Rethinking Weeds: Becoming Plant Literate

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Today I’d like to talk to you about weeds. Actually, it’s not so much about weeds as it is plant literacy. Once upon a time, really not that long ago, people went out and gathered plants. They knew which plants were expected to grow in their areas at certain times of year, and they picked them for food, medicine, and to use in their homes for various purposes. Children went with the adults and were taught how to identify the plants they could eat or use to treat illnesses, and this knowledge was passed down through the generations…

Until recently. Now, we go to stores and we buy what has been deemed most profitable by food producers, and we plant certain fruits and vegetables we would like to grow in our gardens. And most everything else that grows is considered a weed– a useless plant encroaching on our territory.

But what if we knew the names of these plants, and how to use them? Would we still consider them weeds?

Dandelions and wild onions from my yard.

I loved this talk given by Tama Matsuoka Wong– she articulates so well so much of what I want to say about this. Please watch!
(If the player doesn’t appear below, you can just click this link to see it.

What do you think?  I know that many of my friends who have grown up in rural Europe or less developed countries still know their plants, and have memories of gathering them for food and medicine. I am still learning about the plants around me, and it is such an exciting revelation to realize that something I have seen in my yard is really useful, or good eating. This year, I took a different approach with my dandelions than simply clipping all the heads off before they went to seed, and trying to pull up and destroy as many of the plants as I could. I actually used them instead, which gave me a whole new appreciation for them. I can hardly believe I’m saying it, but I look forward to dandelion season next year.

These are dandies from my garden– I used the young leaves in salads, I pickled the tight little buds to use like capers, I sprinkled the yellow petals in salads or turned them into fritters with Amelia, and then I made a really good medicinal tincture with the roots. We actually went in search of more dandelions as a family, which we turned into a nice dandelion wine that is sitting in my basement right now. I have also picked and dried cleavers (aka sticky weed,) lemon balm and nettles to make tea with later in the year. We have found elderberries growing at the end of the yard, which we will use in an elderberry winter tonic this autumn, and the ground elder that threatens to take over my whole garden has been thrown into many of our soups and salads this year– eating is such sweet revenge over the especially invasive plants!

Learning about the plants around us is really interesting, and fun. There are so many books out there right now to help you get started, and you can join local foraging groups in many areas. I think the best place to start is in your back yard. Look at the plants there. Do you know what they are called? If not, see if you can find out. Google is your best friend here! I do a google image search using a few descriptive terms to find out so much about the plants I see around me. Check to see if there are similar-looking toxic plants that you will need to distinguish between, and read how to tell the differences. There are a lot of really great books that can hlep you get started, as well. Here are some of my favorites:

1. Food, Not Lawns
2. The Forager’s Harvest
3. Food For Free
4. Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness
5. Foraged Flavor (written Tama Matsuoka Wong, the speaker in the video above)

I will write a post soon on getting started with wild foraging– but go look in your back yard or garden now, and try to see some of the weeds with new eyes. What is the plant called? Which parts are edible, and when? What are its uses? Nature gives us so many gifts, yet we have become blind to most of them!

Have you eaten any of your weeds lately?

Rethinking WeedsThis post was shared at: Fat Tuesday, Wildcrafting Wednesday, Frugal Days Sustainable Ways, Small Footprint Friday.


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19 Responses to Rethinking Weeds: Becoming Plant Literate

  1. Anonymous August 14, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

    Yes, we love lambs quarters. It’s better than spinach even. It goes by a lot of other names like pigweed, goosefoot, etc…

    I’m 53 now, but when I was a teenager I was really into Euell Gibbons and his foraging books. Others my age will remember him, and for those who don’t remember him just google him and you can probably pick up used books for cheap on amazon or the like.

    Happy foraging!

  2. Joanna August 14, 2013 at 7:12 pm #

    The weeds I eat are ground elder, nettles, fat hen (related to goosefoot I think), chickweed, sorrel and dandelions – I made dandelion syrup this year which was a useful substitute for honey since I didn’t get any from my friend as her bees didn’t produce much last year. The ground elder and nettles are our spring greens as they are the first things to appear after the snow.

    • Ariana Mullins August 18, 2013 at 5:12 pm #

      Joanna, I think you were the one that had mentioned ground elder to me in the first place. As soon as you described it, I realized it was growing *all over* my garden! So we have eaten a lot of it, for the first time this year. We have a second growth of nettles right now, so I am thinking of collecting some more for another batch of beer, and to dry…

  3. Rocio August 16, 2013 at 8:41 pm #

    Having lived in NM, AZ, and Mexico in the last year, I have fond memories of foraging for food. Since these were all desert regions, we loved adding cactus to our salads and making cactus tacos with tomatoes, onions, and green chili. These meals would be followed up with fresh, sweat prickly pears that we would eat with lemon and salt or would turn into an italian ice scrape (there’s a prettier word for it, but I forget what it is). Now that we live in the South, it’s a new set of botanical options to study and learn. I have to echo your sentiments, Ariana–doing it as a family is half the fun. It’s a communal activity that harkens back to simpler, closer knit times. Hope you are well!

    • Ariana Mullins August 18, 2013 at 5:14 pm #

      Isn’t it so fun? We don’t spend much money on entertainment at all any more, since most weekends we just walk around looking for food. 🙂 It’s really fun, and just revives my spirit– no matter what is going on, I always feel so much better spending some time trucking through greenery. Coming home with food is icing on the cake. Your desert food sounds so good!

  4. Hazel August 20, 2013 at 10:15 am #

    I’ve always loved the idea of wild food. I had a 1930’s children’s book as child that was my mum’s and I loved the foraging section (though it wasn’t called that then). I have memories of making my younger brothers eat daisies and acorns that I’d treated in various ways to try to make them tastier. Nothing I tried made the acorns taste any better, but I still love foraging. I love looking at hedgerows and verges and seeing how much I could eat.

    Do you have alexanders near you? They grow near the coast (within 6 miles apparently, which sounds very specific!) but I’ve only ever seen them near the Welsh coast. We were in a clifftop campsite and much to the amusement of the farmer I cooked some he’d just strimmed! When I checked with him first he thought I was going to lecture him about cutting down wild flowers 🙂 He’d never tried them either, so I cooked some for him to try. Very tasty with lots of butter (but aren’t most things?!)

    I’m trying to pin Andy and his friends down to which weekends they will be apple pressing. Do you want to email me and we can arrange it? You should have my address through the newsletter subscription I think. It starts hmkn, if you’re inundated with subscribers called Hazel!

    • Ariana Mullins August 29, 2013 at 9:08 am #

      Hi Hazel, I emailed you! We do have Alexanders at the coast neaby– I have seen them, but didn’t know what they were until I saw your comment and googled them. I would love to try them– I think we’re heading to the beach tomorrow, and where we’re going there’s also lots of samphire. So we’ll bring bags with us, and hopefully come home with plenty to eat. I love that you were able to that farmer some of his own weeds!!

  5. laurabruno August 27, 2013 at 9:40 pm #

    We forage, too, and we have stumbled into a huge yard full of dandelions, which fed us very well for months. A couple recipes we particularly enjoyed:

    and most recently, I made the Lavender-Infused Dandelion Preserves (with extra lavender and using only the birch sweetener) … OMG, heavenly! It tastes like the sweetest honey.

    I’ve also got roots frozen for future roasting when it’s not too hot to run the oven.

    Other favorites=nettles, wild violets and lambsquarters, but be sure to cook those. I kept putting them in green smoothies and passed a kidney stone from the oxalates, which cooking lessens. Lesson learned!!

    • Ariana Mullins August 29, 2013 at 9:13 am #

      Thanks for those links, Laura. I didn’t know you could make jelly with xylitol, and I will definitely try it! I have seen a resurgence of dandelions lately in our area, and might make that jelly!

  6. laurabruno August 27, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    Oops! forgot the link to the lavender-dandelion preserves: (you need to scroll down, but she has other ideas for wild things, too!)

  7. weed October 8, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    In his almost three decades as an AU horticulturist and AAES scientist, Charles Gilliam has never, ever advised nurseries to use Roundup to control noxious weeds that plague their ornamental crops.

  8. Paul Young February 18, 2014 at 5:15 pm #

    Very interesting site I love foraging for gourmet edible mushrooms which I have done for 18 years now but will try some of the greens as well. I also collect lots of golden plums that are prolific here and ignored by most folks and always lots of blackberries in late summer,really enjoying homemade blackberry kombucha this season.

  9. Paul Young February 18, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

    Oh yes forgot to say I am in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada


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