In The Weeds
As a gardener, I admit that I have a programmed resentment for weeds. It’s a seek-and-destroy ethos, and it comes from countless hours spent learning to spot, identify, and remove them in order to steward attractive and highly productive beds. I find myself grabbing at weeds as I walk up to friends’ houses, pulling weeds from storefront flower boxes, even silently identifying weeds as I ride my bike along the paths—not because I like to, really, but because I must.
I’ve heard people say that they really enjoy pulling these invaders; that the activity provides them with one of life’s instant kinds of gratification. I say that those people probably haven’t weeded all that much. Sure, I get a sense of pleasure from taking a big, shallow-rooted invader from a soft patch of soil, but looking ahead at massive flower beds, messes so tangled that each plant must be carefully extracted from its jackets of weeds, I see only an enemy that must be eradicated.
Having enemies is exhausting, and I wonder if I need so many. Sometimes—and with increasing frequency, these days—I contradict my own instincts, and hesitate to pull something that I know doesn’t belong because I find it endearing, or simply pretty. (Are those not good enough reasons as any to let a thing live?) I know better than to delude myself into thinking that weeding may no longer fall within my job description, but I have found that a day is much nicer when I can look upon an unruly garden and instead of thinking look at all of these weeds!, I say, “look at all of this salad!”
While we love to see our cherry tomatoes and dahlias flourish, we resent the “weeds” that surround them. Perhaps because they seem unsightly, intermingling with our carefully selected fruiting and flowering plants. Probably more so because they diminish the quality and yields of cultivated crops if not properly managed. Or, perhaps there is something inherently threatening about anything that exists, even thrives, outside of our control. Weeds are opportunists, and we hate them for it—beacons of evolution, they adapt to unfavorable environments, thrive in the favorable ones, and muddle our pristine gardens. They’re guests at parties that we believe they weren’t invited to. But when that party is perfectly designed for their success, complete with plenty of food, water and sunshine, can we blame them?
The word weed, originally weod, has a simple, early definition: any plant that isn’t valued for its use or for its beauty. More recently, that category has morphed a bit into any valueless plant that grows wild. Technically speaking, a plant is considered a weed if it has adverse effects on human or livestock health (like ragweed, or sting- ing nettle); if it depreciates the function or the aesthetic value of gardens, landscapes, or turfs; or if it inhibits the quality or quantity of crop yields. Weeds are known for their remarkable adaptability, often inhabiting environments that cultivated plants can’t survive in, and often characterized by their competitiveness and persistence.
The classification of weeds varies by state, region, and country. Many plants that we now consider weeds were introduced as ornamental plants, and then became invasive or weedy as they were able to grow unchecked by natural predators. Their ecological impacts can range from minor to destructive, depending on their competitive ability, structure, reproductive habits, and interference with ecological functions. Where and why any plant is considered a weed depends on physiological characteristics, environmental factors and, not least, cultural attitudes.
So if the basic element that defines a weed is its existence where it’s not wanted, that’s not a very exclusive category, especially for a gardener: any plant can be weedy if it turns up where it isn’t welcome.
Some are worse than others, of course. Sweet Violets, for instance, are lovely small, spring-blooming purple flowers that are often welcomed in garden beds but then continue to pop up wherever they please, often within other plants. They behave weedily, if you will, but they cause very little harm and make pleasant company. Bindweed (wild morning glory), on the other hand, will strangle anything in its path, and despite its coveted flower, it’s nearly impossible to admire for anything other than relentless persistence. While some weeds are truly too invasive and destructive to forgive, others are torn out and tossed away without their deserved respect—their lives, wasted in vain, are never recognized for all that they offer to us. Some weed removal is necessary to ensure the success of our crops, sure, but those weeds can still be put to use.
As is often the case in life, a simple change in perspective can illuminate positive qualities in those we normally view with contempt. Many plants that are traditionally considered garden weeds have numerous medicinal, nutritional, and ecological functions that are overlooked in our haste to cleanse our gardens of anything that we did not ask for. (Vetches, for one, are nitrogen fixers that build the soil to the benefit of every plant around them; clover is also great green mulch, and produces a lovely edible flower that attracts beneficial pollinators such as honeybees; dandelion, perhaps the most widely recognized turf weed, goes under appreciated for its tasty bitter greens.) Numerous plants that are demonized in agriculture are the most heralded in herbal medicine for their versatile healing properties. Look through these lenses, and a weedy garden becomes a bountiful one; the chore of weeding becomes the gainful task of harvesting.
To borrow the kind words of the late, great Vineyard landscaper Howard Wall: weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is about as weedy as they come. It’s everywhere—on roadsides, turfgrass, landscapes, and gardens—it springs up in wastelands, uncultivated areas, and through heavy mulch. Once you learn to recognize it, you will notice it all around you. It can be identified early on for its angular leaf shape; its dark green leaves have soft, whitish undersides and small yellow flowers; left undisturbed, it’ll grow upwards of four feet tall.
In the Northeast, Mugwort produces very few viable seeds, reproducing instead by rhizomes (underground stems), making it persistent and difficult to control or eradicate. Pulling up individual plants can be a temporary fix, but their underground structures allows them to return quickly and heartily. Furthermore, it’s tolerant of low mowing and resistant to most modern herbicides—just minor inconveniences in its quest for world domination. It’s hard to love, and once it’s made its home in any landscape or garden, there is little hope for completely removing it. But it’s not without value.
A milder cousin of wormwood (Aremisia absinthium, who is best known as an ingredient in the highly alcoholic and psychoactive spirit Absinthe), mugwort need not be thus feared. What it lacks in notable psychoactive effects, it more than makes up for in its plethora of medicinal uses. With a long history of medicinal application, all parts of the plant are antiseptic (preventing infection), antispasmodic (preventing and relieving cramping and spasms), digestive, stimulant (quickens functioning of an organ or system), and nervine (beneficial to the nervous system), and it’s most often used for the treatment of gastrointestinal and reproductive health issues.
Mugwort tea can be taken to stimulate appetite, enhance digestion, and increase nutrient absorption. It is also a strong uterine stimulant, and is used to quell symptoms of menopause. Because of its nervine properties and strong effects on the reproductive system, I don’t recommend taking mugwort without the advice of a professional herbalist. We may underestimate the powers of these invasive plants, but they are strong foods and medicines, and must be respected as such.
In the kitchen, young mugwort leaves can be eaten raw alone or with other greens in a salad, steamed, or steeped in vinegar to make a mineral-rich cooking vinegar. The young shoots and leaves are also recommended as a seasoning for fatty poultry such as goose and duck. In Japanese and Korean cooking, mugwort is a staple in soups and as flavor and coloring for rice cakes.
Often not welcome in the garden, mugwort shows up anyway, spreading prolifically and returning year after year. The leaves can cause some people, myself included, mild but uncomfortable skin reactions, adding to the plant’s sheer loathsomeness. (My boss has even gone so far as to deem it her nemesis, and most gardeners familiar with it probably share the sentiment.) So, don’t hesitate to pull it out if its overwhelming your gardens, but when doing so, consider inviting it in to dinner, or drying it out to keep in your cabinet for medicinal tea.
Not to be confused with the delicious green banana, Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major) is a short plant with wide oval leaves that form a low growing rosette with inconspicuous flowers and seeds along an erect stem. A perennial weed of turf and landscapes, the plantain can tolerate just about any conditions. Dry, wet, or compact soil, draught and mowing, to name a few, are no match for a plantain’s will to live.
If you’d like to harvest some from home, you can most likely find it in your lawn or your pea gravel driveway. Though its omnipresence and resilience may sound pesky, plantain is a gift to us in many ways. With a long history as a “panacea herb,” this weed is celebrated in herbal medicine for its plethora of healing properties and practically endless list of uses. It’s even been called the “Life Medicine,” a well-deserved title indicating its wide range of uses and applications for many systems of the human body. Plantain deserves a place in any first-aid kit.
For most remedies, it is the leaves of plantain that are used, although every part of the plant is both nutritious and medicinal. Plaintain works as an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antibacterial, astringent, antitussive (suppresses coughs), demulcent (soothes internal irritation), and expectorant (removes mucus). Above all else, plantain excels as an external wound herb, treating scrapes, cuts, bruises and stings on the spot—it is quick to stop blood flow, and will soothe pain and swelling from any insect bite or sting almost immediately.
For anyone who spends time outdoors, this is a crucial herb to learn and recognize. It can be made into an oil or ointment, but a spit poultice works remarkably well for immediate use, and is simple to make. Just chew up a handful of clean leaves and apply to any scrape, cut or sting for quick pain relief and swelling reduction.
This is easily one of my favorite weeds, and I find comfort in knowing it is such an accessible treatment for pain and swelling. I often find myself seeking it out in gardens to take mental note of in the case of a future cut or an anticipated bee sting. These same ailments can be soothed by an infused oil: fill any size jar with clean, chopped fresh leaves, fill it to the top with olive oil, and let the concoction sit for six weeks. Decant and use as necessary, or mix warmed oil with beeswax to make an ointment to keep in your first-aid kit.
Internally, plantain leaves can be taken as a gentle tea or extract to soothe the lungs and treat lung problems such as bronchitis, asthma, emphysema and hay fever, as well as a treatment for gastrointestinal issues. To make a leaf tea, steep one tablespoon of fresh or dry leaves in one cup boiling water for ten minutes; strain and enjoy.
The entire plantain plant can be eaten raw or cooked. When consuming raw, use young leaves in salads, smoothies, or any other way you take your fresh greens. More mature leaves and stems often become bitter, tough, and stringy when raw, but boiled, sautéed, or blanched cuts the bitter taste and softens the leaves. (I’ve found that a four-minute boil does the trick.) The seeds can be eaten raw, soaked and boiled like rice, in a 1:2 ratio with water; they can also be dried and ground into flour, which is a great nutritional supplement or replacement for wheat flour.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is easy to overlook, but worth looking for. A summer annual succulent (fleshy and water-storing, like sedum), it can go unnoticed due to its low growing form and resemblance to its relative, Moss Rose (Portulaca grandiflora), a plant often used as an ornamental border in flowerbeds. A drought tolerant plant, purslane makes its home anywhere it can—cultivated vegetable gardens, flower beds, and landscapes—and can frequently be spotted in between bricks or cracks in cement. It never gets tall, but can create a dense ground cover if not harvested or weeded out. (I like to leave it be anywhere that does not directly infringe on other plants, as it isn’t unattractive and is a favorite snack of mine during the workday.)
Despite its weedy nature, purslane is a deliciously useful plant that deserves a respected place in the edible landscape. Widely celebrated in cuisines around the world, purslane’s lauded as a supremely nutritious veg- etable, but has yet to be embraced in the United States. Packed with omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A, C, B & E, magnesium, iron, and powerful antioxidants, purslane earns its keep in any kitchen. It has a tangy, peppery taste and can be prepared just about any way you can think of: raw in salads or sandwiches, cooked into soups, sautéed or stir-fried, pickled or steamed. (Prepare it like you would spinach or watercress.) Harvest it young by snipping the tops off of its plants.
Purslane is so nutritious that just one cup of the leaves and stems contains the recommended daily dose of vitamin E and magnesium, and eating a daily serving can act as a replacement for omega-3 supplements, fish oil or flaxseed oil.
Many of its medicinal uses are attributed to purslane’s high vitamin and nutrient content. High levels of magnesium are known to prevent and treat ailments including cardiac arrhythmia, high blood pressure and headache. It’s also known to aid in the treatment of depression and anxiety disorders. This superfood also has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, emollient (skin-softening), febrifuge (fever reducing) and wound-healing properties. Crushed fresh aerial parts can be applied topically to wounds to accelerate healing. Internal benefits can be reaped from purslane by eating it raw or included in your favorite meal.
I am always pleased to come across purslane while weeding any garden—grateful for its crisp, peppery bite on a hot day. Though your family may be skeptical at first if it is snuck into their salad (as one friend who tried to do so with her grandmother tells me they likely will be), one taste will send everyone back for seconds.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a tender, nourishing plant that is widely distributed throughout the world. (Find it easily in garden beds and landscapes.) It prefers shady, moist areas but is not restricted to those conditions, and often appears in empty, exposed patches of soil as ground cover to combat soil degradation and erosion. You may see it especially around your trees and shrubs if they are surrounded by bare ground.
A winter annual, chickweed thrives in cool weather, and often produces two generations a year, in spring and again in autumn. It has small star-shaped flowers, bright green stems and foliage. I have a special fondness for this plant, as a food but also as a source of vibrant green optimism. Chickweed is one of the first indicators that reassure me spring has in fact sprung, easing the inevitable Vineyard doubt that winter will ever actually end.
Though it may show up uninvited, chickweed is a refreshing vitamin C-rich green that can be a real treat early in the year before most other fresh veggies come along. It is at its height in the cool early spring, and can be harvested by trimming the new growth from the plant. Later in the season it can continue to be harvested by just taking the top few inches from older plants, but it is no longer good for eating once the plant has gone to seed. Chickweed is not only more nutritious than any green you can find in the grocery store—it also increases the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Use it as a base green or as an addition to a mixed salad, steamed, or chopped in any dish where one might use other greens or sprouts.
Chickweed excels as a cooling, anti-inflammatory herb, often used as an ointment or poultice to soothe painful skin inflammations, rashes, insect bites or stings, and skin infections. A fresh poultice of aerial parts can be applied to any wound, rash, or sting to reduce swelling and abate bacterial infection. Taken internally, it can treat cough and other respiratory weaknesses. Tea can be made with one tablespoon dried aerial parts per one cup boiling water.
Despite its weedy habits, when chickweed begins to appear early in the spring it should be welcomed, a green gift after a long winter.
An erect summer annual, lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) is naturalized through out the US. It’s a weed of primarily horticultural and agricultural crops, but can also be found inhabiting roadsides, waste places, and disturbed areas. Though disliked by gardeners and farmers, this is an ecologically important mother weed that acts quickly to cover bare and disturbed ground, aerating the soil for future successions of perennial plants to follow it. It seeds prolifically and quickly grows tall—it may make a variety of appearances, from inches to feet, but can be identified by its grayish-green leaves with fuzzy white undersides.
A relative of spinach, lambsquarters’ leaves are just as nutrient rich, high in vitamins A and C, beta carotene, iron and calcium, and have a similar taste. In fact, lambsquarters is one of the plants from which modern spinach varieties were bred. Harvest by cutting the healthiest leaves from the top of the plant. Young leaves and stems are great in salads, while the tougher mature leaves are a delicious steamed vegetable. My mother cooks them in olive oil, sliced garlic and crushed red pep- per with about 1⁄4 cup of water, covered, until tender (about 10-15 minutes) and seasoned with pepper and lemon juice. For an Asian twist, cook in vegetable oil with garlic and ginger, and season with sesame oil and soy sauce.
After flowering, the leaves are no longer great as edible greens, but the plant still offers protein-rich seeds. Cut plants at the base or pull them up completely and place upside down in a paper bag. As the plant dries seeds will fall into the bag and can be dehydrated and cooked with any other grain, in oatmeal, baked goods or granola.
Though lambquarters doesn’t have traditional medicinal preparations, it is highly nutritious and beneficial to humans. If you have trouble growing leafy greens, consider letting this “weed” replace them: it’s as healthful and delicious, and has likely already volunteered itself in your vegetable garden.
As the climate keeps changing, and industrial agriculture continues to place a strain on our soil, water and air, I’m starting to believe that it’s wise to take hints from the abundant wild plants around us and find nourishment where it is offered to us. Don’t get me wrong—cultivated vegetables are delightful, and I will never, ever turn my back on a perfectly ripe summer tomato or a frost-sweetened carrot. But in our haste to produce those perfect fruits, we mustn’t overlook the foods and medicines that join our gardens on their own accord.
Embrace the weeds! Let not your yard become a testament to man’s arrogance, devoid of the gifts offered freely to us by nature. And if you can’t learn to love them, you can still learn to eat them. Consider it a gardener’s revenge.