When is a Weed a Weed?
Is a weed ever not a weed? The answer to that question, simply put, is when it is a tasty vegetable – or perhaps a pretty wild flower or a butterfly attractant. Almost universally, we consider ragweed a weed. But, what about a dandelion? Or lamb’s quarter? Or chickweed? Or purslane?
As much as I disdain the weeds in my field and spend far too much time and money trying to eradicate them by pulling and hoeing, I do enjoy many of these same “weeds” as a vegetable and as a pretty flower along the roadside and ditches. Almost every night I go out to quietly peruse the field and always take the time to appreciate the beauty of so many of the flowering weeds and the diversity of plant life that surrounds my fields.
Many of the plants we so commonly call weeds are indeed edible and generally highly nutritious. At this point, I find the definition of a weed as “any plant that is growing in a location where it is not wanted” as most appropriate. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agronomy, “A weed is a plant out of place, not intentionally sown, whose undesirable qualities outweigh its good points. Even some crop plants can become weeds when they grow where they are not wanted. In contrast, a number of plants usually thought of as weeds may actually be helpful in controlling erosion or serving as food for wild animals and birds” (http://extension.psu.edu/agronomy-guide/pm/sec1/sec12a).
Interestingly, ragweed, the plant that causes so many allergies in the fall was once used as a poultice for skin rashes and allergies by Native Americans. It was also used as a control for diarrhea (www.youtube.com). Most of us prefer to pull this guy out of our yards and gardens, but for the Native American it by no means was a weed. Because it can produce up to a million seeds per healthy plant, I tend to count these guys when I pull them and then multiply by 1,000,000 and rejoice at all the weed seeds I have kept from falling on my field. But, since the seed is the portion the Native Americans often used, all those seeds were most likely a welcome sight.
Dandelion is a beautiful plant when growing in a field or along the roadside, a vivid carpet of yellow sunshine to cheer us in the spring. But, in the front lawn it is not a welcome sight. This little plant, with its fluffy white puff ball of seeds that children love scattering in the wind, is one we aggressively attack each spring. But, this guy is a wonderful spring green in the bitter category. My mother tells me that when she grew up they always ate dandelions in the spring for a cleansing after the long winter. (They also drank pumpkin seed tea as a purifier.) Young dandelions are tender and relatively sweet and can be eaten raw. But, as the greens get larger, they become more bitter and are much better cooked. Many folk’s mouths just might water at the thought of a big pot of dandelions with bacon (http://www.care2.com; http://www.santafenewmexican.com).
Lamb’s Quarter is such a common weed in the United States that it has become the bane of most gardeners. This plant is not native to the United States, but rather was introduced to North America by our European ancestors who commonly grew it as a salad green. These forebears kindly brought the seeds for this weed with them to the new World. Unfortunately, over time it naturalized beautifully and now it grows almost everywhere. In some cases I consider it a weed as it is a disease vector for tomatoes and peppers and eggplant. I do not let it grow except in specific areas that I feel are sheltered. But, it is a highly nutritious and delicious salad and cooking green. The nutritive value and tastiness of this plant certainly make it worthy of a place at our tables (www.wildmanstevebrill.com/Plants.Folder/Lamb’sQuarters.html)
Chickweed is probably my least favorite weed. It is low growing but spreads like wild fire. Each spring this weed covers the ground both in the greenhouses and in the field. When I raised my own chickens I would place them in the greenhouse for a couple of weeks to let them nibble away. By the time they finished pecking, scratching and eating, the chickweed was history. But, even so, as soon as I would plant the hoop house with a crop and begin watering, this pesky little weed would reappear. I have read that if even ¼ inch of root is left in the ground, it will sprout back up. How determined to thrive this guy is! As much as I detest this little weed, it is a favorite for many who favor the wild growing greens. I like it prepared as a cooked vegetable (http://botanical.com), as its stems are somewhat fibrous, but if a person takes the time to strip the leaves from the stems, it is delicious in a salad. It is also used to make a tea with herbal properties (www.livestrong.com).
Purslane is one of my favorite weeds. I love its growth habit and its succulent properties, although in the garden or field it can be a bit aggressive and hard to control. In contrast to many of the weeds that are more prolific in the spring, purslane is more likely to appear in the heat of the summer. I love the way it grows and is really a very attractive plant. As a weed, pulling it often does little good as the undersides of the leaves are lined with tiny spores that produce more plants. But, as a vegetable, purslane is among the super foods. It is higher in omega three fatty acids than most other plants (www.nutrition-and-you.com). The taste is a little lemony and juicy and the leaves tend to “pop” when bitten into – a truly delightful little taste treat. The U of I Extension Service says, “Is it a weed or a wonderful taste treat? Purslane is cursed and curried all at the same time” (web.extension.illinois.edu/cfiv/homeowners.html). I generally eat purslane raw, (www.epicurious.com), but it is great cooked also (chowhound.chow.com)
Visit almost any of the restaurants in the Chicagoland area that feature local cuisine and you are likely to find most of these tasty treats on the menu at some point in the year. Weed or vegetable? Perhaps it is all in the eye of the beholder. As for me, it all depends on where that plant is growing.
(Please note: If you are unfamiliar with the various plants discussed here, please seek expert advice before wild harvesting for use in the kitchen.)