Weed Identification and the Life Cycle of Weeds

Weed Identification and the Life Cycle of Weeds

June 10, 2020

It is said that identification is halfway to control. Identifying your weeds is an important step to a proper and sound weed management strategy for your farm. Each weed has a certain life cycle attached to it. It is important to know the life cycle of weeds to help you quickly identify which weed it could be in the field and to know how to control it.

Management tactics are different for each type of weed, so proper understanding and identification can save you a lot of headaches in the future.

Summer Annuals

A Summer Annual is the most common life cycle for weeds that establish in Ontario. Its full life cycle occurs in a period of one growing season (Spring – Fall.) With summer annuals, the seeds lie dormant all winter and germinate in the spring. The seedlings will grow fast and mature in a short period of time. Seeds will be produced and will drop, and the weed will die in autumn typically after the first major frost.

Summer annuals can produce a large number of seeds that can persist in the soil for years (Broadleaf weed seed will last longer than grass weed seed.) They are typically controlled by herbicides and cultivation practices in both the fall and spring; crop residues in fields may also control annuals. As well, narrower row spacing can help control annuals.

No-till operations control large-seeded annuals better than small-seeded annuals because of the lack of seed to soil contact which will limit germination. In no-till fields, winter and spring annual weeds can reduce soil warm-up and dry down in the spring, which can potentially delay planting and impact seedbed quality. In conventional tillage fields with annual weed problems, several tillage passes may be needed increasing costs.

Winter Annuals

The life cycle of a winter annual is completed between the fall and spring or early summer. With winter annuals the seeds will germinate in the fall, and overwinter as rosettes. These rosettes will produce seed in the spring and then will die in the summer. Crop residues in fields may control annuals.

Problems Created by Winter Annuals Include:

  • Poor seedbed conditions.
  • Delayed planting due to weeds preventing soil from drying timely in the spring.
  • Higher Soybean Cyst Nematode (SCN) levels where chickweed, shepherd’s purse and purple deadnettle can serve as alternative hosts for SCN.
  • Black Cutworm Infestations – Female Black Cutworm moths are attracted to winter annuals such as chickweed, deadnettle, shepherd’s purse etc.
  • Disease problems – A mat of winter annual weeds will provide a moist and dark environment which seedlings need to emerge from – and can cause issues.

Timing of control is everything. While spring is always a rush, it may be better to spray more in the fall. Post emergence contact materials are less effective in the spring especially under cooler spring conditions. If applying in the spring make sure it is done early as it will take longer for weeds to die. Since the weeds take longer to die, the soil takes longer to warm up and dry and interferes with planting timing. Using residual products in the fall or early spring is typically effective since weed size is smaller, and moisture is available typically for activation. There is a greater length of time for the herbicide to control weeds when applied in the fall.


Biennials are less common than annuals. In order to complete their life cycle they need two full growing seasons to do so. In season one, the seed will germinate and produce vegetative growth. At the end of the first year, the roots will store food for seed production for the next year. In the second growing season after overwintering, a flower stalk is produced, and seed is created and then the plant will die again in the fall.

These weeds tend to be more troublesome in strip-till and no-till fields. Biennials can become more of a problem in winter wheat if there has been little or no tillage before the previous crop of soybeans.


Perennials are a bit unique in the fact that these weeds can live for three or more years. Their primary way of creating new plants is asexual meaning they produce new plants by roots or vegetative growth. They are the most difficult to control out of all of the life cycles of weeds. On perennial weeds, the tops will die down in the winter, but the underground structures will overwinter.

There are three types of perennial weeds:

  • Simple – They overwinter with the root or crown and spread mostly by seed.
  • Creeping – They overwinter and reproduce by roots, rhizomes, tubers and seeds.
  • Bulbous – They propagate by bulbs as well as seeds.

Perennials are also unique in the fact that they can sometimes change their life cycle. Changing their life cycle has to do with the climate that they are in. An example of this could be the weed Yellow Rocket. In the US it is a perennial but in Canada is can exist as an annual because temperatures get to low to allow it to survive the winter.

These weeds tend to be more troublesome in strip-till and no-till fields. Using tillage to kill the top growth of weeds in order to limit root reserves from getting nutrients can be effective for biennials and perennials.

Fall is a great time to take care of perennial weeds such as dandelion since fall is the time when dandelions translocate reserves down to the root system. This will take the herbicide with it and will result in better control from the herbicide.

Want to Learn More About Weed Control in Your Fields?

Get in touch with your Sylvite Sales Rep or Ag Consultant to talk crop recommendations and discuss what herbicides or weed control methods are best for your farm.