January 26, 2020
“Weed” is a term we use for any plant that assumes a place in our garden without being invited or appreciated. To most gardeners, they are just plain aggravating. These unwelcome plants are constantly challenging us with their resilience, quick growth and dominance. Gardeners expend considerable time and energy trying to keep them in check.
Our greenhouse has more than the usual salad greens. Many weeds grow among the lettuce, spinach, kale and mizuna. Though they are a nuisance, many of these weeds are edible. Chickweed is an excellent green for salads when cropped young. I have been pulling it out along with other plants to provide a daily meal of greens to our eleven chickens. The lush growth of these plants throughout the winter is impressive. I cut the tops off some of the young chickweed and add it into our own salad mix. What a treat and they are so nutritious.
Chickweed has been used as food by people for thousands of years. It grows in moist shady places, so the greenhouse has been an ideal habitat for it. It can be frustrating as it has a sprawling growth habit, flowers almost all year and drops seeds by the thousands. But for someone looking for fresh greens at this time of year, they’re often available in unheated greenhouses.
Corn salad (mȃche), and winter purslane (miner’s lettuce) are among the other self-seeding, super hardy plants that many would consider weeds. They are at their best in late winter. By mid-spring, they’ve gone to seed and are dying back. I ordered seed for both of these species several years ago. Ever since the first crop went to seed, the two species have been a constant presence in our greenhouse. The seeds stay dormant all summer and into the fall, then germinate mid to late October between the lettuce, spinach and mustards. Consequently, they provide a perfect complement to our salad mix through the winter, just when fresh greens are most appreciated.
Miner’s lettuce grows naturally on the west coast and in the mountains. It was used by aboriginal people as food and was later eaten by miners to help stave off scurvy.
Corn salad or mȃche has been a weed in the grain fields of Europe for centuries but became sought after for its nutty flavor and high nutritional value.
Later in the spring and summer we grow an oriental amaranth to include in the greens mix and for stir frying. But we do have amaranth growing wild in our gardens as red root or pigweed. Last summer, when I was weeding young pigweed from the garden, I kept the most tender tops, brought them inside and sautéed them like I would oriental greens or Callaloo, a Jamaican amaranth. They were delicious.
The goosefoot family is another one. I seed red, purple, and yellow orach for the salad mix. The young leaves are colourful and nutritious. However, we weed out the common goosefoot, lamb’s quarters, but it is a great substitute for spinach.
We grow chicory but weed out dandelions. The lowly dandelion is considered a curse by many but is a highly prized plant by those who use the tender young leaves in salads or as a cooked vegetable, the root as a coffee substitute and the flowers to make wine.
My mother would harvest the new shoots of stinging nettles in early spring and cook them up like spinach when other greens weren’t available yet. She also dried the leaves to make a medicinal tea.
Purslane is another troublesome weed that could find its way onto our dinner plates.
These are just a few examples of the many wild plants that can help sustain us.
It took thousands of years for humans to come up with the phenomenal diversity of plants we use as food. Our distant ancestors learned by trial and error and selected for the best producers. They passed along their knowledge to the next generation which, in turn, added to the list of edible and medicinal plants. The greater the diversity of unprocessed food we consume, the more likely we get a balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals. Many so-called weeds are highly nutritious. Most are quicker to germinate than our chosen garden plants and can provide a nutritional bridge to the time we can harvest the other vegetables.
As with anything we harvest from the wild, it is important to properly identify the plants before eating them. There are many plants out there that are poisonous to humans. A couple of identification guides on edible wild plants are good investments for those who forage in the wild.
During times of famine brought on by wars or natural disasters, people have turned to these unappreciated plants to help them survive. When we have so many options for our table, it is easy to ignore those which grow freely and are easy to access. But it is good to know edible plants in the natural environment should we ever fall on hard times.
To keep ourselves from becoming too rigid in our eating habits, it would be wise to try something new from time to time, break out of the box we have created for ourselves and acknowledge the splendid diversity and endless possibilities just outside it.
“Weeds” is a term we use for undesirable plants that have a lot of value in the natural community and, as such, are ultimately of benefit to humans as well.