Garden Detective

Velvetleaf a pretty weed that comes back year after year

What’s that weed? It’s velvetleaf, a member of the mallow family that can grow very fast very quickly. Its yellow flowers are followed by these distinctive seedpods.
What’s that weed? It’s velvetleaf, a member of the mallow family that can grow very fast very quickly. Its yellow flowers are followed by these distinctive seedpods.

Experts tackle readers’ garden questions.

Q: Could you please identify this plant/weed? I have a wine barrel that I plant tomatoes in and every year this thing pops up. I usually rip it out but this year I let it grow. It starts out pretty with yellow flowers and then turns into this. Right now, it is about 5 feet tall.

Kathryn Twente, Auburn

Bee garden writer Debbie Arrington: That’s a velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti), a member of the mallow family that’s become a common weed in farmlands across the United States. Native to India and Southeast Asia, this annual is also nicknamed buttonweed, due to its distinctive seedpods.

This plant sprouts in spring, usually after the soil has been turned. It prefers loamy soil, such as your tomato planter, and is common in corn fields. Fast growing, it can reach 6 to 7 feet in height. The seeds can remain vital for more than 20 years, which means velvetleaf can lurk in the soil for years before sprouting.

As its name implies, velvetleaf has large heart-shaped, soft, fuzzy leaves that feel like velveteen. The leaves are edible and used in some Asian cuisines. In China, this plant has been valued for its tough ropelike fibers for almost 4,000 years.

Its fragrant yellow flowers look like a small hibiscus (a relative) and are attractive to bees and other beneficial insects.

Velvetleaf was introduced to the United States by colonists about the time of the American Revolution. Since then, it’s made itself at home in farm fields coast to coast. It’s considered an invasive plant in several states, especially in the Midwest. Velvetleaf is a nuisance in corn and soybean fields where it can out-compete those crops.

Whether you keep it – or pull it – is up to you. It may help attract bees and beneficial insects to your tomatoes, but it also steals some of their water and soil nutrients.

The Bee’s Debbie Arrington is a consulting rosarian and longtime gardener. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

Garden questions?

Questions are answered by master gardeners at the UC Cooperative Extension services in Sacramento and Placer counties. Send questions to Garden Detective, P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852. Send email to h&g@sacbee.com. Please put “Garden Detective” in the subject field and include your postal address. To contact UC Extension directly, call:

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