Weed wars no more

Instead of battling ’em, serve them up in pesto, vinegar, other healthful concoctions

BAKERTON – Wild foods, once considered too vulgar for industrialized Americans, are making a fashionable comeback, evidenced by their appearance in Martha Stewart’s Life and The New Yorker’s food issue last year. Wild foods are the freshest phase of the organic-local-seasonal foods movement and considered by many earth-conscious foodies to be the most sustainable way to eat.

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Foraging for your own food is sustainable — in the sense that wild foods require no fertilizers, pesticides or human intervention of any kind — but only so long as we do not over-harvest them.

Unfortunately, the trendiest wild plants to eat tend to be the rare ones such as ramps and morels, and there are just not enough of these to encourage foraging for them en masse.

Ashley Starnes is an herbalist and owner of Meadowsweet Botanicals.

Ashley Starnes is an herbalist and owner of Meadowsweet Botanicals.

But there are many common and abundant wild edible plants growing right in our backyards. Not so much attention is given to them, probably because they are considered “weeds.” They are nuisances and people don’t like them, so they are not celebrated for the nutritional powerhouses that they are.

The weedier the plant, the more invasive its tendencies, the less likely it is to get love from us humans. But in my opinion, these weedy plants are an important source of food and medicine that should be eaten, not scorned.

We cannot blame weeds for adding to our workload. Weeds would not be weedy were it not for humans. After all, we create the perfect conditions for them to thrive. Weeds don’t exist in mature ecosystems; they prefer disturbed soil, i.e. man-made environments: lawns, roadsides, farm fields, gardens and vacant lots.

Weeds serve important ecological functions. Even the dreaded “invasive species” are doing the good work of breaking up compacted soil, minimizing erosion, improving soil fertility and creating safe places for more tender plants to grow.

I’m not suggesting that we let these weeds rule our gardens, but since they are here, we might as well use them. They offer free and abundant food and medicine in even the harshest environments, and when we learn to appreciate the value of these weeds that surround us, the dreaded chore of weeding the garden turns into a time of harvest, which makes it much more fun.

Some weeds to look for:

Dandelion. All parts of the dandelion can be used. The flower is edible and tastes great dipped in batter and lightly fried as dandelion fritters.

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try to make a dandelion flower wine. The leaves make a nice addition to salads when mixed with other mild-flavored greens or you can cook them like any green.

I like them cooked with onions and bacon fat. The leaves are a diuretic, which can be helpful for people holding onto excess water, but don’t eat too many if you are already taking a prescription diuretic.

The whole plant is a bitter tonic. The bitter flavor stimulates digestive secretions including bile, stomach acid and enzymes. Dandelion flower actually contains digestive enzymes like papaya (which sells for a lot of $ in health food stores). In all traditional systems of medicine, good digestion is the key to health. Try nibbling on some dandelion after a heavy meal and notice how much lighter it makes you feel.

Some edible weeds to look for this spring include (clockwise, from top): Dandelions, chickweed, violets and garlic mustard. “I’m not suggesting that we let these weeds rule our gardens, but since they are here, we might as well use them,” explains guest columnist Ashley Starnes. “They offer free and abundant food and medicine in even the harshest environments, and when we learn to appreciate the value of these weeds that surround us, the dreaded chore of weeding the garden turns into a time of harvest, which makes it much more fun.”

Some edible weeds to look for this spring include (clockwise,
from top): Dandelions, chickweed, violets and garlic mustard.
“I’m not suggesting that we let these weeds rule our gardens,
but since they are here, we might as well use them,” explains
guest columnist Ashley Starnes. “They offer free and abundant food and medicine in even the harshest environments, and when we learn to appreciate the value of these weeds that surround us, the dreaded chore of weeding the garden turns into a time of harvest, which makes it much more fun.”

Chickweed. Chickweed is a low-growing annual weed with small supple leaves and tiny white flowers. It is extremely nutritious, full of vitamins and minerals, and can be added to soups, stews, egg dishes and salads. It makes a fabulous pesto!

This is one herb that I prefer to eat raw and it can usually be harvested fresh any season except summer. Chickweed is cooling and soothing to inflamed tissues. You can apply chickweed as a poultice to the skin to soothe an inflamed area and prevent infection (great for bee stings).

It also has a reputation for treating pink eye. For this, make a strong tea with the plant, dip a washcloth into the tea and place the cloth over the eyes. Chickweed has an affinity for the glandular and lymphatic systems, helping those with thyroid irregularities, reproductive cysts, swollen glands, even certain cancers.

Some even call it “nature’s diet pill” because of its ability to balance metabolism, improve thyroid function and to break down and excrete fats. It sounds like a strong medicine, and it is, but it is also incredibly safe and can be eaten daily.

Lamb’s quarter. Also known as wild spinach, lamb’s quarter is just even more nutritious as its domesticated cousin. The leaves are a good source of protein, beta carotene, calcium, potassium and iron as well as B-complex vitamins and Vitamin C.

The seeds are even higher in protein, calcium, potassium, calcium and iron, and also contain substantial qualities of fat and carbohydrates, making them an important survival food. They can be tedious to harvest and most people prefer to eat the leaves and shoots.

As a general rule, once the plant goes to seed, the leaves are not so good to eat (just as you would not eat the leaves of lettuce after it has bolted). The young leaves are good as a salad green, but I prefer to cook my lamb’s quarter because, like spinach, it contains oxalic acid, which inhibits the absorption of calcium.

When you cook lamb’s quarter or spinach, the oxalic acid breaks down and you are able to absorb all of that calcium that the plant contains (especially if you add a little vinegar or lemon juice to the dish). While there are not any references to lamb’s quarter being used medicinally, its superior nutrition content places it high on my list of superfoods. Good nutrition is our best medicine.

Violet. April is the best time of year to gather violet leaves and flowers. Did you know that the purple flowers that we often notice on violets are not their true flowers? That is, they are not reproductive. The “real” flowers are very inconspicuous and appear in autumn.

Violet is another very nutritious weed, high in ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), Vitamin A, rutin and iron. Both the leaves and flowers are edible. The leaves are best eaten in the spring when they are tender and can be added to salads, pestos, stir-fries, honeys or vinegars.

The flowers and leaves are both used for treating coughs and upper respiratory catarrh, a disorder of inflammation of the mucous membranes in one of the airways or cavities of the body.

A violet-infused honey is a lovely-tasting and easy-to-make remedy for this purpose. You can make a tea with the leaves or flowers, which can also function as a gargle for mouth and throat infections. Violet has been studied as an anti-cancer herb with impressive results, especially with skin cancer and breast cancer. It works on the lymphatic system to “purify” the blood and is traditionally taken as a spring tonic for this purpose.

And externally, violet leaf can be added to salves or used as a poultice to treat a wide variety of skin conditions including wounds, abscesses, sores and burns.

Violet

. April is the best time of year to gather violet leaves and flowers. Did you know that the purple flowers that we often notice on violets are not their true flowers? That is, they are not reproductive. The “real” flowers are very inconspicuous and appear in autumn.

Violet is another very nutritious weed, high in ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), Vitamin A, rutin and iron. Both the leaves and flowers are edible. The leaves are best eaten in the spring when they are tender and can be added to salads, pestos, stir-fries, honeys or vinegars.

The flowers and leaves are both used for treating coughs and upper respiratory catarrh, a disorder of inflammation of the mucous membranes in one of the airways or cavities of the body.

A violet-infused honey is a lovely-tasting and easy-to-make remedy for this purpose. You can make a tea with the leaves or flowers, which can also function as a gargle for mouth and throat infections. Violet has been studied as an anti-cancer herb with impressive results, especially with skin cancer and breast cancer. It works on the lymphatic system to “purify” the blood and is traditionally taken as a spring tonic for this purpose.

And externally, violet leaf can be added to salves or used as a poultice to treat a wide variety of skin conditions including wounds, abscesses, sores and burns.

Garlic mustard. Garlic mustard is a controversial plant. It is one of the most despised invasive species in the United States because its roots secrete a chemical that inhibits the growth of mycorrhizal fungi, which has a harmful effect on the native flora.

Garlic mustard has become a dominant understory species, affecting forests rather than roadsides, and this makes its aggression even less tolerable. While I certainly do not want garlic mustard growing near my endangered goldenseal plants, I do not wish it any harm because I appreciate the plant for its flavor, nutritional value and its ecological function.

The leaves of garlic mustard taste like a mixture of mustard greens and garlic. It’s not surprising that it contains many of the same benefits of both mustard and garlic, most notably for the respiratory system: bronchial inflammation and colds. The leaves taste great in soups, pesto, pasta, and cooked on their own with onion, salt and olive oil.

Garlic mustard is extremely high in antioxidants and has more beta carotene than spinach and more Vitamin C than orange juice. I like to infuse them in apple cider vinegar for a nutrient-dense condiment that I can use in salad dressings and cooking collard greens.

Again, make sure that you harvest the leaves before the plant sends up a flower stalk or the leaves will taste very bitter. As a biennial, the plant only produces a flower stalk the second year, so you can harvest the leaves of a first-year plant anytime April through December.

And as for the very understandable fear that garlic mustard harms its surrounding life forms, a study conducted by Boston University found that the soil in which garlic mustard flourished was “consistently higher in nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium and magnesium availability and soil pH.”

The presence of garlic mustard did not alter soil nutrient cycling. In fact, it accelerated the decomposition of leaf litter, which makes the soil more nutritious for other plants. Now, I’m not a biologist and I’m not willing to make a grand claim that garlic mustard is not a threat to forest ecosystems, but I like to think there is a reason that all of these plants are here. Maybe garlic mustard will prove to be an effective medicine for some forthcoming epidemic? Who knows? But since it is here and abundant, let’s use it. Maybe we can even grow to respect it.

Before you head out to identify and eat wild plants, invest in a reputable field guide first. Most of these are easy to identify and don’t have any poisonous lookalikes that I know of, but it’s a good practice to consult a handbook if you are even the slightest bit uncertain.

— Ashley Starnes is an herbalist and owner of Meadowsweet Botanicals. Sign up for her newsletter and find recipes for the above-mentioned wines, pesto and vinegars at her website, meadowsweetbotanicals.com. Send feedback on this column to her in care of Life editor Christine Miller Ford at christine@spiritofjefferson.com.[/cleeng_content]

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