Today is Weed Appreciation Day. Do you appreciate any weeds? Do you love or hate weed plants in your yard? What weeds have you eaten? What benefits do weeds hold today? How do you feel about the use of herbicides? Let's talk. Please tell me what you think after reading this article.
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) were some of the cheapest toys that I played with as a child; they grew undisturbed in my yard. I loved picking the long stems filled with sour dandelion milk, popping off the yellow flowers and linking the hollow stems together in an uneven necklace. I rubbed the flowers on stones or on my skin to extract the yellow color. When the yellow color rubbed off on anyone's chin, my sister and I would giggle uncontrollably and declare that person "liked butter". Don't ask me why that was so funny; I have no idea. Dandelions were also perfect fun after the bloom had closed and the seeds had matured and downy parachutes swayed in a perfect circle. How many children have enjoyed watching dandelion seeds float through the sky? I just could not resist a "dande-fluff" and would either blow the tiny parachuted seeds skyward or would wave the seed stems in the air as I twirled around. But this weed was more than just a toy; I have eaten young dandelion greens in a garden salad and yellow blooms both raw and cooked in an egg batter.
I have always been a little amazed and much amused by people that hate dandelions. Some people dig up every hint of one with great passion as if they were hunting drug dealers or chasing evil out of town.
Weeds as Food?
The year before the Y2K (year 2000) scare, a lady posted a question on a website, asking what she could do to make sure there was food available. She was afraid of starving to death. I told her to stop killing dandelions immediately because every part of the plant was edible. I know that is quite a simplified answer, but I ask you, Why is the general public so intent on stamping out weeds? Why is a yard filled with perfectly green grass so much better than one left to nature's mix of weeds and grasses?
More than 10 years ago, I purchased the wonderfully interesting book "Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants" by Bradford Angier. It identifies "more than 100 edible wild foods growing free in the United States and Canada". Even-numbered pages list detailed information on specific plants, including common names, descriptions of the plants, where they grow and what parts are edible. Odd-numbered pages are lovely renderings of each plant.
Here are some quotes from the book; "The dandelion, which has saved peoples from starvation, is a three-tiered food..." and "Raw dandelion greens...have an abundant 14,000 international units of Vitamin A per 100 grams, plus .19 milligrams of thiamine, .26 mg. riboflavin, and 35 jmg. of the vital ascorbic acid." "This same portion of edible greens is further enriched with 198 milligrams of calcium, 76 mg. of sodium and 397 mg. of potassium." (I remember reading somewhere that the blooms are high in lithium also).
My friends, plants with these qualities should be given free reign to grow anywhere! Why are we frantically throwing them in the garbage whilst running to the health food store for vitamin A, ascorbic acid, calcium, lithium and potassium supplements? I guess it is the same reason that we fight for a parking place nearest to the door...of the gym. If we pay for something, it must be more valuable than the same thing when it is freely available.
This article is about appreciating many different weeds. What if many weeds that fill our yards and fields are really excellent food items or cures for cancer or other maladies?
Many people hate the white blooms of clover sprouting in their beautiful green lawns. So, what about clover? The above referenced book by Bradford Angier states that clover leaves, roots, stems and flowers are all edible. He also states "Bread made from the seed-filled dried blossoms has nourished entire groups of people during famines."
Weeds or Treasures?
There are hundreds of different plants that will muscle their way into tidy little useless perfect green grass lawns. These plants are the curse of the earth and should be eradicated from the planet according to some gardeners . Other people will extol the virtues of these dastardly weeds. A casual visit to weeds listed on PlantFiles can be quite amusing. The comments range from highly negative; "This is the worst weed in my garden, I would never plant it..." to quite positive; "It's growing in my lawn but we just mow over it...". Some weeds are extolled as the greatest cure-all while other writers love the way that weeds take over places where "nothing else will grow". One man's trash is truly another's treasure.
Almost 30 years ago, I dug violets in my back yard to give to my boss' wife (and co-worker). She wanted something that would grow in the shade and that would fill up the area under some trees. It was not long before my boss killed the violets with herbicide. Perhaps he thought anything that grows under a tree must be evil or he might have been taught that violets were just bothersome weeds. I, however, have always delighted in violets. A area is filling with violets outside my back door now. I rescued these plants from the lawn mower and gave them their own bed in the shade. They reward me every year with this beautiful display.
Wildlife loves weeds
Wildlife depends on weeds. My backyard is full of birds that love to eat from the free smorgasbord of weed seeds in my back yard. I do not mind; the song of a happy bird is music to my soul. Of course, some of my neighbors do not like the weeds so they purchase weed seed to feed the birds but keep their lawns lovely. A neighbor down the street mows his lawn with an almost religious fervor. Perhaps he thinks he will have to answer for how beautiful the green grass grew.
Okay, I have to admit. When we decided on a home to purchase, I ruled out some neighborhoods because of the beautiful, weed-less yards. I informed my husband that there were probably too many chemicals used in those neighborhoods. I do not want to live in a chemical world. Give me a yard full of dandelions, clover, purslane and ground ivy instead of an award winning yard of the month, full of death and chemicals.
Dandelions attract beneficial ladybugs. Milkweed is food for the caterpillars of the Monarch butterfly. Cardinals feast on plantain seeds, quail love sea purslane, mourning doves enjoy lamb's quarter seeds, finches delight in shepherd's purse seeds. Bees make great honey from clover. (As a side note, I know that clover attracts bees. I was about 14 years old when I stepped on a bee enjoying some clover. That night, I was campaigning to hold an office in a Christian girl's club. Heedless as to how Charlie Chaplin I appeared, I hobbled to the front of the room with one shoe on and one shoe off. The memory makes me laugh. Needless to say, I did not win.)
Kill the weeds at any cost
Our society may treasure a highly manicured lawn, but what is the true cost? How many herbicides have polluted our ground water? How many birds have been poisoned? How many Monarch butterflies have died? Where have all the bees gone? I was about 10 years old when I read the book "Silent Spring"by Rachel Carson. Perhaps that is why I look at a beautiful lawn as a problem instead of a solution.
I hold my breath when I walk through the herbicide aisle in the store because the smells produce an instant headache. I was surprised when one of my friends said the same thing happens to her.
It is easy to point fingers at the destruction of the rain forest or the logging industry eating up the trees, or the governments of the world for polluting the skies. But maybe, just perhaps...a gallon of poison in every yard of this melting pot adds up.
Yes, I know there are natural ways to eradicate unwanted weeds. But, frankly, I do not mind most weeds. (Of course, poison ivy and other dangerous plants are a different kind of evil even though they may be useful to the medical community.)
Am I advocating that our yards become jungles? I should say not! I am simply asking for common cautions in the use of chemicals and for us to re-think the goal of a weed-free life.
Hug a weed
Maybe it is time to embrace weeds. Maybe it is time for science to really focus on common weeds for answers to common problems. Maybe weeds were put here for such a time as this. Maybe cancer is caused in part by herbicides, yet perhaps some of the same plants that are destroyed are the actual cancer answer. Maybe beautiful green lawns perfectly mowed in lovely diagonal patterns are part of the problem. Yes, these yards are traditional but some traditions should be broken.
So, what do you think? Has the time come to hug a weed today?
For the purpose of liability, I am not advocating that you eat any of these plants. I am not a doctor and I'm not prescribing anything to you. Be wise; use your own brain, do your own research or consult a physician.
The garden in my head is better than the one in my yard. However, I plant at least one tree every year and have left every home with a little more green than it had before. I hope you enjoy reading these articles as much as I enjoy writing them.
Editor's note: Aunt_A passed away on 12-06-2010. We will miss her greatly and are thankful for her legacy of wonderful articles.