Is this a weed? I’ve heard that question countless times from other gardeners, usually accompanied by a photo or sprig of greenery. I’ve asked it myself on several occasions as I pulled errant plants out of paths and garden beds.

The answer is almost always the same: It depends.

Any plant in the wrong place can be a weed, an often derogatory term that covers a huge spectrum of annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees. A plant can be an unwanted weed in one spot, but desirable in another. Often, the worst weeds are plants that escaped their original gardens and prospered in everyone else’s landscapes. (The polite term for these garden thugs is “invasive.”)

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered,” philosopher/poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said. So, as I’m pulling unwanted plants, I try to think of their possible virtues.

Take the dandelion, the scourge of many a lawn. This familiar perennial invades sod and quickly spreads. But this daisy cousin is actually a nutritious green, packed with vitamins, iron and antioxidants. People have eaten dandelions for thousands of years. It may be the healthiest edible growing in your garden.

It’s believed the Pilgrims first brought dandelions to America, not as unwanted hitch-hikers but as a medicinal herb. Its roasted roots were used as a substitute for coffee. Its flowers became wine.

But growing in the middle of a pristine lawn, those virtues are forgotten. Dandelion is back to being a pesky weed.

This summer, I have several beautiful weeds growing in my garden. I didn’t plant these “volunteers”; they just grew.

And because I’m a curious gardener, I usually let them grow and flower until I can at least determine their identity and attributes. Maybe they have virtues not yet seen.

My favorite of these current mystery plants is a large annual with brilliant, lightly veined pink flowers. Sprouted between two planter boxes, it stands at least 4 feet tall and wide, loaded with hundreds of large and showy blooms. The bees love this unexpected addition; that gave it an immediate virtue. It also makes an attractive cut flower in bouquets.

What is it? A tree mallow or satin rose mallow, a Mediterranean annual that somehow found its way to midtown Sacramento. It’s a cousin to hollyhocks and hibiscus, but also to common mallow (a notorious weed).

Other “weeds” growing in my garden include a gigantic Queen Ann’s Lace (or wild carrot), dozens of California poppies plus assorted cosmos and calendulas. With multiple curling branches, a large Mexican primrose looks like a green octopus with each arm holding clusters of yellow flowers.

Sprouted among lettuce, the strangest volunteer is purple nigella, an annual with distinctive flowers and seedpods that look like spiky balloons. With fern-like foliage, it can be a charming cottage garden flower, but quickly claims new territory as its own. That duality inspired two nigella nicknames: “Love in the Mist” and “Devil in the Bush.”

Like flowers, the beauty of weeds must be in the eye of the gardener.

By Debbie Arrington, The Sacramento Bee (TNS)