Weeds can have a negative connotation in nature, considered to be invasive, over-run and under valued. Despite the quantity of wild weeds that can be cultivated each year, it is not commonly practiced.
There is a social stigma associated with them and in recent years the basic understanding of their benefits, uses, and applications have been lost. Even for those who recognize the importance of them often purchase them as bulk dried herbs not realizing they can be found in their back yard!
It is important, however, to understand there are real risks associated with foraging. Many herbs contain volatile oils, and if touched can irritate, burn, or instigate an autoimmune reaction. If you are not familiar with a particular plant, do not handle it. If you have an interest to learn, read on and continue to familiarize yourself with the following weeds.
Dandelion — Taraxacum officinalis
Typically recognized as a noxious weed, dandelion is either highly revered or despised. It is very common and known for its bright yellow flower that turns into a white-seeded globe. The 'war-on-weeds' targets dandelions on a regular basis and is actively attempted to be eradicated from lawns. The use of pesticides and herbicides can be used so it is important to avoid picking them in residential areas or parks where these compounds may be used regularly.
The whole plant is edible and its health benefits are staggering. The leaves act as a diuretic, liver and digestive tonic, while the roots help to promote bile flow and detoxification. Harvest throughout the growing season during it’s various stages. During the spring and summer, pick the leaves for salad or juice. In the fall pull up the roots and make a decoction or tincture.
Milk Thistle — Silybum marianum
This prickly plant needs to be handled with care. Milk thistle is apart of the thistle family and contains a chemical compound called silymarin, used for centuries as a natural remedy for the liver and biliary tract. Silymarin and its active constituent, silybin, also works as an antioxidant, negating the effects of free radical damage in the body. It is a great tonic often used to increase appetite and assist with digestion.
The young stalk, leaves, roots, and flowers can be eaten. Just be careful to remove the sharp spines before consumption. Silymarin is extracted from its seeds, which are also edible. At the end of summer and fall, collect them and use them just as you would flax seeds. Grind them into powder and add to smoothies and cereals. To enhance the flavour, lightly toast and add to baked goods.
Marshmallow Root — Althaea officinalis
A personal favourite, this perennial will flower all summer long. Marshmallow roots are very mucilaginous and was traditionally used as a dessert —marshmallow’s original ingredient. When made into a decoction, its properties help calm gastro-intestinal complaints, including inflammation, mucous membrane irritation, and ulcerations.
The leaves can be infused or made into ointments and used for urinary and bronchial conditions. The flowers are edible and can be infused or made into syrup.
Stinging Nettle — Urtica dioica
This perennial herb spreads by rhizomes and is often know as an invasive weed. When handled, it will sting you, but don't let that deter you. Its numerous health benefits definitely out way the risk. Simply wear gloves when handling this weed. It has been used for centuries to slow down internal and external bleeding and it revered as a blood purifier. The leaves and stems are best infused in tea and drank to reduce skin irritation, mucus congestion and stimulate digestive glands. Rich in vitamin A, C, E, K, B's and mineral's zinc, calcium, magnesium, iron, and selenium to name a few, this weed is a powerhouse of nutrition.
In the early spring gather nettles, rinse and steam for 20 minutes before seasoning with butter salt and pepper. If you do accidently touch the plant, break a part of the steam and press the juice on the exposed skin and it will stop the irritation.
Burdock — Arctium lappa
In the summertime, burrs commonly catch on clothes, which makes identifying burdock relatively easy. Burrs however only show on second year burdock. First year burdock is a little harder to recognize, but its large low-laying broad-leaves without a stem are unmistakable features. The majority of nutritional benefits come from the burdock root that should only be harvested in the first year. The root contains inulin, a type of beneficial fibre. Inulin acts as a prebiotic that will help promote the growth of bifidobacteria in the large intestine. These bacteria are essential for a healthy gut, which will support the digestive and immune system.
First year roots should be scrubbed and peeled and then boiled for 20 minutes. Reserve the water and drink as tea and season and cook the root based on your tastes and preferences.
Who knew weeds could be so healthy! This spring, explore your backyard and local nature-areas and see how many of these weeds you can identify!