Get Fresh, Wild Weeds!
By Brigitte Mars
“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
In the early 1970’s, I lived in a teepee on a commune in Reynolds, Missouri. Weekly, I would visit an elderly neighbor, who generously showed me that most of the so called “weeds” coming up in gardens were more nutritious than the cultivated plants we were growing, and that not only were these plant allies free, but easy to grow, requiring less water, and often contributing to half of what grows in a garden, also being found along paths, and near dwellings.
Wild foods survive despite being stepped on, fertilized, weekly watering, and can impart to us strength and vitality. They are the ancestors of many of our store bought foods. Many were brought here as vegetables and in various cultures are still viable vegetables. Wild weeds are nourished by rain, sun, moon, and wind. Savor the freshness of a salad, or fresh green drink from plants collected five minutes before consuming. Wild foods are so mineral dense, they support health and satisfy on a deep cellular level, even decrease cravings, by helping the body get more alkaline. It is ironic that people would work so hard to eliminate ‘weeds” then turn around and pay top dollar for imported foods. Enjoy the sunshine and breathe fresh air as you gather, even making room for other plants in the garden . When trying a new food for the first time, it’s good to have only a moderate amount, just to attune how it affects you.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a member of the Caryophyllaceae (Pink) family and native to Europe. More than 30 bird species, including chickens are known to eat this plant. The genus name, Stellaria refers to the star shape of the calyx that holds the flower and sometimes chickweed is referred to as Starwort.
Chickweed is delicate and delicious. The leaves, flowers and stems can be included in salads or raw soups and marinated dishes. It keeps well in the refrigerator for up to a couple of weeks. It is known for its high vitamin C content. It is an herb that has traditionally been used to strengthen frail people. It has soothing and anti-inflammatory properties and has been made into a tea for bladder irritation, bronchial irritation, and ulcers. It is an excellent salve ingredient, helping to soothe everything from diaper rash to psoriasis.
Chickweed actually makes an excellent ground cover, as it grows outward instead of upward. Its very presence indicates a fertile soil and chickweed helps the soil retain its nitrogen content.
Almost everyone recognizes Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), a member of the Asteraceae (Daisy) Family. The genus name, Taraxacum is from the Greek, and means “the remedy for the disorder.” Though most people regard this plant as a nuisance, it is rich in uses. The leaves are edible in the springtime, before the plant flowers and become too bitter. It is high in iron and beta-carotene. The leaves are diuretic. Most chemical diuretics deplete the body of potassium and dandelion greens are rich in this mineral. Dandelion blossoms can be separated from the calyx and sprinkled on salads. The flowers contain lutein, a nutrient beneficial for the eyes.
Dandelion roots are edible. We like to dig them up, scrub them, chop, add a bit of olive oil and Nama Shoyu, and then dehydrate them a bit, just to soften them. Delicious! Dandelion root tea has long been used to improve skin conditions such as acne and eczema and improves liver function.
Lambsquarter (Chenopodium album) is a member of the Chenopodiaceae (Goosefoot) Family. The goosefoot shaped leaves of this abundant plant have long been used as a nourishing food during times of war and famine. This European native tastes like spinach but is much easier to grow and even more nutritious! The species name, album, means white and refers to the whitish beads of moisture that form on the top of the plant. Being rich in iron, lambsquarter is considered a remedy for anemia. The seeds can also be collected, sprouted, or used as a grain substitute.
Malva (Malva neglecta) is a member of the Malvaceae (Mallow) family. The word malva is Latin meaning “soft “and neglecta means “neglected”. An Asian native, malva is sometimes referred to as cheeses, as the tiny seeds resemble an old-fashioned round cheese wheel.
Malva leaves are soothing and anti-inflammatory. They can be eaten raw or and when added to raw soups, their rich mucilage content helps to thicken the pots contents. The delicate pink and white flowers are a lovely and edible addition to grace the dinner plate. The seeds are edible and can be eaten raw or can be pickled. The high moisture content of the seeds has been used to moisten the mouth when water has been scarce.
Malva leaves have served as a traditional medicine as tea for sore throats and ulcers. They also make a simple poultice for treating skin rashes, burns and insect bites. The leaves are very rich in beta-carotene and have been included in teas and syrups for coughs and irritated lung conditions.
Nettles (Urtica dioica), a member of the Urticaceae (Nettle) family. Urtica is from the Latin, meaning, “to burn” and is probably best known for the stinging hairs that can cause pain when touching the plant. In the hairs is formic acid, also found in ant bites and there are actually health benefits to the stings such as in relieving arthritis pain. Young nettles shoots are edible if pureed, or juiced and stinging hairs quickly lose their “bite”. Nettles are very high in iron, build the blood and benefit the kidneys.
Nettles are considered anti-allergenic. Taking nettles in capsule, tea or tincture form before the hay fever season even begins can minimize the annual discomfort of hay fever. Nettles stabilizes the mast cell walls, which stops the aggravating cycle of mucus membrane hyperactivity and inflammation so that it requires lots more pollen to cause histamine release and degranulation. Nettles high content of beta-carotene and vitamin C help strengthen mucus membranes.
Most people will want to wear gloves and use scissors when collecting nettles and only the young plants should be consumed as they become irritating to the kidneys when they start flowering.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea, P. sativa) is a member of the Portulacaceae (Purslane) family and though its creeping succulent leaves seem tenacious, it is truly a valuable plant. It is thought that the genus name, Portulaca is from the Latin porto and laca meaning “milk carrier” in reference to its juicy liquid. The species name oleracea is Latin and means “pot herb.” It also is known as summer purslane, Indian cress, pussley, wild portulaca, verdolaga (Spanish), and loni (Sanskrit).
Introduced by Arabs to Europe in the fifteenth century, purslane was actually cultivated as a salad and potherb. Purslane was a favorite food of Gandhi. Purslane is high in the essential fatty acid omega 3 and helpful in protecting the heart, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It is a cooling summer vegetable rich in beta-carotene and vitamin C. It also contains dopamine, noradrenaline, sterols, malic acid, oxalic acid glutamic acid, asparagic acid, beta-carotene, vitamin C, iron, potassium, glucose, and fructose. Not only does it make a fine salad herb, but is wonderful in raw soups like gazpacho or used in place of okra in recipes. It is a good cooling summer food. Dried seeds are ground and used as a grain alternative. Our local farmer’s market even sells this fine herb to introduce people to its vegetable potential.
Purslane is considered an alterative, antibacterial, diuretic, hypotensive, mucilaginous, nutritive, and refrigerant. Purslane has been used medicinally to improve cardiac weakness, dry cough, diarrhea, dysentery, fever, gingivitis, hypercholesterolemia, hypertension, scurvy, sore throat, ulcers, urinary tract infections, and rid the body of worms. As a poultice, it is used to treat for bee stings, boils, burns, and hemorrhoids.
Purslane makes an excellent edible ground cover. It was once believed to offer protection from evil spirits.
As we look deep into the shady areas, heart shaped leaves and brilliant purple flowers announce the violet (Viola odorata), a member of the Violaceae (Violet) family. You might catch their beautiful aroma before you glimpse them. Violet leaves are edible all year round. The flowers are in their prime in the spring. It is easy and elegant to add a sprinkle of raw violet blossoms on any dish being served. The leaves and flowers are both high in Vitamin C and an esteemed remedy for coughs, fevers and lung complaints such as bronchitis. The ancient Athenians used violets as a medicine to “moderate anger.” The smell and flavor of violets helps to comfort one who is grief stricken.
Here are ideas for wild plant uses:
- Salad. Except for nettles, which must be pureed, all of the above greens, when young (before flowering) may be included in a salad.
- Blend clean chopped greens (except nettles) into some soaked nuts to make a pâté. Season with lemon, garlic, salt and chopped onion to make a dip.
- Use greens as you would spinach in making raw lasagna.
- Puree wild young greens to make a raw pesto or soup.
- Enjoy fresh wild green drinks!
Learning to grow or collect wild plants from your area will greatly enhance your pleasure herbs and connection to the earth.
- Make sure you are collecting the proper species. There are poisonous look alikes with some plants. Use a good guidebook. A mistake can be fatal. Also be sure you are collecting the correct plant part – for example blue elderberries are wonderful, but the leaves are toxic. Just because an animal eats a plant doesn’t mean it is safe to ingest. Be sure no unwanted plants are woven into your collecting.
- Any known endangered species must be left alone.
- Ask permission before gathering on private land.
4. If possible, water plants the day before collecting.
- Identify the grandfather/mother plant and leave it to ensure the continuation of the strongest of the species.
- Ask permission from the herbs you gather and give thanks. My friend Debra St. Claire likes to remind people, “Bless it before you pick it.”
- Avoid collecting plants within 50 feet of a busy road, in sprayed (with herbicides or pesticides) or polluted areas. Collecting behind some sort of barrier such as a house or brick wall decreases the possibility of auto exhaust.
- Never take more than 10% of what’s there… Leave some for the wild animals and other aspiring herbalists and raw foodists!
- Gather leaves and flowers in the morning, after the dew has risen and before the sun is too hot.
- Replant seeds as often as possible.
- Leaves are best taken when the plant is starting to flower, not after, as their energy will still be in the leaves. Flowers are best when just starting to open. Fruit (such as rose hips) are best when fully ripe, seeds when fully ripe and dry, and roots and barks are ideal in the spring (of the second year if the plant is a biennial or perennial) or fall, after the plant has completed its cycle and the life force of the plant goes back into its roots and inner bark.
- It is kinder to take a whole leaf rather than tearing a leaf. Collect plants when they are in their prime, not fading.
- Collect plants in a way to ensure the continued survival of the species. For example, if all you need are the leaves and flowers, take only some tops. Cutting a plant back can actually help to promote new growth. Leave the roots to continue their growing cycle. Also help to “thin” plants growing too close together to help the other plants have more room. Vary the places that you collect from.
- Taking a root usually destroys the life cycle of a plant, unlike taking leaves, flowers or seeds. It is best to collect roots in the fall, after the seeds are ripe. Then the seeds can be replanted to continue the plant’s survival.
- Cover holes after digging roots, while replanting some of the ripe seeds.
Wild Herb Pesto
Served over spiralized vegetable pasta or a raw pizza crust.
- 3 cups fresh young wild greens
- 5 cloves garlic (optional)
- 1 cup soaked and rinsed walnuts or pine nuts
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon Celtic salt
Purée everything in a blender or a food processor with an S-blade. (Serves 4-6)
What you put in your body is what you get out of your body!
Start embodying the most vital and resilient plants by appreciating and enjoying the wild, weed medicine that nature is offering freely all around you!