In exchanges that take place on the various local Facebook gardening pages, a common question is “Is this a weed?” and “How do I kill it?” Those questions speak volumes about our lack of understanding of the ecological relationships in our gardens and our ignorance of the value of plants we do not plant ourselves, as food, medicine and restorers of the soil.
The plants that spring up wherever soil is disturbed or degraded have a job to do: they restore soil fertility. Tenacious roots reach down deep into the soil, pull up nutrients and micronutrients which are then distributed on the surface when leaves die back in fall and winter. This harvesting of nutrients helps support a complex ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, insects, arachnids and worms to help maintain soil health and break down nutrient compounds, making them available to the roots of plants. The fungal mycorhyzae, the white threads that spread out underground, connect and feed plants, so they are particularly important to soil health and good garden production.
When we see these wild plants appear we should realize that they grow where they are, for a reason. In general, the plants we call “weeds” sprout where soil has been disturbed, which is one reason why no-dig gardening makes sense: it helps us control them by not bringing them to the surface. But really we need to change our basic attitude toward wild plants, stop calling them “weeds” and make better use of them. Many are edible or can be used medicinally, to help maintain health.
Here are four favourite wild greens that you can harvest:
The stinging nettle Urtica dioica is a tenacious perennial that can grow up to three feet tall and that has those annoying sharp hairs on its leaves that leave behind a tingling, burning sensation that will last for a day before slowly fading away. It is understandable that people consider nettles to be a problem, especially in areas where children play, but they are actually recognized by herbalists as a medicinal plant that can help women deal with PMS and that can support nursing mothers with milk production.
According to the organicfacts.net website, the health benefits of consuming nettles include their ability to detoxify the body, improve metabolic efficiency, boost immunity, increase circulation, improve energy levels, manage menstruation, minimize menopausal symptoms, and aid in skin care. Some herbalists believe they can protect the kidney and gallbladder health, lower inflammation, increase muscle mass, regulate hormonal activity, prevent diabetes, lower blood pressure, soothe hemorrhoids, and improve respiratory conditions. A pretty impressive list.
Aside from the possible health benefits, nettle leaves are an excellent source of food in the Spring. Gardeners, equipped with gloves, can harvest the young growing tops, which can then be eaten as steamed greens, or made into soup. The minerals and vitamins in young nettle leaves make them extremely nutritious. There are two more important secondary uses of nettles to note: older nettle leaves can be gathered all through their growth and then hung to dry, for nettle tea. To feed your garden, you can pull nettles and leave them to rot in a bucket of water, then dilute the resulting “tea” 1:10 and water your garden while adding a natural liquid fertilizer. Warning: the rotting material in the bucket will be very smelly, so locate it far from your back door.
This low growing herb, with rounded leaves spaced periodically along thin, slightly wiry stems and small, white flowers, is a member of the carnation family. Stellaria media is its scientific name; it is also called star-weed, satin flower and mouse ear. It can tend to choke out cultivated plants in your salad bed, but is actually itself a valuable salad herb. It also has medicinal properties, being used traditionally for digestive issues and as a blood cleanser. and if you continually harvest it, it will continue to grow without taking over. Chickens also love to eat it, so it can be harvested and added to their feed.
A member of the amaranth family (related to quinoa), this leafy green has a central stem and lance shaped grey green leaves. The three most common species are Redroot, Green and Smooth Pigweed. Researchers at the University of Guelph have created an identification guide to help sort out the various types that grow in North America. Pigweed, in its different forms, grows worldwide and, if protected with row cover or a hoop house, will produce large succulent leaves that, when steamed, are similar to cooked spinach. Like spinach, when first harvested, it has oxalic acid in the leaves, a compound that causes the mouth to pucker, but that breaks down with heat, making the plant more useful cooked than raw. This is a great plant to know about because it will come back every year in your garden, even if you don’t plant it.
Well known in local folklore, dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) were widely consumed here in rural Newfoundland every Spring. The young leaves make an excellent tasty salad, tossed with a bit of lemon juice and oil. Later, after the leaves become bitter, the flowers may be plucked to use in salads or to make wine, while the root can be cooked in soups and stews or dried and ground up to make a natural non-caffeinated coffee substitute. Dandelion buds can be gathered, just before the flowes open and pickled like capers. We will be posting more about them soson on our Foraging Page.
Some see dandelions as a scourge when they invade your lawn after their seeds float through the air on tiny white umbrellas, But dandelions are actually a wonderful healthy wild green. They have many widely recognized health benefits, which are easy to research online. Dandelions were once known as “the official remedy for disorders” and the benefits of consuming them are many, and varied.