Herbalist Brigitte Mars has learned to appreciate weeds for their abundant culinary and medicinal value.
Photograph by John Wiltsie
Weed Eater Extras:
Wild Things Soup recipe
Herbal Healing Salve
Thirty years ago, while living on a farm in Reynolds, Missouri, I used to help a neighboring hill woman in her large, wonderful garden in exchange for fresh farm eggs and firewood. As we pulled weeds, Mrs. Glore, who was old enough to have outlived three husbands, would declare: “Why, youse can eat these. It’s lamb’s-quarters. It’s wild spinach, and it’s good fer ya! Even better than the store-bought kind!” She’d incorporate the weeds into the evening’s dinner, doubling or tripling the yield of her garden. Over the years, I’ve developed my own appreciation for plants that others yank out and throw away. Weeds have survived centuries of adversity and are often much more durable than cultivated plants. Many do well without irrigation, are resistant to frost and trampling, and offer themselves freely and abundantly.
More than thirty bird species including domestic fowl are known to eat chickweed (Stellaria media). The generic name, Stellaria, refers to the star shape of the flowers; some people know the plant as starwort. Chickweed makes an excellent ground cover, as it grows outward instead of upward. It thrives in fertile soil.
Chickweed is delicate, delicious, and high in vitamin C; it has traditionally been fed to frail people to make them stronger. The leaves, flowers, and stems may be included in salads, soups, and stir-fry dishes. They keep well in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Herbalists make the tops into a tea to soothe bladder and bronchial irritation and ulcers; they put them in salves to relieve skin disorders ranging from diaper rash to psoriasis.
(Click here to view a picture of chickweed)
Almost everyone recognizes a dandelion (Taraxacum spp.), but not everyone realizes that nearly every part of the plant is edible. The leaves, which are most palatable in spring before the plant flowers, are high in iron, beta-carotene, and potassium. Dandelions are also mildly diuretic.
For a delicacy that tastes like mushrooms, collect a colander full of dandelion blossoms, wash them, dust them with flour seasoned with salt and pepper, then pan-fry them in a bit of butter. The blossoms may also be used to make wine.
I like to sauté well-scrubbed dandelion roots in a little toasted sesame oil and tamari sauce. Herbalists have long prescribed dandelion root tea to relieve acne and eczema as well as to enhance liver function.
(Click here to view a picture of dandelion)
Knotweed (Polygonum aviculare, P. erectum), also known as doormat grass, is used in Chinese and Western herbal medicine as a diuretic and to treat kidney stones. The generic name in Greek means “many-kneed” and refers to the plant’s jointed stems. Herbalists use knotweed tea as a remedy for swollen arthritic joints and believe that its high silica content commends its use to strengthen the lungs’ connective tissue.
Young, tender knotweed stems may be steamed briefly and served as a potherb or added to stews or quiches. The seeds may be used, along with other grains, in breads and gruel. Always cook knotweed because eating it raw may cause intestinal discomfort.
(Click here to view a picture of knotweed)
The leaves of lamb’s-quarters (Chenopodium album) have long been used as a nourishing food during times of war and famine. This European native tastes like spinach but requires no care and is even more nutritious. Chenopodium, “goosefoot,” refers to the shape of the leaves while album, “white,” refers to the whitish mealy coating on the leaf surfaces.
Lamb’s-quarters may be eaten raw or cooked. The leaves are rich in iron, calcium, beta-carotene, and vitamin C. The seeds may be eaten raw or ground into a flour that resembles buckwheat flour.
To make a tea, pour 1 cup boiling water over 2 heaping teaspoons of fresh leaves (1 heaping teaspoon dried). Steep, covered, for 10 minutes. The tea, when cool, may also be used to moisten a compress to relieve headache or sunburn.
(Click here to view a picture of lamb's quarters)
Native to Europe, Northwest Africa, and Southwest Asia and naturalized in North America, common mallow (Malva neglecta) is sometimes referred to as cheeses as its disklike fruits resemble miniature wheels of cheese. Malva means “soothing,” and neglecta means “neglected,” alluding to this weed’s ability to thrive despite lack of attention.
Mallow leaves are soothing, anti-inflammatory, and rich in beta-carotene. They may be eaten raw or cooked, and their mucilage thickens soups. In teas and syrups, they alleviate sore throats, coughs, and ulcers. You can also combine fresh shredded leaves with a little warm water to make a poultice to relieve the irritation of skin rashes, burns, and insect bites. Delicate pink and white mallow flowers make lovely, edible garnishes. The seeds may be eaten raw or pickled and may be nibbled to moisten the mouth when water is scarce.
(Click here to view a picture of common mallow)
Recipe: Wild Things Soup
Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are highly nutritious; fortunately, the leaves lose their bite when cooked. The generic name, Urtica, Latin for “nettle,” is probably derived from urere, “to burn,” in reference to the stinging hairs. Nettles are high in iron, beta-carotene, and vitamin C. Nettle soup and steamed nettle greens are two dishes that even my children enjoy. (Be sure to wear gloves when collecting the nettles.)
Herbalists consider nettles to be antiallergenic and often prescribe them in capsule, tea, or tincture form before the hay fever season begins. They also increase the flow of urine.
(Click here to view a picture of nettles)
Though this creeping succulent plant can be a terrible pest, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is truly worth tolerating in your garden. Traditionally used to treat liver ailments, shortness of breath, and headaches, purslane is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are believed to protect against heart attacks and strengthen the immune system.
Arab traders introduced purslane to Europe in the fifteenth century; in the Middle East, this plant is esteemed as a salad herb. A cooling summer vegetable rich in beta-carotene and vitamin C, purslane is wonderful in cold soups such as gazpacho. It may also be cooked as a potherb.
Pregnant women and people with digestive problems should avoid purslane.
(Click here to view a picture of purslane)
In early spring, heart-shaped leaves and purple, lavender, white, or yellow flowers announce the violet (Viola spp.). A sprinkle of raw violet blossoms, rich in vitamin C, adds elegance to spring desserts. Crystallized violet flowers are often used as cake decorations.
Violet tea (use the same proportions as for lamb’s-quarters tea) is a traditional remedy for coughs, fevers, and bronchitis. Ancient Athenians used violets as a medicine to “moderate anger.”
The fragrance and flavor of violets are believed to comfort the grief-stricken. Violet honey, made by combining 2 cups of violet flowers with 1 cup of honey and the juice of 1 lemon, tastes delicious and may be frozen. Keep some on hand in case heartache strikes.
(Click here to view a picture of violets)
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a member of the daisy family (Compositae).
It is one of the traditional bitter herbs of the Jewish Passover. In German mythology, it is a flower of luck. Cichorium and intybus are both Latin versions of ancient names for chicory.
The young leaves are collected before the plant flowers and are included in salads or cooked as a potherb. The flowers provide a colorful edible garnish to salads, main dishes, and cakes; they may be used fresh or candied. The root may be sautéed as a vegetable. When dried, roasted, and brewed, it makes a coffeelike beverage, or the roasted root may be added to ground coffee to produce “Louisiana-style” coffee.
Herbalists recommend eating the leaves or taking a tea or tincture of chicory to improve liver function and to treat acne, constipation, eczema, rheumatism, and gout. The leaves may be poulticed on inflamed skin or made into a mouthwash to strengthen gum tissue.
Goldfinches eat the wild seeds. Welcome the blue blessings!
(Click here to view a picture of chicory)
Yellow dock (Rumex crispus) is a member of the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae) and thus is a relative of rhubarb and knotweed (mentioned above) as well as of sorrel (R. acetosa). Its common name refers to the color of the root, and its specific name, crispus, refers to its curly leaves. A Eurasian native, it is now found throughout the United States and southern Canada.
Like those of chicory, the young leaves of dock may be eaten in salad or cooked as a potherb. As they are high in oxalic acid, which can inhibit calcium absorption, they should be consumed only in moderation, and even then they are best cooked in two changes of water.
The seeds may be ground into a nutritious meal and used in cereals and breads, but first their astringent papery flanges must be removed. Rub the seeds between your hands, pour them into a clean shoebox, and with a playing card, sweep the seeds while holding the box tilted so that the seeds roll to the bottom while the chaff remains at the top.
The root, an antiseptic and astringent, is an ancient remedy for acne, constipation, and jaundice. Herbalists include it in formulas to treat anemia. A poultice of the fresh leaf relieves skin rashes and nettle stings.
(Click here to view a picture of yellow dock)
Brigitte Mars, an herbalist and nutritional consultant from Boulder, Colorado, teaches herbology and is the author of many books, including Herbs for Healthy Hair, Skin and Nails (Keats, 1998), Dandelion Medicine (Storey, 1999), and Natural First Aid (Storey, 1999).