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Emerson’s Weeds


It’s upon us, this part of summer, when much of the show is over, many of the brightly colored flowers have bloomed and faded, and the heat, sinking through our flesh right down to bone, makes us feel faded, too. If we counted on foliage instead of flowers, we can still gaze with confidence at the leaves that persevere, patterned or simply straightforward in their chosen shades of green, even in this part of summer growing, heightening, spreading.

If the year has been dry, many lawns have browned by now, though the one outside my window, filled with native plants (that some call weeds) remains calmly verdant. “A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered,” Emerson wrote; and I enjoy the virtue of these plants that have taken over from grass, keeping the lawn soft underfoot.

But today it’s another plant whose virtue I am especially admiring: the blue mistflower. Mistflowers flourish in the Appalachias, as well as throughout the Appalachia-adjacent South and Mid-Atlantic. They enter one’s garden world like a weed and spread like a weed, but the only state that seems to consider blue mistflower a weed is Kentucky. The rest of us are at the ready, particularly now, with full appreciation. Their foliage appeared, tiny but numerous and sudden, much earlier in the season. And so, too, their music began for me – faintly at first, but persistent, and continuing throughout the summer; inside my head it sounds like Sonnerie de Ste-Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris by Marin Marais.

When mistflowers first announced themselves in my world, I tried them under various conditions, from sunny to deep shade, and with several partners or groups. They were unknown to me then; in fact no one around here knew them or even their name. I soon learned that their nature is to spread, even take over, so it might be said they don’t play well with others – they go their own way and make a brave show. That’s where their character shines: they don’t care where they are, they do just fine, thank you. Unpleasant soil that fussier plants reject, even the truly evil spot which I suspect has construction dust mixed into it, suits the mistflowers just fine. They grow lush, and tall, multi-layered, rich plants full of pointed leaves and clouds of lavender-blue. So glorious in their garden beds that a neighbor’s drive home includes a ritual detour through my neck of the woods to stop at just the perfect vantage point and spend a few moments gazing at the bed that’s visible from the street.

Not an artist, I am grateful that they design, paint and arrange themselves. Their self-arrangement is musical to me in its repetition and swelling, and I am doubly bathed in loveliness. Vigil is kept throughout the summer until their bloom time, and this is a part of the pleasure. Bringing it back around to Emerson, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” The blue mistflowers, repeating and swelling, filling the garden and the eye, are cause enough for quiet celebration every year about this time. In my little corner of the world, it could be argued that it doesn’t get better than this.

8 thoughts on “Emerson’s Weeds

  1. Not just the mistflower, about which you write so beautifully, but the whole of your lovely post is musical, too.

  2. I don’t think I’ve seen mistflowers in Florida, but our “weeds” are legion and very lovely and we get to see them year-round. Nice that they put that music in your head.

    • Mark, googling images of Florida wildflowers, as well as weeds, they all look good to me. Such a perfect climate for the year-round garden, as long as alligators don’t wander in. Images tend to put music into my head, and the other way around – the flow of beauty, natural and designed. — Elizabeth

  3. Yes, Sue is right about the musical prose, and you are very much of her ilk, so thanks for that. This may sound banal, but only this year – owing to a spectacular showing in Morden Hill Park – have I discovered the virtues and the multitudinousnesses of dahlias – the perfect splash when all else is dying down (plus a rare variety of anemone with wonderful blue tips.

    Thanks for identifying the Emerson quotation: the only one I knew was the oft-repeated ‘a weed is only a plant in the wrong place’.

  4. David, so there is a gardener behind the beautiful flower and other nature photos found at I’ll think of something later! I always appreciate hearing suggestions for a long season of garden interest. I asked my neighbor B., whom I consider to be the local expert in successful planting, whether she had tried either of the flowers you mention – only to hear that both are favorites, not only with her, but among the marauding deer who browse our yards by night. At the moment, besides the blue mistflowers, there are perilla, a self-seeding annual foliage plant with deep burgundy leaves, serendipitously a perfect companion in either garden or vase; as well as black-eyed susans, which had been disbudded by the deer in early summer but grew new buds (somehow overlooked) and bloomed late. Foiled-foiled-foiled!

  5. Now that’s a novel link: blue mistflower and the “Sonnerie” of Marin Marais. I know both but would never have connected them.

    There are more than two dozen native plants in central Texas that have weed in their name (frostweed, jimsonweed, sneezeweed, etc.), but I find things to like in all of them.

  6. Steve, thank you for visiting! Now you know why I lit upon your photo. I’m not surprised that you know Marais: I found your site by following the link from one of your comments over at Prufrock’s Dilemma. I don’t know how popular Marais may be nowadays; I don’t hear his music played often. But it is a favorite of mine, so transportative, like the drift of color in a field or garden; so it is easily reached inside my head. Having just peeked into your blog, I can already see how readily you find beauty in plants. I agree with you: there aren’t many one could dislike. Of course, some of the “weeds” trick us with their cuteness and then take over the whole garden, choking out the others. But in a field where they have freedom, they are wonderful.

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