Don’t let names fool you: You may want ‘weeds’ & ‘worts’ in your garden

spiderwort in Buffalo NY
Spiderwort plants have graceful leaves and pretty flowers that bloom for weeks or months. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

A weed is any plant you don’t want in your garden. So who would want a plant with “weed” already in its name?

And “wort” sounds like “wart,” those unappealing skin blemishes. Yuck!

“Wort” is often coupled with the name of some body part —such as in “lungwort.” Double yuck!

Don’t be turned off by those names. “Weed” comes from an Old English word for herb.

The archaic meaning of “wort”, which has lingered in some of today’s plant names, is a plant used medicinally or for food. The first part of the word, such as “lung,” was the part of the body that the plant was supposed to help.

While I don’t know how helpful any of these plants are in curing illness, they can be great additions to your garden.


The native spiderwort, Virginia spiderwort or Tradescantia virginiana, has been used as both food and medicine, according to this sheet from the United States Department of Agriculture. Spiderwort is mashed and used on insect bites and a tea made from the plant has been used as a laxative.

But be aware that there are many cultivars of spiderwort. Never eat a plant if you’re not sure what it is or how it may affect you.

The plant probably got the name spiderwort because of the delicate spider web-like filaments that surround the anthers of the flower or the threadlike secretion that emerges from the stem when cut.

Gardeners generally choose spiderwort as an ornamental perennial. The cultivars are easy to grow. Spiderwort has graceful foliage and a pretty flower that will bloom for weeks or months.

lungwort in Western New York
Lungwort has interesting foliage, gets a pretty flower in spring, grows in shady areas and is deer resistant. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko


Lungwort is one of those “wort” plants that were named for the body part that they were supposed to help, and some people use it for other conditions as well. Don’t eat any plant unless you are sure of what the plant is and how it will affect you.

However, you can use lungwort to prevent the headaches caused by deer grazing in your garden — Lungwort is a deerresistant plant.

Another nice feature of lungwort is that it can grow in part sun to shade, areas where fewer plants grow well.

Lungwort is used in gardens primarily for the color and texture of its foliage. There are spotted varieties as well as solid colored varieties. Lungwort is low-growing and gets a pretty flower in the spring, too.

butterfly weed in bloom
Butterfly weed got its name because it attract butterflies. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Butterfly weed

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a member of the milkweed family. It gets lovely orange flowers and has grown very popular in Western New York — especially because plant growers and sellers have started referring to it as butterfly flower.

It gets its name because it attracts butterflies.

Butterfly weed is also deer resistant and drought tolerant, and the cut flowers can be used in arrangements.

Swamp milkweed

bee on swamp milkweed flower
Swamp milkweed has rosy pink blooms and is an important host plant and source of nectar for butterflies. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Swamp milkweed isn’t a pretty name, but it is an attractive plant with intense rosy pink blooms.

Asclepias incarnata is one of the most beneficial plants for monarch butterflies, providing both nectar and a place for the monarchs to lay their eggs, according to Eastern Monarch Butterfly Farm. It is helpful to other butterflies and pollinators, too.

Swamp milkweed does well in damp or occasionally submerged areas as well as in perennial gardens that are maintained with mulch. They will tolerate some shade but prefer more sun. They don’t have aggressive rhizome roots and can be controlled easily in your garden.

Common milkweed

A different variety of milkweed, common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), can spread a lot, I’m told by gardeners who use it in their landscapes. However, it’s easy to pull out of areas where you don’t want it, they add.

One more reason why you might want to use milkweed in your garden: All of the varieties have the cool pods that split open to allow seeds on silky strands to be carried by the wind.

Joe-pye weed

joe-pye weed
Joe-pye weed can add height to your garden. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Joe-pye weed is one of the plants that’s always on the list for people who want to attract butterflies to their gardens, but what I love about it is its height. It can get 5 to 8 feet tall, and it grows fairly straight.

Many tall plants and shrubs can get as wide as they are tall, so they take up a lot of room. Joe-pye weed adds height without making my garden feel crowded.

You may be surprised to find out that Joe-pye weed or Eutrochium purpureum isn’t related to any of the milkweed plants, though they are all native plants and often show up on the same butterfly garden lists. Joe-pye is in the sunflower family.

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