While doing the research for my weekly articles, I've often learned interesting bits of plant lore that surprise me. This week was no different and what I thought was a troublesome weed that annoyed me to no end, turned out to be a plant that was considered quite helpful and special by people long ago.
Farmers hate Erigeron canadensis, or horseweed
Horseweed is an annual plant that farmers hate. This plant grows on tall slender stalks and can be between one and six feet tall, depending on conditions. It is so despised and troublesome that it is even on the noxious weed lists in some states. It grows wherever seeds fall on disturbed ground and that is exactly what agricultural fields consist of. They are a huge problem in no-till operations and have developed a resistance to the weed killer, glyphosate (which is bad stuff whether you are a weed or not) and one plant can be responsible for over 15,000 new plants. It is a member of the vast Asteraceae tribe which consists of daisies, dandelions, thistles, coneflowers, yarrow, goldenrod and thousands of other plants. Most of them are noted for producing huge amounts of seed and many of them rely on the little fluffy parachutes that help disperse them vast distances. Horseweed is a huge competitor that sucks up available moisture and nutrients and can reduce agricultural yields significantly where left unchecked. However, this wasn't always the case. At one time in our history this was considered useful by a number of peoples.
Horseweed was a part of the early herbal pharmacy
Native to most of North America, Central America and the Caribbean, horseweed has been around long before the last ice age and has spread across the world. Most likely, it arrived in Europe by seeds hidden in the pelts of animals that were shipped back across the Atlantic by trappers. And being the healthy little weed that it is, proceeded to naturalize wherever its seeds fell. At that time in history (1600's) any new plant was considered potentially helpful until proven otherwise and perhaps even some information about how the New World peoples used horseweed made it across the Pond as well. For all the bad press that horseweed gets today, it was well-respected and considered very useful just a couple hundred years ago. It has definite astringent properties, so is helpful in treating bleeding problems such as hemorrhoids and flesh wounds. The fresh leaves were crushed and applied to the problem areas to reduce blood flow. Tea was taken to help stomach ulcers and even tonsillitis. Horseweed is also a diuretic which was used to helps the kidneys flush salt and excess fluid from the body and was a treatment for high blood pressure and heart conditions related to heart disease. The early peoples also crushed the dried plant and used it as a type of snuff to cause sneezing, which was considered a healthy activity at that time as well. The dried plants were also scattered in animal bedding to prevent fleas. All of the medicinal uses have been documented and the plant does have some great properties. However, do consult a physician or trained herbalist before treating yourself with any plant.
Adding horseweed to the menu and other uses
Horseweed is edible too. The young leaves were often used as a flavoring substitute for tarragon and many people say that the taste is similar. The young plants were also boiled and used as a potherb in soups and stews. It contains significant amounts of phosphorus and calcium, so would be considered a nutritious addition to the menu. In some parts of the world, the essential oils are rendered and the oil is used as a flavoring for a number of sweets and candies. The essential oils are also a binding ingredient in some perfumes. Another interesting use for horseweed is that the dried stems make an excellent drill for starting a fire from scratch. You can't use them with a bow because they are more fragile than that, however it is very good for hand starting. Just let the stems dry, remove the leaves and drill between the palms in a depression. A 'V' notch isn't necessary.
The history of plant uses is information we all should learn
Even though horseweed has some interesting and useful properties, it is doubtful that it will ever be commercially farmed any time soon. However, it is an enlightening education to learn that some plants with a bad reputation actually have redeeming attributes. The information should be something that people could fall back on in case of disaster and knowledge is power. I'm still pulling it out every time I see one sprout in my garden, I haven't warmed to it enough to let it be, but I'm more respectful of its existence these days.