Many gardeners know much more about the ornamental plants of our gardens and landscapes than they know about plants of the nearby fields and forests. I used to be one of those gardeners, with in-depth knowledge of exotic garden species and their cultivars but unable to identify a chokecherry or native dogwood. Nor was I very interested, since gardening and collecting unusual plants had become my ruling passion.

Then I met Gerry Rising and Dick Christensen of the Niagara Frontier Botanical Society and John Whitney of the USDA, among other conservationists, naturalists and forest biologists. They engendered my appreciation for the ecosystems and habitats beyond the cultivated garden, and I began to learn.

Now I believe that it is imperative for us all to know what’s happening in the natural world and what is growing around us, so that we can make informed decisions about our footprints on the land throughout our personal and political lives. Knowing and observing the plants and creatures that surround us – if we’re lucky enough to have them nearby and if we foster rather than destroy them – is also one of the joys of life. We need only open our eyes and begin to look past the edge of the yard.

Let’s quiz your familiarity with some of the plants of our ditches, meadows, fields and woods as I reveal some of what I have learned along the way. Answers, explanations and some related tidbits follow.

True or false?

1. Gardeners can help monarch butterflies by planting milkweed (Asclepias) species or just letting a few grow around the yard. Milkweed is the required food source for monarch caterpillars, and Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) is the preferred native plant (and a good place to look for a chrysalis).

2. Goldenrod, however beautiful, is a non-native plant and a common allergen for hay fever sufferers.

3. Staghorn Sumac Rhus typhina is a native, nonpoisonous plant – very colorful in autumn – and the red parts (drupes) can be used to make tea. Another sumac cultivar, Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-low,’ is an ornamental landscape plant with great fall color.

4. Cattails can be a nuisance around your pond if you have too many, but they are useful native plants, with food and wildlife value. On the other hand, Common Reed, Phragmites is a non-native invasive plant that can destroy wetlands.

5. Queen Anne’s lace, also called Wild Carrot, has an edible root and supports some beneficial insects.

6. You can judge the toxicity of native plants by watching what birds and other animals eat.

7. In the Northeast, responsible woodland stewardship includes clearing the underbrush and removing fallen logs.

8. Poison ivy is a native Rhus species with wildlife value, related to common sumac. It contains urushiol, a severe allergen for many people. We should recognize and remove it where possible.

9. Giant hogweed is an attractive ornamental plant, resembling a huge Angelica, that gardeners brought to this country in the early 20th century. It’s often mistaken for Cow Parsnip, which can cause a skin rash, but the giant hogweed won’t hurt you.

10. Common berrying plants in the fields in late summer are viburnums, shrubby dogwoods, elderberry, multiflora rose and buckthorn. The last two are undesirable, non-native plants that should be eradicated wherever possible.


1. True: The butterflies can get nectar from many plants, but milkweeds are crucial for caterpillar food. Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) is best for the butterflies and also much less aggressive in the garden than common milkweed plants.

2. False: Goldenrod Solidago is non-native although it has widely naturalized, but it’s not the cause of hay fever. Goldenrod is blamed based on circumstantial evidence: Ragweed, a nondescript weed, blooms at the same time and is the most common allergen in late summer.

3. True: Poison sumac is a very different looking plant with whitish berries, and you are unlikely to run into it unless you’re in a swamp. Of course, do not taste or cook with any plant parts without expert knowledge.

4. True: Fight the Phragmites and compromise with the cattails – a good water-edge, buffer zone plant.

5. True: To some it’s a weed (tough to pull); to others it’s pretty here and there in the garden.

6. False: Definitely not! Other animal species have different digestive systems and can eat lots of things that are poisonous to humans.

7. False: Understory plants, dead trees and fallen leaves are important components of woodland habitat. Unless you are removing wood that is infested with a serious pest, don’t “clean up” the woods!

8. True: Its territory appears to be spreading – so watch out for it.

9. False: Giant hogweed will hurt you very much, although the rest of the statement is true. The hogweed can grow to 9 feet tall and has large, jagged leaves and a huge, white umbrella-like flower head. Its stem is hairy, liver-spotted and hollow. Do not touch it as it can cause a severe skin reaction that can last a lifetime. Report its presence to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

10. True: Join me in identifying these plants as you walk in the woods and fields – take a field guide – and learn which ones to remove and which to encourage on behalf of wildlife.

If we are to protect our natural habitats and stand up for healthy ecosystems, we must know the plants and animals. Take more walks in state and county parks or country property; walk along a stream, through a forest or across a field of wildflowers. Try to name what you see. There are infinite wonders waiting to be discovered, and a lifetime of learning for all of us.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.