Every gardener knows that sometimes it’s hard to tell if a plant is a weed, even after you’ve identified what plant it is. Some would argue that any plant that isn’t intended or expected is a weed, but under that definition, even the tulips that sprang up this year in my new garden would be weeds, since I didn’t plant them or know that they were there. (Actually, the pink tulips right next to the red ones are ugly enough to qualify as weeds.) There are others who would take the definition further, and say that any plant that isn’t intended to be in that particular place is a weed, such as a stray lettuce head coming up between the rows.
My family has always been a bit looser in our definition. My parents refer to many of the unintended plants in their garden as “volunteers”, and leave them in place or scoop them up and move them somewhere more suitable. This doesn’t mean that they don’t pull out any weeds; blackberries, bindweed, bedstraw (Galium aparine), and many other plants are not welcome in their garden. Some of their more tasty volunteers have been lavender, tomatoes, and potatoes. My parents also sometimes disagree about whether plants are weeds or volunteers, such as with nicotiana, foxglove, and california poppies.
In my own garden, I pull up lots of mint from the ground that I consider a weed, but when it comes up in a pot, I often let it stick around, since it can’t escape. I’ve even had some tiny purple pansies come up from areas where I removed the sod. I would never have thought to plant such a common and old-fashioned plant, but I think they’re quite adorable, and they get to stay. I’m currently undecided whether the golden feverfew ‘aureum’ coming up in my garden is a weed or a volunteer. I also used to throw pumpkin carving parties and toss all the pumpkin guts into my compost bin. I get a healthy collection of pumpkin volunteers every time I use my own compost. In my pumpkin patch, I let a few of them grow, but in the lettuce beds they need to be plucked out.
Some other unexpected plants are so pretty that I let them get old enough to flower, so I can identify them as horrible thugs that must go, or as pretty volunteers. This isn’t always a good idea, though- I had a roommate who thought the white trumpet flowers of bindweed were pretty, so he let it grow for most of a summer, before noticing that it was strangling his roses.
What plants do you consider to be “volunteers”?