A weed by any other name … is still a weed

Published 12:40 pm Friday, November 22, 2019

The common names we use for weeds mostly make sense. But a few took some strategic creativity by somebody. 

Self-explanatory weed names like “poison ivy” are the easy ones. Other weeds are named after people and once we know who and why those weed names make sense. 

A Colonel Johnson planted a fast-growing grass from the Mediterranean area back in the mid-1800s because he thought it would be great for cattle pasture. Either the colonel didn’t know how quickly the grass would spread or he didn’t realize his cattle profits were near nothing compared to his cotton. So we got Johnsongrass.

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Some of our English names for weeds came from mistakes in attempts to speak other languages. Dandelion weed got its Americanized name from a slight aberration of French for “lion’s teeth,” the teeth being the sharp points on leaf edges. Our word “kudzu” is a close call at the Japanese name for said plant.

There are lots of species called “milkweed,” all because of the latex within the plants.

As for the animal name weeds, there seems to be no end to them.

Aquatic duckweed is indeed a favored food of ducks as are many other plants. Don’t ever buy ducks to solve a pond duckweed problem.

Goosegrass is a triple-header weed name. Current weed literature claims the plant is a delicacy to geese, plus the seed head looks sort of like the spread toes of a goose’s foot. Back when I studied weed science in agronomy, it was also said the open, flattened juncture of the grass’ stems at the ground was reminiscent of a goose nest. So I’m sticking with all three goosegrass reasonings.

Reading along here about duckweed and goosegrass, one might think the common name “quackgrass” is also attributable to waterfowl.  Well, it’s not.  It’s another of those “oh so close” mispronunciations of another language. The name is from German “quecke,” which means “to live.” It is called that because the weed is so persistent.

One of my favorite curiosity weed names is “bitterchamber.” That plant also ranks high among problem weeds at my place. It is fairly new here, finding its way from Asia to Mississippi sometime in the 1990s.

Among its other common names are “mimosa weed” because it looks like a small version of a mimosa. It is also called “gripeweed.” If you ever get infested with it, you’ll know why.

Another common name is either “shatter stone” or the Spanish word for “stone breaker.” These do not refer to rocks in soil. The plant has long been known for herbal medicinal uses, including as a treatment for kidney stones.

I never could find information about the origin of the term “bitterchamber;” not at any university, gardening or herbicide advertisement site. I’m taking the liberty here to speculate it might have to do with “bitter” being a foul-tasting drink, aka tea, made from the plant and “chamber” being a room in a house. I’m guessing “home remedy” is the right answer.


Terry Rector writes for the Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District.