A weed, by definition, is a volunteer plant — persistent, prolific, and interfering with human activity. Modern agriculture, largely based on large swaths of monoculture, has little room for weeds.
But one person’s weed may be another person’s treasure. Over the centuries people have used common plants for food and medicine. Here are some of the examples of beneficial weeds growing in our area.
Amaranth’s tiny grains and leaves have been a staple food since Maya, Inca, and Aztec civilizations. The genus comprises over 60 species. The cultivated plant grows quite tall with showy clusters of amaranth color florets. It is one of the most protein-rich grains — also used as flour; it is gluten free and available at our Co-op.
Arnica is a plant present chiefly in Europe and North America in over 30 different varieties. Its bright yellow flowers can be a nice addition to a garden, and its relative Arnica Montana is known for its medicinal values. While the plant parts can be toxic if consumed straight, arnica has a marked value as a homeopathic preparation. It is used for bruises and inflammation topically as a gel. Orally, little sugar-based pills are a highly diluted analgesic. It’s not to be used on open wounds!
Burdock with its burrs that stick to dog tails is quite common around the world. In Asian cuisine all the plant’s parts are used. Leaves — like corn husks for tamales — are used to wrap food in preparation for roasting, and roots are used in curries. A burdock tincture is used as an anti-inflammatory medicine.
Chicory, not an American native, is a familiar coffee alternative or an addition to coffee — if you favor New Orleans style of coffee. Its roasted root has a pleasant taste and its leaves are a savory addition to soups. There are two main types of this plant.
The first is radicchio — a leafy salad addition.
The second is witloof, which produces the root for coffee. Under cultivation conditions, it produces Belgian Endive, a leafy salad plant. Brewed leaves of the Witloof, an herbaceous biannual, are used as a remedy for internal parasites, upset stomach, liver and bladder issues, and other ailments.
Dandelion is probably the most common of the weeds, nearly omnipresent in the world. There are several varieties of this perennial plant.
Most commonly we see the leaves as a part of a salad because they are packed with micronutrients. The petals make a wine which is used in root beer. In natural medicine, dandelion is used as a diuretic, liver cleanser, and to soothe digestive issues.
However, the Uzbek variety of dandelion has a root which is used to produce rubber — an alternative to tapping of rubber trees.
Goldenrod, with its 100 species of its perennial presence, is rather pushy in the garden, thus some classify it as a weed. It attracts butterflies, and Native Americans used it for respiratory issues. Beyond that, its natural medicinal uses are a remedy for wounds, tuberculosis, and diabetes. Also, tea made from its leaves relieves symptoms of stress and depression.
Kudzu travelled here from Japan around the year 1800. This deciduous vine made itself at home growing at the astonishing rate of nearly a foot a day, making it ideal as ground cover. Much like legumes, it is a nitrogen fixer. If you’re worried about the spread of kudzu, keeping goats controls the spread as they are very fond of the young shoots and leaves.
People can eat this plant too. Leaves are eaten cooked, the roots dried and pulverized are used to thicken dishes, and the flowers make great jelly. To top this, the woody parts make great baskets. In Chinese medicine, kudzu is used to treat allergies, diarrhea, and migraine. Research is being performed to confirm its use in overcoming alcoholism.
Mint with its 30 distinct species and 500 varieties is another of the most abundant perennial weeds of the world. Native Americans and Ancient Greeks alike knew its benefits. Besides flavoring, chewed leaves provide micronutrients, such as calcium, magnesium, manganese, iron, and antioxidants. Mint is used in treating certain issues of upset stomach, nasal congestion, headache, colic, and boosts the immune system.
Plantain is mostly known for its fruit, a starchy, nutty, banana-like berry, but its veins can be used for sutures or fishing lines. The cousin of the fruit tree, the small common perennial Broadleaf Plantain, which grows well all over the world and has a remarkable medicinal value. It is known for boosting the immune system, and has anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antibiotic properties. One can use a clean minced leaf on hard-to-heal wounds.
Stinging Nettle has been known as a fiber-producing plant for thousands of years, especially in the parts of the world where cotton will not grow. It is one of the richest sources of chlorophyl, vitamins (especially vitamin C) as well as minerals (calcium, iron). Urtification — or flogging with stinging nettle — promotes circulation.
Allegedly, Roman soldiers brought this herbaceous perennial to the Great Britain Island to treat their tired legs after days of marching in damp weather. Urtification is still practiced as a successful treatment of rheumatic pains. Today, stinging nettle treats high blood pressure, urinary tract infections, skin eruptions, and freeze-dried leaves are used as a treatment for hay fever and allergies.
Wild Strawberry is quite invasive because it grows runners (stolons) under the soil very fast and the apical daughter plants root easily. The whole plant is edible and rich with micronutrients. Its most important medicinal values lie in anticoagulant and antiseptic properties and in reducing fever. Poultices made from the leaves treat boils, burns, insect bites, and ringworm.
Yarrow is a peppery addition to salads. The oil is an insect repellant, while the leaves if chewed alleviate toothache. A tea made from yarrow leaves alleviates common cold symptoms.