Overflowing with vibrant yellow blossoms of common tansy and tiny clusters of baby’s breath, an Edmonton backyard’s trellis was a sight to behold. The gardener was proud of her flowers, which she’d grown from seeds bought from a nearby big-box store. She’d been watering and tending the plants for weeks by the time an Edmonton weed inspector arrived at her property to mow down her prized patch.
Her pride quickly shifted to anger. “She wanted to be [compensated for] the damage to her flowers. And I had to say, ‘Well, actually they’re not flowers. They’re noxious weeds,'” says Justin Lallemand, seasonal enforcement supervisor for the City of Edmonton, who works with nine weed inspectors.
As the weed inspectors drove through the back alleys near the woman’s home, they could see the plants spreading, creeping from yard to yard, ready to make the leap to an open area. The weeds had the ability to displace native plants and potentially decrease biodiversity in the area.
Lallemand says people are shocked to find out some plants they buy in stores are actually considered weeds. After all, when most people think of weeds, they don’t think of showy ornamentals in a garden – they think of pesky plants that will compete with those “flowers,” of which dandelions are probably the most recognizable.
Lallemand says the City conducts about 19,000 weed inspections per season. Many calls are from residents unhappy with their neighbours’ dandelion-filled lawns. Inspectors receive an average of 36 complaints per day. However, dandelions are of no concern to the City – they were removed from the list of problematic plants in 2011. That list changes constantly, although many ornamentals that gardeners were trying to protect from dandelions are still on it. This is where you start to get into an issue of semantics, according to James Leskiw, supervisor of agricultural agronomics for Parkland County. He admits that the definition of a weed can change in different contexts. If you’re a gardener or a farmer, a weed is simply a plant that’s growing where it’s unwanted, he says.
When it comes to Leskiw’s job, the lines are much more defined. They’re laid out in the Weed Control Act; it is packed full of plants considered “noxious” and “prohibited noxious.” These are often beautiful plants that grow exceptionally well and fast in our climate, causing those in the city and outlying areas to worry they may damage the environment if left unchecked.
For centuries, plants have moved from one place to another. When it comes to plants we often see in gardens and open spaces, many are not native to our part of the world. Some ornamentals – creeping vines, showy orchids and daisies – that grow modestly in their countries of origin run unchecked in Alberta, where they’re free from the insects, disease and climate factors that initially controlled them. In an ironic twist, these rogue plants have an advantage over native species.
Common dandelions were brought over by European settlers in the mid-1600s. They cultivated the plants for food and medicine, but it didn’t take long for dandelions to spread beyond garden patches. While there are many non-native species of dandelions, there are a few that are native to North America, with one small alpine species growing in Alberta.
Lallemand says that dandelions are off the list mostly because they can’t be controlled anymore, so essentially the City is throwing in the Weedwacker.
Other weeds are difficult to remove and dispose of. A few are so invasive that they may need to be buried several metres underground, away from light and moisture. It’s like an excerpt from an Anne Rice novel. Conditions need to be just right; otherwise, the creature will rise again. Next to these weeds, dandelions seem inconsequential and, in most cases, controlling them just takes persistence, plus the odd jab from a wooden stake.
Nicole Kimmel, a weed specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, agrees. “Dandelions are usually a sign of lack of nutrients and lack of competition; you don’t have enough grass in there to outcompete the dandelions,” she says.
According to the Alberta Native Plant Council, since their origins before the last Ice Age, dandelions have always loved poor conditions. Initially, they grew on land left by retreating glaciers and, as humans began burning and clearing land, they gladly took up shop there. Basically, these plants love to grow where little else does. And they can thrive in these conditions because they’re not dependent on pollination. The female parts of the flowers are able to spontaneously produce up to 7,000 seeds, resulting in offspring that are genetic clones of the parent. All of these factors make for a weed that Kimmel believes will always be around, though she says there are ways of controlling the plants without herbicides, like continually digging up the roots.
John and Irene Feddema have been digging up dandelions for years. But, for them, it’s not out of disgust for the plant; it’s out of respect. They produce a coffee substitute and tea from dandelion roots, which they sell at farmers’ markets under the name Dandy Joe. Before they started growing dandelions, the Feddemas were growing a herb called Rhodiola Rosea, prized for its presumed health benefits, including strengthening the immune system and fighting depression. “Dandelions were quite an enemy of growing these herbs,” John says.
Rather than continue fighting against the dandelions, the Feddemas changed their attitude towards the plant completely and made them their main crop. He had heard of dandelion coffee in the past and was intrigued. While they decided to register their product as a food, they did have the option of registering with Health Canada, because consuming dandelions can potentially help with digestion, help increase iron levels and improve liver function. Along with digging up dandelions in their herb patch, the Feddemas have even grown them in pots, up to 50 at a time. But going into other people’s yards to dig up dandelions is not an option because it’s labour-intensive and because of the amount of herbicide people often use.
“I just read recently there is more chemical use in some urban areas than on farm land,” John says. “Now, that scares me. Some people are so determined to get rid of dandelions, they just go to all means and costs to do it. I don’t know how to change that thinking.” The Alberta Native Plant Council‘s website talks about dandelions and how to control them without chemicals – it encourages people to maintain their lawns in order to reduce the amount of dandelions. However, having some of the yellow flowers can be beneficial. Dandelion flowers reflect ultraviolet light, which attracts insects that are important for pollinating other plants.
Lallemand says citizens continue to call about “dandelion problems,” but he doesn’t mind because, where there are dandelions, there may be more harmful weeds. And when they find those weeds, they leave a door hanger for the homeowners. The hanger features a Canada thistle – one of the few weeds most people would not be surprised is on the list – in a sniper’s crosshairs. It might seem militant, but the weed inspectors take their job seriously. Lallemand sends out troops of inspectors who mark weed locations, send each other aerial shots of areas of concern and make multiple trips back to an area to make sure things are under control.
Leskiw flips through the Alberta Invasive Plant Identification Guide with obvious fascination, clearly impressed with some of the plants. Complete with photos, it’s like perusing a gardener’s seed catalogue rather than a book of weeds. He has stories for most of them. He once saw Saltcedar, an invasive plant that can consume gallons of water in a day, sold in a greenhouse. Meanwhile, the Oxeye Daisy looks innocent, but can take over acres of land quickly.
Leskiw is most impressed by – and fearful of – the Himalayan Balsam, which has showy pink blooms that look like an orchid. This is fitting since it’s also known as a Hawaiian Orchid; its other aliases include Policeman’s Helmet, Impatiens and Touch-Me-Not. That last one offers a little foreshadowing; if the blooms are touched, they can propel seeds up to five metres away, where they can take root. If you cut down the plant, it can still sometimes grow from the cutting. And when it takes over an area, and then dies back the following year – since it’s an annual – the plant can actually contribute to soil erosion. Leskiw has many stories of people planting the Himalayan Balsam in their yards, and even in ditches. Once, he saw vacant lots full of the weed.
While the city receives many complaints from those who do not understand why the flowers they bought in a store are potentially problematic, Lallemand says people are becoming savvier, as are greenhouse owners. In the meantime, the Feddemas hope people will learn to live in harmony with the dandelion and see it for its benefits. After all, it’s here to stay.