Just say no to free plants

You can’t argue too much with “FREE,” unless what is being offered isn’t worth much. However, one person’s “free” may be another person’s “junk” and vice versa.

When it comes to plants, free plants should set off alarms like the robot on the old Lost in Space ­television show: “Danger Will Robinson,” even if your name isn’t Will Robinson.

There are two types of free plants – those that others give you ­(warning bells going off) and those you get yourself. The latter is more like a little dinner bell, tinkling a potential caution.

When someone wants to give you plants, there’s usually a reason – the plants are so prolific in their yards that it’s easy to share.

Years ago, several Springfield Civic Garden Club members thought it would be nice to help me out with my first home and offered many plants from their yards. Specimens such as peonies, hostas and daylilies were welcomed. In hindsight, the Stella d’ Oro daylilies might not have been the best, but at least it isn’t really invasive; it just keeps growing into larger and larger clumps.

On the other hand, the Chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata) was the worst mistake of my life, followed by lemon balm mint (Melissa ­officinalis). In either case, an empty yard and something “free” preempted any ­rational thought on my part.

At least the lemon balm smelled great in the yard when crushed. There was nothing like the smell of working around it, and crushing some in your hands to mask the smell of composted manure. Trouble is, it liked to grow in the soil and it didn’t matter what type of soil it was, or where it was. It grew in the sun and shade, wet areas as well as dry.

After a couple of years of watching it fill in nicely and then fill in everywhere less than nicely, it was time to remove it. Fortunately, lemon balm is one of the more shallow rooted mints and after a good rain was relatively easily pulled from the ground.

But you have to make sure you get every bit. And you have to bury it in the compost pile. If you leave it on the ground, it will re-root. I’d swear the birds and squirrels also planted pieces when I wasn’t watching.

Chameleon plant is another ­matter. I’m sure in the right location it’s a great plant. It’s just hard to imagine where that might be. It takes a strong friendship and forgiveness to weather the gift after several years of the plant in your yard. My gift-giver has long departed but I keep remembering her yearly.

Granted, the partial-shade-loving plant can look nice in a large area with nothing else around it except concrete. The multi-colored leaves are attractive and the white flowers are kind of cute. The plant smells a little citrusy when the stems are crushed, but it’s an odor that soon becomes a little sickening.

Twenty years later, the battle rages on. You can spend lots of time and energy pulling plants up. However, if you leave just a teeny bit, it’ll be back. The whole plant needs to be pulled. Sometimes, it might be better just digging up what you want in the area, and then killing everything left behind either by covering with black plastic or chemically.

Do NOT think “I’ll just till it all in.” You’ve just created a zillion new plants.

So, as a New Year’s Resolution, smile and sweetly say “Thanks, but no thanks” when offered a plant from someone. Or take it and let it wither in the compost pile, saying, “It just didn’t seem to do well in my yard. I’ll have to try something else.”

David Robson is Extension Specialist, Pesticide Safety for the University of Illinois. drobson@illinois.edu.