Are weeds our friend or our foe? Discover a world of uses for eight of our favorites and decide for yourself.
Although gardeners may curse the wild greens and roots that abound in lawns, flower beds, parks and vacant lots, many of these “pesky” weeds are actually quite useful. The following plants—all considered weeds—taste great in soups and salads, are rich in vitamins, make great additions to the first-aid kit and have long been used as cleansing tonics. Best of all, they’re almost always free for the taking (make sure not to harvest weeds from areas that may have been treated with chemical pesticides or insecticides). Take advantage of the weeds near you with the following tips.
Let’s begin with the easiest weed to recognize. While you can find dandelion growing almost anywhere, it’s especially fond of lawns.
Dandelion is one of the most versatile weeds. Finely chopped dandelion leaves make great salads, especially when they’re picked young and tender before the flowers form. If you like bitter greens such as arugula, you’ll find dandelions a good wild replacement. Steaming dandelion greens (removing the central rib first) or mixing them with other greens will mask their bitterness. For Italian-style dandelion greens, steam then lightly stir-fry the greens with pine nuts in olive oil.
Harvest dandelion roots in spring or fall. The root can be used medicinally to treat liver and urinary tract problems. Dandelion roots also are a diuretic that won’t leach potassium from the body, unlike most of the drugs for this purpose. Dandelion flowers can be used to make a delicious, delicate wine. Learn much more about how to prepare dandelion, including recipes for a wilted dandelion salad, a dandelion calzone and dandelion wine, on our All About Dandelion page.
Chickweed makes an excellent ground cover, as it grows outward instead of upward. This delicate and delicious weed was used historically as a strengthening tonic for the frail. Although science has not confirmed this folk use, studies have shown chickweed to exhibit anti-inflammatory action. Chickweed leaves, flowers and stems can be included, raw or cooked, in salads, soups and stir-fries. Brew the leaves into a tea to soothe bladder and bronchial irritation and ulcers, or include them in a salve to relieve skin disorders ranging from diaper rash to psoriasis.
Sheep sorrel gets its name because, when inverted, its soft, thin leaves resemble a sheep’s head with long ears. The plant loves disturbed soil, so it makes itself at home in yards and gardens. Raw sheep sorrel adds a lemony taste to salads. Use it to make a salad dressing with a wild side—just put a few sprigs in a blender with oil and vinegar.
Yellow dock is a wild relative of sorrel that also has lemony-tasting leaves. While you can use it in the same way as you might sorrel, yellow dock leaves become bitter as they age, so it’s best to harvest them in early spring. The root of yellow dock has been used to treat iron deficiency.
Yellow dock has yellow-to-red roots and upright leaves that curl around the edges and rise up to about a foot. The distinctive, tall stalks bearing deep red-brown seeds are a common sight in late summer along highways. The attractive stalks are lovely in dried flower arrangements.
Plantain—the weed, not the bananalike starchy fruit—is common in many parts of the world. Either fresh or in salve, cream or poultice form, it helps cuts and other injuries heal more quickly. Harvest plantain leaves in the summer, blend them fresh and freeze small amounts in ice cube trays, ready to be thawed for a first-aid emergency. Look for leaves that grow out from the center with veins running parallel down their length. Plantain is edible, although it tastes astringent and bitter. If you eat it, steam it first.
• Featured recipe: Plantain Anti-Itch Balm
Chicory, another common bitter green, has bright blue flowers that appear on tall stalks in spring or early summer, opening with the sunrise and closing at sunset. The leaves of this common roadside plant grow in a rosette much like dandelion but have fine, coarse hairs. Young chicory leaves are edible; because of their bristles, they taste better steamed than raw. You also can use chicory roots, raw or roasted, for tea. Roasted chicory roots are legendary in the South, where they were once commonly added to coffee to make the drink more affordable. To prepare them in true Louisiana style, roast dried, chopped chicory roots in an oven at 325 degrees for about 30 minutes. Simmer a couple tablespoons of roasted chicory in water for about 10 minutes, then strain and enjoy.
Chicory root’s bittersweet taste somewhat resembles coffee, but the herb doesn’t contain caffeine. The root is edible but hard and stringy. Medicinally, chicory is used as a liver and kidney tonic.
No wild weed discussion would be complete without mentioning burdock. This weed lives two years, producing a 4- to 5-foot-tall flower stalk during its second summer. The flowers turn to the seed burs that give the plant its name. The burs, with their hooked tips, are said to be the inspiration for Velcro.
Fresh burdock root is delicious in soup or stew. Prepare it as you would carrots and add it to cooked dishes. Harvest the long root in fall and spring, or in the winter if your ground doesn’t freeze and you can find the plant after its leaves have died down. Burdock is a popular herbal medicine that can help regenerate liver cells.
Another wild weed awaiting your discovery is clover. A tea made from clover flowers has a light taste that mixes well with other herbs. Any type of clover can be made into tea, but red clover is most sought-after for its medicinal properties, which include cleansing the liver, clearing the lungs of mucus, and improving circulation, respiratory problems, whooping cough, and skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. Red clover may also aid in the relief of menopause symptoms. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, “Modern scientific tests have shown that red clover contains isoflavones, plant-based chemicals that produce estrogenlike effects in the body. Isoflavones have shown potential in the treatment of a number of conditions associated with menopause, such as hot flashes, cardiovascular health and osteoporosis.”
The deep pink flowers of red clover are beautiful when they blanket a springtime field. Look for the typical clover leaf growing in groups of three. Pick the flowers at their peak, before they begin to turn brown. Red clover leaves taste grassy, but the American Indians traditionally ate them after much leaching, a process in which water is repeatedly poured over the pounded leaves.
Proper identification of wild edibles is essential; invest in a great guide such as A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. Or seek out a local herbalist or botanist to take you on a “weed walk.” Otherwise, you can grow weeds with virtually no maintenance in a container or your yard, and you’ll be using up the free harvest in no time. If you’re collecting weeds in the wild, be certain you are foraging from a location free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
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