- 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 (woods, trees, poisonous 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)
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:
- UC Davis weed gallery
- Colorado State list of common weeds
- University of Vermont common weeds of Northeastern US
- Almanac.com’s common garden weeds
Also, this is what I’ve been up to lately.