Unbidden beauty from neglect

Shaggy lawn

Neither Dan nor I are lawn-mowers, and I mean this in both the philosophical and physical senses of the word. Our lawn-tending philosophy is generally to let it grow long and wild. Mowing is a lot of work, just to produce a sterile (or nearly) habitat. We can appreciate lawns around gardens, say, or a small patch to play with the dog or kids, but these large expanses that most people keep, especially when they’re rural homes, just seem silly. It’s primarily a North American thing. I was told once that the lawn evolved out of the “American Dream”, from poor folks looking at the rich and their mansions with expansive manicured lawns, and desiring a manicured lawn of their own and everything the lawn represented. Whether or not that’s actually true, lawns have certainly become the culturally accepted standard, with bylaws in many towns and cities prohibiting you from not mowing your law and instead letting it go weedy.

Common Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale

But even if we desired a lawn (which we don’t), we’re unable to tend it ourselves anyway, as we don’t own a lawn-mower. Our landlord had requested that we keep the lawn mowed, but it’s really the responsibility of a neighbour down the street, to whom she’d given her riding mower after her husband died. They’ve been neighbours many years, and he agreed to come by and cut her lawn for her as thank-you for the machine.

Black-eyed Susan in lawn
Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta

He cut the grass the week we moved in, but we hadn’t seen him since, which was a little over a month. A month is forever from a weed’s perspective. The lawn sprouted and got quite long and shaggy. Plants that had been chopped into submission for the earlier part of the summer now sprung into action to take advantage of the absence of the blades. Within a month we had numerous wildflowers blooming in amongst the grass. Yesterday afternoon, after admiring them for about a week, I decided to take my camera and document what all was flowering in the lawn. I must have had a premonition, because within a few hours the neighbour showed up with the mower to trim it all back.

Common Plantain and White Clover
Common Plantain, Plantago major, and White Clover, Trifolium repens

I counted 20 species of flowers growing in what is usually lawn. A couple of them were garden escapees, flowers that had seeded themselves and had managed to survive even with the regular abuse. Most of them, though, weren’t cultivated plants. Many of them are introduced species that excel at thriving in adverse conditions. A few of them, however, such as the Black-eyed Susan or the yarrow, are hardy native species.

Low Hop Clover, Trifolium campestre
Low Hop Clover, Trifolium campestre, common everywhere

I had done this experiment before, last year. We’d let the lawn, such as it was, go wild at the lake house, again partially because we didn’t own a mower ourselves to tend it, and partially because we preferred it that way anyway. That inventory took place about two weeks later than this one did. I only tallied 15 species of flower blooming in that lawn. It’s interesting to observe the difference in species composition between the two, and I’m curious whether that’s more likely due to timing or surrounding habitat (since the lake house was surrounded mostly by forest, and this house is set in primarily meadow).

Possibly Sulphur Cinquefoil, Potentilla recta

In fact, only five of the 15 tallied last year made an appearance in this year’s lawn. This one happens to be one of them. I didn’t know what it was, and apparently I didn’t know last year, either. I got a new wildflower guide for my birthday this year, and based on that I might suggest Sulphur Cinquefoil, Potentilla recta, or a closely related species. It’s not all that uncommon. It’s funny how there can be species you see all the time, and you recognize as being something you’ve seen before, and yet you have no idea what these very common species actually are. I find a number of wildflowers fall into this category.

English Plantain
English Plantain, Plantago lanceolata

Of course, even better than enjoying the flowers in the lawn, is seeing the critters that visit the flowers in the lawn. Here, an unidentified species of true bug climbs about the flower head of an English Plantain, Plantago lanceolata. As the name suggests, it’s an introduction originally native to Europe. The good thing about many introduced species, though, is that quite often they’re readily adopted into our local food chains, so at least if they’re taking up space they’re still providing some value to the wildlife. My flower guide notes that the seeds of English Plantain are often eaten by birds, and their leaves are favoured by rabbits.

Orange Hawkweed
Orange Hawkweed, Hieracium aurantiacum

Ever wonder what might sprout up in your lawn if you left it unmowed for a little while? Even if you originally bought your lawn as sod, as long as you haven’t been applying weed-killer to it there’s a pretty good chance that there are some hardy wildflower seeds sitting in the soil at the roots of the grass, waiting for an opportunity to sprout and grow. If you have a section of lawn where the neighbours can’t see or won’t complain, it might be interesting to try the experiment yourself.

Shepherd's Purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris

My guide notes Shepherd’s Purse is “probably a European native but is now found all over the world.” The spring leaves can be eaten as salad greens, and the seeds, collected and dried in the fall, can be used as seasoning in cooking (the plant is part of the mustard family, so they have a peppery mustardy taste).

Yarrow cultivar
Rogue cultivated yarrow

The plant that garden yarrows are derived from is Achillea millefolium, and is native throughout much of the northern hemisphere. Apparently starlings will use it in their nests, which has been shown to reduce nest parasites. There are quite a number of cultivars developed, from the “wild-type” white to yellow to red to mauve. Yarrow is an especially hardy perennial. I bought one back in the spring, a red cultivar with yellow centres, and when I took it to the checkout the salesperson said, “There’s a one-year guarantee on all perennials, if they don’t return next year bring in your receipt for a refund.” Then she laughed. “Not that you’ll need it for this one.”

Hop Clover, Trifolium aureum

Different from Low Hop Clover, above, the species is also a European introduction – in fact, all of the yellow clovers found in eastern North America are. I couldn’t find any reference to why it was called “hop clover”, at least in a quick search. I wonder if it bears some properties similar to hops.

A garden in the making

One patch of lawn was filled with an assortment of wildflowers. In this group are wild yarrow (the white flowers), a Red Clover, Trifolium pratense, a red cultivar of the garden plant Bachelor’s Button (I think), and Heal-all, Prunella vulgaris.

Yellow Hawkweed
yellow hawkweed, Hieracium sp.

There are a number of yellow hawkweeds in Ontario. I did a post about hawkweeds last year, and mentioned Yellow Hawkweed, Hieracium caespitosum, but I don’t think this is that species. However, I don’t know which one it actually is, they can be tricky to tell apart.

Johnny Jump-ups on the loose, and a Red Clover

Johnny Jump-ups have to be one of the most tenacious of garden plants. It takes them no time at all to escape the confines of the garden borders that you’ve carefully laid out, and start gallavanting all over the lawn. You may not notice if you mow your lawn regularly, but leave it for a couple of weeks and you’ll start seeing little purple-and-yellow flowers peeking out from the grass.

Northern Bedstraw
Star Chickweed, Stellaria pubera

Out in our meadows there are dense mats of this flower, Star Chickweed, which seems to habitually co-occur with vetch. It’s recognizable by its deeply-cleft petals, which makes it look like it has ten narrow petals rather than just five cleft ones.

Alsike Clover, Trifolium hybridum

Different from Red Clover, Alsike Clover has pinkish outer flowers and whitish inner ones. Another introduction, apparently the specific name “hybridum” has nothing to do with it actually being a hybrid (which it’s not), but probably more likely refers to the dual tones of the flower heads.

Common Ragweed
Common Ragweed, Ambrosia artemisifolia

Common Ragweed is a species familiar to anyone who suffers from hay fever. It’s a sneaky plant, its green flowers subtle enough that it manages to set up goldenrod to take the fall for the misery it inflicts upon the innocent. It’s a very competitive, invasive weed, but happens to be native, which is a little surprising – we’re so used to thinking of our invasive species as exotics.

A member of the Rosaceae

This family seems to give me some trouble. A member of the buttercup family, so many of them seem to have similar toothy leaves and yellow flowers. I thought the fact that the petals on this one were widely separated might give me an edge, but no luck.

Edit: I’ve been corrected by someone far wiser and more knowledgeable about plants than I, Tom of Ohio Nature. He suggests it’s a member of the Rosaceae family, possibly an agrimony species, Agrimonia sp, and comments that he’s not aware of any Ranunculaceae that bloom so late in the season. Thanks, Tom!

Second Edit: More comments pour in! The identification suggested for the plant is Norwegian Cinqfoil, Potentilla norvegica, which looks like a good match.

Grass, probably Timothy, Phleum pratense

Timothy is a common pasture grass, recognizable by its fuzzy, narrow spikes of flowers. It’s commonly used in hay production, and the seeds are enjoyed by birds and other wild animals. P. pratense is introduced, but Mountain Timothy, P. alpinum, is native to North America.

Wood Sorrel
Yellow Wood Sorrel, Oxalis stricta

Not to be confused with “sorrel”, which is another group of plants, Yellow Wood Sorrel belongs to the same genus (Oxalis) as the clovers you can buy at the grocery store at St. Patrick’s Day – not to be confused with the clovers I’ve shown in the lawn, above, which are a different genus again. Confused? The origins of Yellow Wood Sorrel are uncertain as it’s now found around the globe, but are thought to be North America.


Author: Seabrooke

Author of Peterson Field Guide to Moths. #WriteOnCon Mastermind. Writer of action/thriller SF/F YA. Story junkie. Nature nut. Tea addict. Mother. Finding happiness in the little things. Twitter: @SeabrookeN / @SeabrookeLeckie

20 thoughts on “Unbidden beauty from neglect”

  1. What a great post! Finally, I live in a country place with no lawn police or zoning laws. My lawn is mowed infrequently. I i find the same results as you — lots of wildflowers pop up. Wish more folks could let their lawn go and discover the wildness of nature underneath their feet.

  2. Let’s hear it for lawn weeds! Why would anyone prefer grass to the glorious mix of clovers and speedwells and cinquefoils and violets and all that abundant variety of plants that feed the critters and don’t poison the soil and air as manicured lawns do? I was a Hospice worker for many years, visiting homes in suburban developments where Chem-Lawn warning flags sprouted like mushrooms everywhere. And in every other house, it seemed, was someone suffering from brain tumors or leukemia. The connection is real. Our obsession with lawns and their concomitant chemicals is a major source of pollution of land and water.

    1. The stories one hears about the effects chemicals in our environment are having on both us and the wildlife around us are scary. It’s amazing how much damage we’ve managed to do in a couple short centuries.

  3. I killed a Yarrow. :( My housemate jokes that I have a ‘black thumb’.

    I don’t think it occurs to many people these days to have anything other than a normal flat monocultural green lawn. It’s all part and parcel with our attitude about dominating and controlling nature, I think. Sadly there are lots of examples where people have tried to fight the monoculture-by-laws, and lost.

    1. It takes some talent to kill a yarrow. ;) I don’t know why, but plants just do well for me, almost seemingly because of my neglect.

      I do think a lot of people just take the cultural norm and do the same, without questioning why they do it that way or if there’s an alternative that might please them more. Well of course we would have a lawn, we’ve always had a lawn, everybody has a lawn, why wouldn’t we have a lawn?

  4. I have always liked clover, so I prefer grass that’s a little high. Luckily we don’t have lawn police in my town. I think that may be more characteristics of newer suburbs built after the flat grass aesthetic became the norm, not older ones like mine. I’ve seen various clovers, yellow hawkweed, both plantains, and of course dandelions in the lawns here. Violets are also pretty aggressive in spreading out of gardens into lawn areas.

    Some people mow their lawns even if they’re barely any higher than they were the week before. Wasted effort, in my opinion. As I write this I can hear a powered lawnmower.

    1. The sound of summer: the drone of the gas-powered lawnmower. I don’t get meticulously-mowed lawns. Maybe these folks just feel like they need an excuse to be outside… perhaps they don’t read books, so sitting on the deck with an iced tea and a novel isn’t an option.

      I’ve heard stories of neighbours calling in the bylaw enforcement on residents who have native wildflower/plant gardens that look “weedy” to non-gardeners. There was a fight over one in Toronto just a few years ago; I forget who won, but I think the town did.

  5. unmowed lawns in the city are havens for rodents and other disease spreading creatures. Fine if you are out in the country and have no neighbors within earshot. not so good when houses are only feet apart.

  6. Stellar post. I too am uninterested in mowed lawns and love to find and photograph the volunteers in my little yard. The local squirrel is especially giving – I have 3 small fig trees, a blackberry bush and an avocado tree coming up this season courtesy of her visits. :)

    I agree with Rosemary – it’s the garbage not the grass that attracts rats. In dense urban settings tall grass can give rats more places to hide though, and the visible lack of maintenance attracts thrown garbage that feeds the rats. Another reason not to worry about it in the country – the native wild rats and mice, such as the Neotoma woodrats in California, tend to be quite clean and disease-free.

    I also think Rosemary is right that your Rosacea is actually another Cinqfoil. ;)

    1. That’s quite the collection of accidental trees you’ve got growing! My sister would be envious – she’s been trying to grow an avocado for a few years now.

      I agree on the mystery flower being a Cinqfoil, in looking at Rosemary’s link.

      1. Avocados are easy – as long as you live in a place where it never gets below 30 degrees! :) And, hence the reason that 90% of the avos that are eaten in America come from here in California…

  7. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is addded
    I get four e-mails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me
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