MU's weed identification system gets revamped

Friday, May 6, 2011 | 4:31 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Flowering pansies, field violets and some rose species could be a bouquet for mothers or a Missouri farmer’s worst nightmare.

For people questioning what’s growing in their backyard, field or flowerpot, the MU Extension has cultivated a new interactive weed identification Web tool. The site serves homeowners, agriculture specialists and anyone else who is curious about what’s growing out of the ground.

But some of the species on the website don’t quite look like what most would classify as a nuisance.

“Some of the ‘weeds’ on our site are native plants that have attractive flowers,” said Kevin Bradley, MU Extension weed scientist. “Some people will tell me, ‘How dare you put this beautiful flower on this site?’”

The site features a step-by-step dichotomous key that narrows a weed's identity based on its physical traits. Pictures and explanations accompany scientific terms, so those without a Ph.D. in botany don’t have to leaf through about 350 species before pegging the correct one.

For weed sleuths without a wired connection, plans for the site include adding a  mobile phone version slated for release this fall. Bradley said an app version may be coming at a later date.

As history demonstrates, weeds can be beautiful or annoying, a sentiment that contributes to a centuries-old identity crisis. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson related a weed’s ambiguity to the concept of human character when he wrote, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.”

While some species are native to Missouri, other now-common weeds “escaped” captivity and grew sporadically throughout the U.S., Bradley said. The Star of Bethlehem, initially intended to be a domestic plant, has become a difficult-to-control weed, sprouting in dark green clumps in yards across the country, just like the edible dandelion.

“A lot of people would look at a dandelion and say, ‘That’s a really pretty flower,'” Bradley said. “But most homeowners aren’t going to say that.”

Pictures of “weeds” dot Bradley’s office — dayflowers, morning glories, bull thistles, passion flowers and dandelions. His backyard is home to some intended flora other people would normally eradicate.

“I take weeds that I think are attractive and plant them in my home landscape,” he said. “My neighbors don’t know any differently.”

And when Mother’s Day arrives, many moms won’t know the difference either.

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