Dawn Combs
May 28, 2014

You may choose to base a garden design on one of many themes. I love the idea of gardening with the outlaws of the plant world. This year, I am asking my husband to design a garden that showcases these plants.

How do we determine what is a good plant and what is a bad plant?

Invasive Plants
There are groups of plant enthusiasts that ruthlessly campaign against “invasive” plants, so there’s a clear standard there that defines an introduced species as non-native. For a plant to be considered invasive, it must be both non-native and have the bad manners to thrive. Just about every weekend of the year, you will find groups of gardeners getting together to head into wild areas and weed the invasive species out of existence.

“Dangerous” Plants
We allow our regulatory agencies to determine good and bad for us when it comes to supplements. Plants get classified as dangerous either because of a new clinical study or as the result of inappropriate use by humans. The latter is the case for plants like seer’s sage (Salvia divinorum) or peyote (Lophophora williamsii), two plants whose only crime is in being misused and disrespected. Out of the class of plants that are labeled “bad” by our regulatory agencies, there are a few plants that you can be fined or get jail time for even planting. The beautiful opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is a flower you must plant at your own risk, though you can still get seed, as it’s not actually illegal to sell them.

Sticking Up for the Bad Girls
As a botanist, I hate to see plants getting a bad rap. Who are we to say who is bad and who is good? Why do we get to outlaw a plant for being successful? Anyway, I’ll leave the argument, as well as the thorny debate over what is a weed and what isn’t, open for you to decide. In the meantime, here are a few plants that I will be planting this year in defiance of their unsavory reputations.

Comfrey (Symphytum spp.)

3 Garden
Photo by Rachael Brugger

Comfrey is a beautiful plant with light- to dark-purple flowers and large furry leaves. It’s an important plant for rashes, cuts and bruises but has a bad reputation because it contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids. The effects of this constituent were examined in a controversial clinical study .

Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium)

3 Garden
Photo by Rachael Brugger

YUM! Pennyroyal is a creeping mint with soft pink flowers. It is delicious in tea and is one of my favorites to relieve congestion and discomfort during a cold. It’s completely innocent, but the essential oil that can be concentrated from its leaves was misused by some girls in the 70s who were killed by ingesting a deadly dose.

Sassafrass (Sassafras albidum)

3 Garden
Photo by Rachael Brugger

This native tree in Ohio is one of my favorites to find in the forest because of its mitten-shaped leaves. The root of this tree was traditionally used in root beer until it got its bad name. Folks in the South used this root every spring as a blood cleanser until the chemical safrole was isolated and studied. The concern was that sassafrass could be considered a carcinogen. Safrole is actually not water soluble, so all those who were drinking sassafrass in a tea were not actually in any danger.

See what else is growing in Dawn’s garden:

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