As we are rolling into the summer months here in the Midwest, the perennials have grown taller, the seeds planted have taken root, but so have the weeds. Even using the word “weed” has a negative connotation. We purchased our house last year from an herbalist and so we have medicinal and culinary herb gardens, floral gardens and more. That also means we are inundated with “weeds”. Before she moved, this wise herbalist said a “weed is just a plant out of place. A plant you don’t want growing where it is.” This got me to thinking: why do we hunt weeds? In an effort to have perfectly manicured lawns? But why? This idea of a weed as a plant in its own right also got me to thinking more broadly about these plants and I decided to investigate.
The chemical used to keep lawns weed free, though effective at “weed” control, has disastrous impacts for bees, butterflies and the overall ecosystem. Recent research in Europe and the USA has shown that Glyphosate, a commonly used herbicide known as Round-Up, affects bees ability to eat, taste, smell, and its memory. These senses and skills are essential for young bees to forage for nectar, fly back to the hive to deliver nectar and complete its job inside the hive. The fact that Round Up affects foraging behavior may even threaten the survival of the colony. So while spraying kills the weeds, it is likely the culprit behind colony collapse disorder across the globe. That is even more of a reason to forgo spraying and make friends with our weeds.
First up, is the ubiquitous and vilified, Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale. Most have a love or hate relationship with this cheerful, sunny little weed. Lately, my husband has gone to town picking the poor dandelions out of our grassy spaces with his dandelion picker and obsessively with his bare hands. He embraces a little of the wild on our little homestead, but grew up with a pristine, sprayed suburban lawn. We choose not to spray our lawn for our family’s health and the health of the our local ecology, but in less than then minutes our neighbor has around 30 gallons of roundup sprayed on their lawn.
Here are some of the reasons to keep dandelions alive: The dandelion is a tasty treat for pollinators and humans alike serving a wide array of uses and functions for our bodies and the environment.
Dandelions are one of the first flowers to come up in spring, if a hive survives the winter, beekeepers know the bees will be safe from starvation if they can stay alive until dandelions bloom. Dandelion pollen is nutritious and as the nectar is abundant it serves as a perfect first food for bees after a long winter. So a simple and easy way to help honey bees is to keep the dandelions growing in your lawn.
Dandelion is also a great food source for humans as they are rich in nutrients including protein, calcium, iron and vitamins A and C. Can you say dandelion leaf pesto? Dandelions are great bitters which improve digestion. Its flowers and roots can also be used in foods and medicines. Have you ever bought a box of dandelion tea at the store? The ones in your yard can serve the same function. Dandelion tea is good for detoxification, supporting liver function and leaky gut. Dandelions can be used to make fun things too, like dandelion jelly, syrup, breads, sautéed dandelion greens, dandelion wine and vinegars. The list goes on!
Recipe idea: Sautéed Dandelion Greens
NOTE: Remember not to pick or wildcraft from any areas that have been sprayed.
Another “weed” that has found a cozy home in our yard is Plantain, Plantago major. Plantain is a healing plant that could have a spot in your first aid kit. Its leaves are great for skin irritation and wounds. Used for calming bug bites, cut, rashes, poison ivy, burns and bee stings! What a useful little weed. Plantain was historically used by Native American cultures for its antibacterial and antimicrobial effects for the skin. For bites and stings, make a poultice, a paste made of herbs wrapped in a piece of cloth and placed on the skin. It will take the pain away pretty immediately. In emergency situations, you can even chew up the leaf and put it directly on the area to relieve pain.
Recipe idea: Plantain Herbal Drawing Salve
Creeping Charlie has become a more “invasive” plant in our yard but makes for a soft and beautiful ground cover. Creeping Charlie, Glechoma hederacea is an aromatic perennial, creeper of the mint family. Have you ever picked its leaves or mowed over it and smelled its mild minty fragrance? It has a lovely little purple blossom in the spring that serves as another first food for pollinators. Creeping Charlie can be used in teas, tossed in salads, or added to soups or omelettes. It also contains vitamin C. The young leaves can be eaten like spinach, cooked and added to soups or tossed into salads. The leaves can be used for fresh or dried tea. Often mixed with other tea leaves like lemon balm or verbena. English countrywomen often added creeping Charlie to their beers and ales for flavor (Mother Earth Living Article)
Next up is Purslane, Portulaca orleracea, a weed I’ve been finding between my spinach and radishes. This succulent like plant is actually more nutritious than spinach. It is crunchy and tangy with a lemony flavor likened to watercress. Purslane has the most omega-3 fatty acids (the same fatty acids found in seafood) of any green vegetable. It is also high in Vitamins A and C, and has fiber, calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium and potassium. Michael Pollen wrote in his book In Defenese of Food” Two of the most nutritious plants in the world are weeds - lamb’s quarters and purslane - and some of the healthiest traditional diets make frequent use of wild greens”. Purslane is commonly used in Indian cuisine and was said to be Gandhi’s favorite food. It can be thrown in smoothies, soups, salads, pestos and salsas. Harvest from June to early Summer for the best flavor. Store Purslane in a jar with a little bit of water. Check out this article 45 things to do with Fresh Purslane
Recipe idea: Purslane Pesto
Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica, sounds intimidating, but has been my strongest plant ally this spring season. Don’t let the sting put you off from this good for you “weed”. Harvest with gloves and prepared correctly, you can benefit from this touchy weed This season I’ve dried it for its tea, stinging nettle tea is a gentle diuretic, is recommended during pregnancy and is good for hair growth. Its young leaves can be used like any other green, sautéed, in a frittata and blanched and made into a nettle walnut pesto. Stinging nettle is rich in minerals and vitamins, including A, C, D, K, iron, calcium and protein. Throughout history it has been used to treat painful muscles and joints, as well as hay fever, eczema, arthritis, gout and anemia. Nettles are amazing for supporting the whole body, so don’t let its sting put you off from its nourishing benefits. It’s leaves are best harvested in spring and summer before it has flowered.
Last but not least, Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca is the primary food for monarch caterpillars, the site where monarchs lay their eggs and is an all around favorite for pollinators. Help support monarchs and the pollinator populations by growing this “weed” in your garden.
Monarchs are in danger, in part, due to the destruction of habitats where milkweed grows rampant and Roundup. There is a correlation between glyphosate being sprayed and the monarch population, in part because Roundup kills milkweed. Apart from being caterpillar lunch, Milkweed can be enjoyed by humans too. The flowers can be battered and fried to make milkweed fritters and the flowers can be used to make cordial for cocktails too. The milky substance of Milkweed can be poisonous if not properly prepared, so make sure to find a good recipe and follow its steps. Again, remember to harvest this precious plant sustainably and leave some for the butterflies too!
Recipe idea: Milkweed Flower Cordial
What other “good weeds” do you have growing in your backyards? With a little digging around, identifying and a little reading, you can see these “weeds” in a different light, as part of your yards ecosystem.
*Disclaimer: As with any wild crafting, please double check and identify the plant you want to use with another source. Harvest responsibly, sustainably and in areas away from road pollution and areas that have been sprayed. Trust your instincts and have fun!
Alyson is the founder of Maia Terra Co, a collective space for environmental connection and community. Be sure to check out her beautiful and insightful blog at maiaterraco.com and to follow her on insta @maiaterraco & @alyson_laure !
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