandmother had fought to get this plant out of her flower beds years before, complaining about the odd sour smell when the plant was walked on. I remembered how she pulled out bushels of it from her house foundation in the shade beds. But I left my patch alone.

A year or so later, I decided to build a room on the side of the house where the ground ivy grew. I thought that the addition would probably smother the ground ivy, but I made no move to salvage it. The room was built during the summer, and by fall I noticed a few sprigs of ground ivy creeping through a crack between the new and old foundations. I saw no cause for alarm. The ivy grew well under the nearby old cedar tree, where little else thrives.

Soon, the ground ivy had made its way out the other side of the room’s foundation and was off and running in another direction, and my opinion of it changed. Either I had encouraged it to spread by disturbing the ground, or I’d made it angry by building a room on top of it. Eventually, thick mats of ground ivy covered a once-thriving mint bed. Iris plantings were overcome by it. Every year, I ripped out great basketfuls to be composted and even found myself weeding the compost pile itself.

Now, despite many years of vigorous weeding, ground ivy has completely surrounded the house. Plants have spread by seed into other areas of the lawn, down into the pasture, and even into the woods. The geese that I introduced to these areas, hoping they would gobble up the creeping ivy, avoid it. Each spring, I attempt to weed out any tiny pieces of ground ivy from the flower, herb, and vegetable beds. This year, I noticed that one herb catalog is touting Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida) as a plant to combat ground ivy. I’m going to plant some and try it.

I am compiling a list of other plant terrorists. In their place, all are worthy of adoration and space, but left to their own means, any one will sneak into an herb bed, take over, and kill off what grows there. In addition to ground ivy, my list includes pennywort, jimsonweed (Datura sp.), creeping oregano, morning glory, bergamot, horsetail, mallow (Malva sylvestris), and creeping germander. Trees on my list include white poplar, cottonwood, and mulberry; all spread rapidly by shallow root growth and not only claim entire herb beds but ruin sidewalks, crack driveways, and tip over sturdy fences.

Violets aren’t on my list. Yes, the plants do throw their seeds into other beds and pathways, and they can be occasional pests, but they’re not difficult to pull out or move, and I look forward to their cheerful flowers each spring. Besides, from each spring’s violets comes a year’s supply of violet jam, made from a recipe a friend sent me.


Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.