Springtime Weeds


Summer blossoms can make for easy plant identification, but you don’t have to wait for the warmer weather to get outside and start identifying the weeds around you. In fact, early detection in the spring can make it easier to tackle your weeds. Some weeds show up earlier than others, keep reading to learn more about which ones you can expect to see here in western Washington in the spring (April, May, June).

If you want to really ~get into the weeds~, check out our other most recent blog post about springtime weed management.

iNaturalist noxious seedlings project

Identifying plants while they are young can be a challenge. To help, the Noxious Weeds Control Program has been working on developing a photo database of young seedlings publicly available on iNaturalist. If you are using iNaturalist to record observations of plants, join our Noxious Seedlings project to help identify weeds in their early growth stages. We’re using this project to improve everyone’s ability to identify young weeds, learn about the attributes seen at this stage and share tips for control.

Edible spring weeds

Sure, there are plenty of delicious edible natives around, but did you know you can also add these weeds to your meal? 

Shot weed Cardamine hirsuta

Rosette of shot weed in early spring. Photo by Sam Droege, 2013.

One weed we hear about frequently is an edible brassica that’s not on the state or county noxious weed list:  Cardamine hirsuta, AKA shot weed, hairy bittercress, or lambscress. This weed is often one of the first ones we notice in the springtime with its upright stem and low cluster of leaves (basal rosette). No need to call this one in, it’s easy to weed out of your garden, wash, and put right in your salad. It’s been described as slightly spicy or akin to watercress.  

Check out this fun shot weed recipe: A Spicy Bittercress Sautée – Eat The Planet 

Sticky Willy Galium aparine

Another very common weed sticky Willy, a perennial favorite among pranksters. This one goes by many names including: catchweed bedstraw, cleavers, goosegrass, and clivers. You can identify the plant by the narrow simple leaves, the tiny hooked hairs along the entire plant, and the tiny star shaped whitish flowers. The young leaves of the sticky Willy can be eaten as a cooked leafy green. You may want to harvest the plant before the small hooks appear as these parts are velcro-like and stick to clothes. However, if you find the plant later in the season, you can gather the fruits to roast and use as a coffee substitute!   

Sticky willy curry: Foraging: Sticky Willy – Go Wild Go West

Garlic mustardAlliaria petiolata

If you see low growing clumps of rounded or kidney shaped leaves, look closer- you may have found a young garlic mustard seedling (be aware they have a lot of look alikes, so look closely). These leaves will be hairless, have toothed or scalloped edges, and typically grow in a small circle. Second year plants will have an upright stem, leaves will become more triangular towards the top of the plant. They will start to flower around April. Flowers are small, white, and have four petals. 

Unlike shot weed and sticky Willy, garlic mustard is a Class A noxious weed that the Noxious Weed Control program works hard to monitor and control. It is a listed weed because of the significant impact it can have in native forests. It creates a carpet in the understory that prevents a diversity of young trees and shrubs from being able to establish roots. Property owners are required to control garlic mustard on their property because it is still uncommon enough that we have the chance to contain it before it becomes too widespread.  Please notify us if you find garlic mustard and we can provide guidance on removal. For small patches, hand removal can be effective if you are able to get the roots out. Once dug up, this plant’s leaves can be chopped up and added to salads! Once prepared in this manner the yummy young leaves taste like garlic and mustard.

Garlic mustard recipes: 16 Garlic Mustard Recipes & Uses for Garlic Mustard Plant (healthygreensavvy.com) 

Toxic spring weeds

Not every plant deserves a place on your plate. Here are a few to know and avoid! For more information on each species, select their common name below to be brought to their official species page.

Poison Hemlock

Conium maculatum

The clue is in the name, do not eat any part of this plant! In the springtime you can find poison hemlock by looking for single stems growing out of low clusters of leaves (rosettes) close to the ground. These plants can be easily removed by digging their short roots out of the ground and thrown away, not composted. Remember to wear gloves while you remove these plants and wash your hands after. 

Poison hemlock is a Class B noxious weed with selective regulation in King County.  This means control of poison hemlock is required on public lands and public rights-of-way. Private property owners are not required to control it on their lands, though it is highly recommended due to its invasive and toxic behaviors. Poison hemlock is also on the Washington quarantine list Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board

Spurge laurel Daphne laureola

This “laurel” is actually in the Daphne family! You might find young saplings all over the region, but they particularly like partial shade and well drained soils. This time of year, you can identify spurge laurel by the dark green, shiny, smooth, and thick leaves. These leaves are arranged in a dense whorl (a leaf arrangement where three or more leaves grow outward from the same point on a stem) near the top of the stem. Flowers may also be visible at this time of year. They are small, light green, and found at the base of the leaves.  

One of the reasons this plant is a Class B noxious weed is that all parts of this plant are toxic to both humans and other animals.  Wear gloves when handling this plant as it can produce a caustic sap that can cause severe eye and skin irritation.  

Giant hogweedHeracleum mantegazzianum

This weed is a Class A noxious weed, which means we are required to control the species statewide. And for good reason, the sap from this plant is highly toxic and can cause severe burns on the skin that can last for several years. To avoid this plant, know how to identify it: although it is known for growing very tall (10-15 ft.) in the summer, in the spring you still may be able to find it near the ground, with large jagged leaves with edges that are sharply toothed. The stem is about 2-4 inches thick, hollow, covered in stiff white hairs, and ridged with dark reddish-purple raised blotches. 

Tansy ragwortJacobea vulgaris

Formerly latin named Senecio jacobea for my plant nerds, this is a Class B regulated weed that we are required to control due to its toxicity to humans and animals and its ability to spread quickly.  This can be a big problem if this plant gets mixed into hay that is fed to horses, so we’re doing our part to spot it and control it! In the spring you won’t be able to rely on Tansy’s bright yellow flowers for identification, instead look for a circular arrangement of ruffled, dark green, kale-like leaves growing close to the ground. You might even see purple stems on young plants. Please notify us if you find it and we can provide guidance on control. 

Honorable mentions

To learn more about the species below, click on it’s name. Photo on the left is the seedling stage, right is mature.

Once you have identified your weed, the best thing you can do is take action ASAP. The infestation only grows larger with time, so sooner is always better than later. Check out our most recent blog post about spring weed management if you’re ready to take the next steps!

If you need any help identifying your weed or regarding what to do next, email us at noxious.weeds@kingcounty.gov for all things noxious weeds.

Happy weeding!


  1. The link to the spring weed management blog did not work for me. The only weed in this post that I have quit pulling in spring is gallium. For one thing it may be native like its cousin, the rather tame and beautiful Sweet Scented Bedstraw. For Sticky Willy I will likely pull some later in the growing season that is overwhelming native plants, too late to keep it from reseeding, but simply for anesthetics. Thank you for your post.

    • Hi John! Odd, here is a new link you can copy/paste into your browser, let me know if it works for you: https://kingcountyweeds.com/2023/03/20/spring-cleaning-get-into-the-weeds/

      That is a great point regarding the native gallium! Thankfully the native has much larger leaves, i honestly get them confused with lupines more than I do with the one in the article! Also I usually just assume that if it is growing over beneficial vegetation and adding weight, that it is the introduced species. But thank you for the comment because not alot of people know about the native and now they can look into it 🙂

      Thanks for reading and weeding!

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