How to Tell Weeds from Wildflowers

Weeds are plants that grow where they are unwanted. Weeds are more aggressive and invasive than the wildflowers you planted yourself. In most cases, you have to wait until they are fully grown to differentiate between wildflowers and weeds. In the beginning, it can be tough to distinguish between weed blooms and wildflower sprouts. Weeds grow just like other plants, but faster and compete for nutrients. 

Weeds grow faster

Weeds grow faster than flowering plants. If a plant grows rapidly and spreads aggressively it is likely a weed. Further, weeds will thrive in poor soils where wildflowers struggle to sprout. If you find a plant has emerged in a spot where nothing else has, it is probably a weed. 

Weeds are invasive

Weeds have adapted to withstand tough conditions, reproduce quickly, and have seeds that spread over long distances and can stay dormant in the soil for years. Weeds will compete with your wildflowers for light, space, water and nutrients.

Weeds are harder to kill because they often lack natural predators and disperse their seeds over a large area. A gardener will need to continually uproot and manage weeds growing among wildflowers. Invasive weeds such as honeysuckle, buckthorn and hogweed pose a huge challenge to the flourishing of wildflowers in your garden. 

They can also be a bother, especially hitchhiker weeds.

Wildflowers are beneficial

Wildflowers can be mistaken for weeds. They are more desirable in your landscape and are less aggressive compared to weeds. Wildflower seeds are readily available in the market and therefore you can select and purchase specific wildflowers to plant in your garden.

Wildflowers need to grow in healthy soils and will require maintenance in order to grow correctly. Wildflowers would be considered weeds in a carefully planted and maintained home garden.

In some cases, they can appear unwanted in your garden, and it is up to the gardener to choose whether they are good for the landscape. Identify the wildflowers that you want to keep and those you want to discard.

Wildflowers are low maintenance and can add to the visual appeal of your garden. Wildflowers are generally ecologically beneficial, provide nectar and food for insects and local wildlife. 

5 examples of common “weeds”

1. Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale)
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This perennial weed is characterized by bright yellow flowers during spring. The plant normally appears between cracks in sidewalks and driveways. Dandelions have medicinal purposes, are edible and can be used in winemaking.

They provide nectar for bees. When given time to grow, they can take over your garden. The seeds are wind-borne and they also reproduce vegetatively due to their large tap roots. To control dandelions, you have to cut the root deep into the soil to prevent it from re-emerging. 

Hand-pulling and hoeing cannot effectively control dandelions. Ideally, you should remove the taproot entirely from the soil using a hand trowel.

To prevent dandelions from emerging in your garden bed, use a mulch of wood chips or bark. The mulch should be at least 3 inches deep, to reduce the amount of light reaching the soil and thus prevent their germination. 

2. Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
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Stinging nettle plants produce inconspicuous flowers. The plant causes discomfort when you touch it but it is edible. The leaves and stems have stinging hairs which will inject chemicals into the body when touched causing a painful sting. It has serrated leaves and small greenish or brown flowers. 

Nettles are the favorite food for the larvae of the peacock butterfly and some moth species. It spreads by rhizomes and produces abundant seeds. It can reestablish quickly after it is cut. The growth of the stinging nettle in your land is an indicator that your soil is rich in phosphorous and nitrogen. 

3. Purslane (Portulaca olearacea)

Purslane (Portulaca olearacea)
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Purslane is an edible annual plant, high in vitamins and fatty acids. The plant produces plentiful tiny black seeds and stem fragments during late spring. It can reproduce vegetatively through its leaves and is therefore very difficult to eradicate.

It can be controlled by hand picking. Uproot the weed as soon as it appears in your garden. Mulching is helpful in garden beds and should be 3 inches thick. You can use synthetic mulches such as a black plastic tarp over your garden to block out the light and prevent the establishment of seedlings. 

4. Pigweed (Amaranthus spp.)

Pigweed (Amaranthus spp.)
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It is a problematic annual weed, which is a common competitor for plants such as soybeans and cotton. It is characterized by fleshy red taproots. Pigweed reproduces by seeds and appears during late spring or early summer. 

To prevent the growth of pigweed, cover your garden plot with a winter mulch. Ideally, you should till your land very lightly during spring, to keep its seeds buried. It is best to mulch again after tilling, with around 3-6 inches of mulch. Pigweed is edible and highly nutritious. 

5. Crabgrass (Digitaria spp.)

Crabgrass (Digitaria spp.)
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Crabgrass perpetuates itself through millions of seeds. It appears from mid-spring or early summer when the ground is warm. It grows well under hot, dry conditions.

Crabgrass can grow up to 2ft tall. The best time to control the weed is during spring when it is most vulnerable. If crabgrass is already established in your garden, uproot the plants and use organic fertilizer to support the growth of lawn grass to crowd out the crabgrass. 

5 common wildflowers

1. Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

cConeflower (Echinacea purpurea)
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This wildflower is popular for its purple flowers and golden center cones. It is a perennial plant that attracts bees and butterflies. Coneflower is easy to grow and should be planted during the fall. Over the winter it will draw goldfinches and songbirds to your garden. 

  • Requires full sunlight or partial shade. 
  • Grows well in moist, well-drained soils. 
  • Ideal for USDA zones 3-8. 

2. Chicory (Cichorium intybus)

Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
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The plant was introduced and naturalized in America from Europe. It produces pink or white flowers which attract pollinators. It is highly drought tolerant. 

  • Requires exposure to full sunlight. 
  • Needs moist, well-drained, alkaline soils. 
  • Ideal for USDA zones 3-8. 

3. New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
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This perennial plant is native to the US. It is salt tolerant and thus can grow well in tough soils. During the spring, divide the plants to aid propagation. Produces pink and purple flowers with yellow centers that attract pollinators. 

  • Require exposure to full sunlight.
  • Grows well in well-drained, composted soils. 
  • Ideal for USDA zones 4-8. 

4. Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
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A flowering perennial that produces brilliant yellow flowers with dark brown center. The flowers bloom from early summer to fall, and attract butterflies, birds and other pollinators. Highly tolerant to heat, drought and poor soils. It is perfect for cottage gardens and mixed borders. 

  • Grows up to 2-3ft high and spreads 1-2ft. 
  • Thrives in full sunlight. 
  • Requires average, dry or moist, and well-drained soils. 
  • Ideal for USDA zones 3-8. 

5. Blanket Flowers (Gaillardia aristata)

Blanket Flowers (Gaillardia aristata)
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A perennial wildflower producing daisy-like flower heads with a red center. They bloom from late spring to fall and this will provide continuous color in your garden. They attract pollinators.

Birds feed on the seed heads. It is easy to grow, tolerant to drought and requires little maintenance. In poorly drained soils, it can be affected by root rot. 

  • Grows to a height of 30 inches and spreads 24 inches. 
  • Requires full sunlight. 
  • Grows well in medium, well-drained soils. Needs watering in dry conditions. 
  • Ideal for USDA zones 3-10. 


Weeds are unwanted plants that appear in your garden and spread vigorously choking out the existing vegetation. Wildflowers can first appear as weeds, and the gardener can choose whether to retain them or eliminate them. Wildflowers add to the visual interest of your garden, while weeds are generally detrimental to the welfare of your crops. You can differentiate between weeds and wildflowers by letting them grow to full maturity and uprooting unwanted plants.