In praise of weeds

Dandelion. Photo credit: David Hepworth

If you can eat, breathe, or exist, thank a plant. Plants often get the short end of the stick when it comes to Things Humans Are Interested In. They’re not all that cute (some might surprise you), they don’t talk (at least not to us), and all in all, compared to your average smart phone or polar bear, seem pretty boring. Yet all the organic carbon on this planet ultimately comes from plants.

From your windowsill miniature rose to the predatory bird of paradise in your backyard, all plants are busy wrenching apart water and carbon dioxide molecules, stripping them of hydrogen and carbon atoms to make organic hydrocarbons (plant sugars). Humans can’t do this. Your Android can’t do this. My fuzzy gray cat can’t do this. Only plants (and algae) do this. Almost every food chain everywhere on the planet starts with plants. 

I’ve taken you on a number of virtual nature walks (woodstreespoisonous plants), but now I’d like to introduce you to the most common and least loved plants of all: weeds.  Weeds are one of the ways I first started to interact with the natural (naturalish?) world. I’ll be fond of them until / unless I start trying to grow things on purpose.

I grew up in my mom’s postage stamp sized garden in northern California. She wasn’t a fastidious gardener (still isn’t), and I was short (and still am), so I paid as much attention to crawling weeds as I did the taller stuff. At that age, I didn’t recognize a distinction between wanted and unwanted plants. Sorry, Mom. I’m responsible for your dandelion explosions. <Poof…>

The names and details came later. Many of them surprised me, since the books that I had first read about these plants led me to expect something…bigger. Grander. Less common. But the more I learned, the more interested I was for their own sake. Here’s a virtual garden of weeds I grew up with. What weeds are in your yard?

Sorrel (genus: oxalis)

Woodsorrel. Photo credit: Pellaea

I thought these were shamrocks for the longest time. One of their alternate names is actually False Shamrock. I wonder if you’re still lucky if you find a four-leafed oxalis? The most common type of sorrel I know has tiny yellow flowers, but among the shade of the redwoods, sorrel has big heart-shaped leaves and tall pink flowers. Oxalic acid gives sorrel a tart flavor. In large doses, oxalic acid causes kidney stones, so if you’re trying to keep yourself alive after the zombie apocalypse, don’t eat too much sorrel. Nice accent on a salad, though. (Note: don’t forage near roads or where plants have been heavily sprayed, like most lawns.)

Clover (genus: Trifolium)

Clover. Photo credit: Public Domain Photos

Clover flowers make nice daisy chains. I cleverly figured this out for myself while sitting in outfield during the softball unit of PE each year. (This should tell you something about my athletic prowess.) It also flavors honey and feeds cows. Red clover increases cows’ milk output, but too much clover can lead to fatal cow bloat. Burr clover has pointy spurred burrs that stick to clothing and fur, so watch out.

Scarlet Pimpernel (genus: Anagallis)

Scarlet Pimpernel. Photo credit: Rictor Norton and David Allen

Instead of crushing on boy band members as a teen, I crushed on well-dressed fictional gentlemen in cravats, including the Scarlet Pimpernel. After reading the book, I hopped online to see what a scarlet pimpernel looked like and was devastated to find that it was neither scarlet (salmon…maybe) nor impressive (flowers are usually smaller than 1/2″). In fact, this was the same unheroic weed that had taken over one corner of my mom’s yard years earlier. My mom was similarly unbelieving when I pointed it out to her on a walk many years later. Despite my disappointment, I still think scarlet pimpernels are pretty. But should anyone be looking for an emblem under which to subvert the French government, may I suggest the star glory instead?

Rattlesnake Weed (genus: Euphorbia)

Rattlesnake Weed. Photo credit: David~O

This one grew in the mortar between bricks, which says something about its tenacity. The stems are filled with a sticky, milky sap that is intensely bitter. Bitterness is often an indication that something has toxic alkaloids. Good thing I never took more than a lick! A tea made from rattlesnake weed was an herbal remedy for snake bites, but you probably don’t want to take a chance on it. Euphorbs are characterized by toxic milky saps that can blister, so although nothing ever happened to me from playing with rattlesnake weed, handle with care. As a rule of thumb, don’t eat a wild plant that has milky sap. And if you taste any plant that is bitter or makes your mouth tingle, put it down at once!

Purslane (genus: Portulaca)

Purslane. Photo credit: Frankenstoen

I recently found out purslane was edible, so this summer, when my mother was ready to weed her garden, I asked her to save the purslane for me. I tried it with scrambled eggs and mushrooms. It wasn’t bad, though a little slimy. The technical term, I believe, is ‘mucilaginous.’ Most importantly: I didn’t die! Purslane is a succulent with a slightly tart edge and interesting texture. If you’re going to eat it, don’t harvest from areas subject to spraying (either from pesticides or dogs).

Pineapple Weed (genus: Matricaria)

Pineapple Weed. Photo credit: ArranET

This small plant with rounded yellow flowers and lacy leaves didn’t grow in my mom’s backyard, but it did grow at my school. When I learned the name, I figured that the flowers look maybe a little (if you turn your head to the side and squint?) like upside down pineapples. But actually, if you pinch a flower open, they have a pleasant, fruity smell that has a hint of pineapple to it. Pineapple weed is related to chamomile, although more bitter, and if you’re in a pinch, rubbing the plant on your skin is supposed to repel insects.

***

Even recognizing that weeds are a tremendous agricultural problem with no good solution (till and you degrade the soil; no-till and you have to use herbicides), I feel a certain admiration for these hardy, unwanted plants that survive despite the harshest conditions — no water, poor soil, herbicides, insects, fierce competition. They’re continually evolving resistance to our most powerful herbicides and other ways to kill them.

We city dwellers often bemoan the lack of nature in our immediate surroundings, but I dunno…maybe it’s just that we don’t pay enough attention. Do you know what weeds grow around you?

Weed identification resources:

Also, this is what I’ve been up to lately.

32 responses to this post.

  1. Weeds are terribly interesting! I’m really interested in edible weeds – just saw some purslane the other day but based on your review I think I’ll pass that one up!

    Reply

    • Hi Anastasia!

      The purslane wasn’t bad, all things considered, and I don’t consider my sliminess tolerance to be high. No okra for me. I have a few books on foraging, although California’s plants seem to be significantly different from what my books focus on. Stinging nettles and young dandelion leaves are supposed to be edible. I haven’t tried them myself.

      Reply

      • Nettles – only pick the top couple of inches, and from young plants. Steam or boil like spinach, or make into soup, or dry and use as tea. Dandelion leaves – you can blanch them like rhubarb, but otherwise pick them young and use them in salad with sweet leaves like romaine. AND you can pick the flower buds and add them to omelettes, or dip them in batter and fry them.

        Reply

  2. Posted by EcoCatLady on 08/19/2012 at 14:33

    In a certain sense I think the entire concept of a weed is very dubious. I mean, it’s only a weed because we say it is… in fact, it’s simply a plant that is very well adapted to its environment. Weeds are what’s supposed to be here, our crops and garden plants are the real invaders!

    I’ll try to remember that as I head out for another afternoon battling the bindweed and thistles!

    Reply

    • Hi Cat,

      I agree — a weed is a human concept, not a natural one. I would be FAR less happy with them if I actually gardened (in the same way, I have lots of compassion for insects…until they invade my kitchen), so feel free to give me a virtual slap if you’ve just spent hours pulling up bindweed! Many thistles are supposedly edible, if you’re adventurous.🙂

      Reply

  3. Give me a front yard full of well-tended seasonal weeds over a bland, sterile lawn of grass any day!

    Reply

    • Hey Donn,

      I’m not a fan of lawns in this part of California either. In England, lawns looked quite nice without even so much as a sprinkler system, but in places with less regular rainfall, they need lots of water and chemical help to look decent. Even though things are dried up and brown on the chaparral slopes I like to walk, the coming of the autumnal rains effects a dramatic transformation that I like better than perfect year round sameness.

      Reply

  4. Posted by Rosa on 08/19/2012 at 17:22

    here we don’t have rattlesnake weed or scarlet pimpernel (i think my copy of that book had a hibiscus on the cover…) but we do have burdock, which has edible roots; and lambsquarters, which we eat a lot of.

    Ooh, garlic mustard is a big invasive here that’s also edible – but it doesn’t show up in my yard very often, so I forget about it.

    Reply

    • Hi Rosa,

      I love it when invasive species are also edible. Two birds with one stone! I haven’t seen burdock around here, but it’s possible I just don’t know how to identify it. We do have big purple thistles (I think they are invasive bull thistles). What do you do with the roots?

      Reply

      • Posted by Rosa on 08/22/2012 at 19:21

        cut them up as small as i can stand and make kinpira gobo with them, if they are big enough – sometimes I find really massive ones along the bike trail – but usually they are kind of small so we just roast them with other fall vegetables. They are a big pain to peel & chop, very tough like tree roots (check out this recipe, he’s pretty descriptive of the difficulty & is using domestic burdock, which is bigger & more tender http://norecipes.com/blog/kinpira-gobo-japanese-burdock ) My kinpira gobo is always like 1/2 carrots or parsnips.

        Burdock kind of looks like rhubarb, but the leaves grow out of a central stalk instead of all growing out of the ground. It makes purple flowers like a thistle, so it’s possible it is what you’re thinking are bull thistles. The burs are pretty vicious. I bet you have it out there, it spreads like crazy.

        Reply

  5. Posted by Cindy on 08/19/2012 at 17:32

    I certainly do know my weeds.. & you showed me some I don’t know.. Should add if they’re native/alien or invasive…. I know sorrel is native.. Great post, thanks!

    Reply

    • Hi Cindy,

      You must have very different weeds since you’re clear on the other side of the country. People sometimes ask me plant ID questions, and unless it grows near me, I usually have no idea. It’s interesting how different weeds are even thirty miles away. I should have paid more attention when I lived in England.🙂

      I don’t know which of these are native. Rattlesnake weed for sure, and at least some types of sorrel. Scarlet pimpernel is probably European, clover sounds like it might be, too.

      Reply

  6. Great post – I love to find fellow weed fans. I prefer to call them wildflowers! I’m 1,000 metres up in the Carpathian Mountains (Transylania), so we have some different wild flowers to you, but we share a big proportion of them with the UK and much of Europe.
    Outside my back door are goose-foot orache (delicious salad plant), Good King Henry (also delicious), clover (pretty and sweet in salad), ground elder (cook like spinach), St John’s Wort, alchemilla, self-heal, burdock, and many, many more. In May, great carpets of dandelions are the first real signs of Spring. Transylvania’s wildflower meadows are beloved of botanists because they are still unspoilt by chemicals (may not always be so, though) and richly diverse. If you can’t eat it, you can usually make tea from it to cure all sorts of maladies.

    Reply

    • Hi Arabella,

      Yes, by all means, let’s call them wildflowers.🙂 It sounds gorgeous where you live. I don’t suppose you’d take us on a wildflower tour of your wildflowers? I know there are some wildflowers, at least in the US, that are rather poisonous. Bluebells and buttercups are two, I think. Is that also true of Europe?

      Reply

      • Great idea, Jennifer, thanks! I’ll post them on the village’s Facebook page (facebook.com/magura.transylvania) where you can see some photos. The village is utterly gorgeous, especially as we have our very own Gorge…

        Reply

  7. Posted by smallftprints on 08/20/2012 at 13:10

    I grew up eating dandelions … not the cultivated one … but ones we foraged for in mountain pastures. They are wonderful in a salad! And very nutritious. In western NC, we get a lot of stinging nettles … I haven’t tried them yet but I see a lot of people harvesting them. We also have something called a ramp (which is a wild onion/garlic type thing) and creasy greens which grow wild and are considered a weed in homes around here. Whenever I see a perfectly tended, green lawn I think how much better off we’d all be if we just let “weeds” grow. Thanks for a wonderful post!

    Reply

    • Hi Smallfootprints!

      I learned about stinging nettles the hard way, I’m afraid. They don’t seem to do very well in my part of CA (too dry?), but England was chock full of them. I used to go to an overgrown park with lots of blackberry brambles. I’d very carefully avoid the blackberries and then wonder why my ankles were burning by the end of my walk! That’s how I finally learned to identify them. I didn’t know they were edible when I was there, though.

      Ramps were highly praised in a book I have (Thayer’s Forager’s Harvest, I think). It sounds tasty! I’d love to get someone who actually forages to write a guest post, since I’m rather cautious and most of what grows around me is probably too polluted to be safe.

      Reply

  8. Really lovely post. I’ve not tried purslane, but sea purslane is absolutely delicious. Especially with fish. Found mainly on tidal estuaries – is your part of the world too dry for it? Will read your posts with interest. Ps found my way here via reducefootprints!

    Reply

    • Hi Everyman Zero Waste!

      Thanks for stopping by. I’ve never heard of sea purslane. I live about 30 miles from the sea (wouldn’t mind living closer) Wiki has two different plants listed under sea purslane: Sesuvium portulacastrum and Halimione portulacoides — what a mouthful! I do like a number of different sea weeds, so I’ll keep an eye out.

      Reply

  9. Oh my, good post!

    I’ve heard it said that weeds are just plants we don’t know what to do with yet … so in writing this you may be helping to change that regarding some of these suckers!

    Two weeds that to me will never have a use though: spurge and nut sedge. Makes me shudder just thinking about them!

    Reply

    • Hi Renee,

      I think it might be that we can’t make them commercially viable, not that we don’t know what to do with them! Spurge (rattlesnake weed is in the family) IS on the unpleasant side to deal with. Apparently the milky sap is really irritating to lungs as well as hands, so if you’re cutting through a large swath of it, a mask is a good idea. I don’t think we have nut sedge over here. It sounds like something a squirrel would like!

      Reply

  10. Posted by Andrea on 08/21/2012 at 10:15

    But they’re all so pretty! Wouldn’t a boring, green lawn look much nicer with these flowers? Oh well, I just don’t see things like the average person does. Stuff growing = good sign.

    I read an interesting article a while back about how important weeds are for soil fertility and how to avoid using herbicides. It’s from Australia but totally relevant anyway: http://cityfoodgrowers.com.au/blog-latestposts.php?catid=98

    Reply

    • Hi Andrea,

      I think using weeds rather than just destroying them and everything around them is a great way to deal with them. (Not sure about the biodynamic stuff in that post, though…do weeds really grow better after a full moon? What’s the mechanism behind that?)

      Down with lawns, long live meadows!🙂

      Reply

  11. I took all my grass out and planted ornamental peanuts, probably considered a weed by some. The little yellow flowers it makes EVERYDAY are great to eat. ust add to salads.

    Reply

    • Nice. I didn’t know peanut flowers were edible! My dad tried several times to plant peanuts in the shell, but I don’t think he ever succeeded in getting a peanut plant. (I wonder if they were even raw?)

      Reply

  12. Weeds are way more useful than most give them credit for! I found out this past summer wondering what I could do with the abundance of white clover blossoms in my yard they make a ROCKIN Jelly. I combined the clover with chocolate mint from my garden and it is now a family favorite! My husband thought I was nuts until he tried it!

    Reply

    • Hi Poor to Rich,

      I’ve heard clover blossoms were edible, but I’ve never tried them! I need to find a patch that I know for sure hasn’t been sprayed, and then I will totally try making jelly out of them.🙂

      Reply

  13. […] It’s Not Easy To Be Green […]

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: