***PLEASE NOTE: This is the handout provided to attendees at the 2014 Organic Growers School Spring Conference class Backyard Weeds with Juliet Blankespoor of Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine . While it was intended to be read in conjunction with the speaker’s presentation, we believe it can still be a great resource. Enjoy!***
The Plants that Grow In-between- the Backyard “Weeds”
Organic Growers School – 2014
One of the many joys of springtime is the welcome return of so many treasured plant allies. Many of these exuberantly abundant herbs are maligned as “weeds”—the mere sight of their presence inspires farmers and homeowners alike to reach for the herbicide. I propose that our culture radically alters our perception of these opportunistic plants. Edible weeds are a huge untapped resource in cities, home gardens and farms. Many people living in urban areas do not have access to fresh vegetables—they could learn how to use these free-for-the-picking wild foods and medicines. Widespread “weedivory” would hopefully inspire homeowners and government officials to stop spraying lawns and public green spaces.
Chickweed (Stellaria media, Caryophyllaceae) is one of my oldest green friends—we became aquatinted over two decades ago, and I am still enamored. This weed is beloved among wild foods enthusiasts for its succulent mild flavor, which lends itself nicely to salads, pesto, and as a garnish. It is also a gentle medicinal, safe for babies and elders alike. Chickweed is a low-growing annual, which bears smooth paired leaves (botanically, we call this opposite leaves) with no teeth. The leaves are generally as big as a pinky nail, but given enough nitrogen and moisture, they can grow much larger. Chickweed hugs the soil, or clambers over rocks or neighboring plants. Its stem is green or reddish, and never woody, as it is an annual. The flowers grow in small clusters and resemble diminutive white stars. They appear to have ten petals, but are actually five petals so deeply cleft that they appear to be ten separate petals.
Chickweed also has a unique identification clue: hold a bit of chickweed up to sunlight and you will see a single line of white hairs traveling up the stem. You may need to twirl the stem a bit to see this characteristic. Notice how the hairs travel in a straight line along the stem, in between the leaves. However, the line switches positions on the stem at the leaf juncture, giving the hairs a spiraling or candy-cane-like appearance. It sounds more confusing that it really is. Go have a look at a chickweed stem, if possible, and it will become crystal clear. Note that this line of hairs is unusual, but there are undoubtedly other plants bearing this trait. It is imperative to combine all of the above characteristics for proper characteristics.
Chickweed’s close relative, the mouse-ear chickweed (Cerastium fontanum, Caryophyllaceae) is quite similar in appearance, grows in similar habitats, and can be found throughout the US. Mouse-ear chickweed is hairier and coarser than chickweed; it is also edible, although not as tasty. They can readily be told apart by the fact that mouse-ear chickweed has stems that are completely surrounded by hairs. Chickweed is often found growing with the non-edible Persian speedwell (Vernoica persica, Plantaginaceae), and many people confuse the two. Speedwell has blue flowers with four petals, coarsely toothed leaves, and stems that lack the single line of hairs. Persian speedwell is not edible, to my knowledge. Another look-alike is scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis, Myrsinaceae), which has peach-colored flowers and also lacks the telltale single line of hairs. It is essential to properly identify any plant before you harvest it for food or medicine. If in doubt, do not harvest! Consult your local extension agent, master gardener, or trusted herbalist if you need help with identification.
Chickweed can be found in old manure and compost piles, gardens, sidewalks, and along trails. It grows in full sun or part shade, depending on the season and bioregion. Chickweed is native to temperate Eurasia and is accustomed to cool moist weather; it shies away from the full summer sun in hotter climates. In milder regions, chickweed can be found all throughout the winter or in very early spring. Here in the southern Appalachians, chickweed has two major appearances: early spring and fall. Take care to only harvest it where you know nobody has sprayed herbicide. It is also important to avoid gathering plants near roads and railroads, as the surrounding soil is typically contaminated with lead and other toxins. If you live in the city, consider visiting a local organic urban farm or community gardens, where you are likely to find an abundance of chickweed (and some of the other herbs in this article), along with gardeners who are happy to share the bounty.
I harvest chickweed with scissors, cutting back the top few tender inches, which will generally include some leaves, flowers, flower buds and stem, all of which are edible and tasty. After receiving a “haircut”, the plant will grow tender new shoots, making it possible to repeatedly cut chickweed until it gets too leggy and chewy. Try not to cut below the top few inches, as these lower portions are quite fibrous—eating them will force your jaws into working overtime and leave you feeling like a cow. Look for densely growing patches of chickweed; the neighboring stems hold each other up, making the “haircut” harvesting method much easier and quicker than harvesting lone plants, which have a more splayed, low-growing habit.
Once in the kitchen, the greens can be rinsed and chopped coarsely, stems, leaves, and flowers alike. Chickweed is tasty enough to use as a salad base, or it can be added to lettuce with other wild greens, such as violet and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale, Asteraceae). I use the chopped greens in lieu of lettuce on sandwiches and wraps. One of my all-time favorite ways to enjoy its tender tasty leaves is in pesto. Try substituting chickweed for basil in your favorite pesto recipe. We use this wild pesto to dress up pizza and pasta; additionally, we enjoy it as a dip for raw veggies and crackers. I make a big batch and freeze the excess in ice cube trays to enjoy chickweed pesto year-round. Because chickweed’s flavor is so mild, it makes an excellent base for more pungent or bitter greens, such as garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata, Brassicaceae) and dandelion greens. You can steam or sauté chickweed, but I generally enjoy it raw as it cooks down substantially. Here is my recipe for a pesto made with creasy greens, wild turnip and chickweed.
Chickweed is easy to digest and high in vitamins and minerals, and thus is often prepared as a first food after a long illness or stomach flu. It also has a reputation as a diet herb, and many people swear by it as an ally in weight loss. It is typically eaten or prepared as a tea for this purpose, although some people have reported good results with the tincture. To my knowledge, no studies have been performed on chickweed for this use. It is a diuretic, and perhaps it works by optimizing cellular metabolism. In any case, the fiber is a welcome addition to most Americans’ diet. Like all leafy greens, chickweed bulks up a meal, while adding very little calories. According to John Kallas, of the Institute for the Study of Wild Plants, chickweed is higher in iron and zinc than any of the commonly cultivated greens, such as spinach, collards and kale.
Medicinally, chickweed is cooling, soothing and anti-inflammatory. It is used topically in salves, herbal oils, poultices and compresses. Internally, it can be used as a tea or in capsules. Some of chickweed’s nutritive qualities are wasted in tincture, as the alcohol doesn’t effectively extract minerals or mucilage; for this reason I generally don’t recommend chickweed tincture. It is considered a blood cleanser and tonic strengthening herb, especially after a long convalescence. The high levels of iron makes chickweed a powerful ally in iron-deficiency anemia; it can be ingested liberally as a food or in tea to help build blood. Chickweed tea is often recommended as a daily tonic, along with red clover (Trifolium pratense, Fabaceae) and burdock (Arctium lappa and A. minus, Asteraceae), for acne, psoriasis, and eczema. With its soothing cooling nature, it is a common ingredient in herbal heartburn remedies, and equally beneficial for sore throats. Topically, chickweed is applied as a poultice or compress for conjunctivitis, rashes, chicken pox, poison ivy, contact dermatitis, and eczema.
One of chickweed’s frequent companions is the common blue violet (Viola sororia, Violaceae), which is native to most of central and eastern North America. It is a common sight in lawns, gardens, trailsides and sidewalk cracks. The common blue violet is typically considered a “weed” because of its relative ease in adapting to human disturbance, but it is actually native to North America. The leaves and flowers of the common blue violet are edible and medicinal. The “confederate violet” is a cultivar (cultivated variety) of Viola sororia –it has white flowers with blue streaks, and is a common inhabitant of lawns in the southeastern US. The Viola genus contains around 550 species, mostly found in the temperate climates of the world. Many species of violet are used similarly to the common blue violet. Most wild foods authors report that the blue and white flowered species of violet are all edible, but not the yellow flowered species. Other authors write that all species are serviceable. I notice that the leaves of some of the wild violets have an unpleasant soapy flavor, which leaves a funny feeling at the back of my throat; this is most likely from high levels of saponins. I avoid these plants, and instead go for the milder tasting species. Some woodland species of violet are rare and should not be disturbed. A good course of action might be to identify the common species of violet in your area and then research their edibility and/or traditional medicinal usage. Violet’s heart-shaped leaves and characteristic irregular flowers are a familiar site to most of you. Children seem to have a special affinity for this charismatic group of plants; perhaps its bright flowers are well within their reach. Violets actually have many look-alikes, many of which are inedible or poisonous; so only harvest it when the flowers are present and you are 100% sure you have a violet. See the comments in the chickweed section of this article, regarding general cautions on harvesting and proper identification, applicable for all wild plants.
Violet is cooling and moistening, and is used internally as a blood cleanser and lymphatic stimulant. It is taken as a tea or syrup, and can also be eaten for its medicine. The exact dosage is not especially important since it can safely be consumed in large quantities. As a gentle food herb, violet is generally safe for elders, youngsters, and people who are taking pharmaceuticals. Violet has a rich tradition in Europe, where it has been used for centuries as a pulmonary remedy for dry hacking cough. It is often recommended for bronchitis and whooping cough, along with the roots of marshmallow (Althaea officinalis, Malvaceae) and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra, Fabaceae). Violet can also be used as a tonic for chronically swollen lymph nodes. As with many other herbs with an action on the lymphatic system, it has a long tradition of use in the treatment of cancer. Topically, violet is used as a poultice, compress, infused oil and salve in the treatment of dry or chaffed skin, eczema, varicose veins and hemorrhoids. It is cooling, soothing and anti-inflammatory.
I enjoy violet leaves and flowers in salad, pesto and in sandwiches and wraps. The leaves can be harvested with scissors, as described earlier for chickweed. Violet can be picked multiple times throughout the spring until the leaves become too fibrous. It will often make a comeback in the fall, with a flush of tender new growth. Violet leaves can be sautéed or steamed; add them to soups as a nutrient-dense thickener. The flowers make a lovely garnish—we sprinkle them on salads and add them to cakes and pancakes. Violet flowers are often candied or frozen into ice cubes.
Violet leaves contain a good bit of mucilage, or soluble fiber, and thus are helpful in lowering cholesterol levels (similar to oatmeal). Soluble fiber is also helpful in restoring healthy populations of intestinal flora, as beneficial bacteria feed off of this type fiber. The leaves are high in Vitamins A and C, and rutin, which is a glycoside of the flavonoid quercitin. Rutin has been shown in animal and in vitro studies to be anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and blood thinning. Many foods that are high in rutin, such as buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum, Polygonaceae), are eaten traditionally as a remedy for hemorrhoids and varicose veins. Violet has been used for centuries as a topical treatment for varicosities; given its high nutrient level and safety, it seems reasonable to try it internally as well for this purpose. The roots of most violet species can cause nausea and vomiting, and should not be eaten.
Dandelion’s (Taraxacum officinale, Asteraceae) familiar cheery flowers punctuate the green expanse of lawns, gardens and fields in the early spring with their exuberance and tenacity. It has always surprised me how hard humans hold to the futile goal of eradicating this effusive sunshine-flowered weed. If only they held to the ancient adage: If you can’t beat it, just eat it! All parts of dandelion are edible and medicinal.
Dandelion root is used medicinally as a liver and blood tonic, to aid in conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, acne and hives. The root is also commonly taken with female reproductive herbal tonics to aid the liver in metabolizing and excreting excess hormones. Accordingly, dandelion is frequently used in formulas as a daily remedy to help with menstrual cramps, cyclic breast tenderness, PMS, ovarian cysts and fibromyalgia. The fall-dug root is high in inulin, which is a polysaccharide that is non-digestible for humans. Inulin is helpful for reestablishing healthy populations of intestinal flora because bacteria feed off of it. The term used to describe a food which directly nourishes intestinal bacteria is prebiotic. Inulin, not to be confused with insulin, can also help moderate blood sugar levels. The root is a gentle laxative, which works to stimulate digestive activity, and can be used tonically in chronic constipation, as it is non-habit forming and generally very safe.
The leaves of dandelion are very high in calcium and iron, and they are a better source of Vitamin E than most greens. The leaves are used in tea as a potassium-sparing diuretic for reducing edema (water-retention) and helping to lower blood pressure. The leaves, through their diuretic effect, help prevent kidney stones and urinary tract infections. The root is also diuretic, but to a lesser extent. One of the French names for dandelion- piss-en-lit – means pee-in-bed, is a testimony to the plant’s diuretic qualities. The tender spring greens are edible, both raw and cooked. Dandelion greens can be mixed with milder greens in salads, or steamed with other vegetables. A popular southern dandelion dish is prepared by pouring bacon grease over the greens, which wilts them and makes them less bitter. As the season progresses, the greens become even more bitter, and are best picked for medicine. The roots can be harvested in spring, washed, chopped finely, and roasted with other root vegetables. Dandelion roots are roasted to make a delicious coffee substitute. My daughter loves to drink roasted dandelion root with a little milk and honey, and feels very grownup drinking herbal “coffee”.
What we commonly think of as dandelion “flowers” are actually a composite of hundreds of minute individual flowers, or florets. Each little strap-like “petal” is actually a flower in its own right, with all its respective reproductive parts. Interestingly, most dandelions produce seeds through asexual reproduction, which is to say that the seeds are clones of their parents. It is notable that we usually think of a species being strengthened by a large gene pool (high degree of genetic diversity within the species), but dandelion plants are obviously doing just fine, despite their sameness.
Dandelion florets can be pulled off the green base of the flower head, and sprinkled onto salads. We also use the yellow splashes of color as a garnish for quiche, in herbed goat cheese, and on birthday cakes. The whole flower heads can be dibbed in batter and fried as fritters or tempura. This is obviously not the healthiest dish, but it certainly is a yummy treat for special occasions.
Cleavers (Galium aparine, Rubiaceae) is in the same plant family as coffee and madder (a traditional red dye plant). It has whorled leaves, which means that its leaves form a circle around the stem. The leaves have recurved hairs, which stick to clothing or fur like Velcro, appearing to “cleave” to the wearer. Cleavers are edible, but I learned the hard way not to eat them raw. I used to add it to salads until the ill-fated day my friend got a piece caught in the back of his throat: no matter how hard he swallowed, gargled, or groaned, the piece would not break free, as the recurved hairs lodged the morsel tight. Finally, after twelve hours, the tenacious tidbit was dislodged. Needless to say, cleavers was not going to be in my salad bowl any longer.
Cleavers is used medicinally to stimulate the lymphatic system and “cleanse” the blood. It is a traditional cancer remedy, and historically was one of the main herbs Europeans used to treat tumors and cancerous sores before the advent of chemotherapy and radiation. Cleavers are also used to help reduce swollen lymph nodes, brought about by infection or stagnation. It is considered cooling and anti-inflammatory. Since cleavers are so high in vitamins and minerals, it is traditionally taken as a tea or juice, rather than a tincture (alcohol extracts do not effectively extract minerals and vitamins). The leaves and stems can be juiced in a Vita-mix or wheat grass juicer, but be prepared – it does not yield much juice! The dosage is one half ounce to two ounces of juice daily. Some people get around the pesky hairs by making a cleavers “pill” – they simply roll the foliage between their fingers until it forms a little green ball. This renders the hairs harmless. Another way to take cleavers is to infuse it in vinegar. Simply cover the dried herb with vinegar in a mason jar, and let it sit for one month. Strain and use the vinegar as a base for salad dressings or add it to steamed greens.
Creasy greens (Barbarea verna, Brassicaceae), also known as wintercress, are a common weed in the southeast and the Pacific Northwest. Its close relative, Barbarea vulgaris, has a more widespread distribution, occurring throughout most of temperate North America. Here in the southern Appalachians, they grow side by side and I seriously doubt that many people pay attention to which species they are picking for food. They are both edible, and to my palette, taste identical. The number of lobes present in their basal leaves easily differentiates both species, with B. verna possessing 4-10 pairs of lateral lobes and B. vulgaris possessing 1-4 lobes.
Both species of wintercress are Eurasian natives, and can be found in fields, roadsides, and gardens. The leaves, flowers, and flower shoots are edible. It has a lively pungency when eaten raw as a zesty addition to a mixed baby green salad. When sautéed or steamed the greens mellow in flavor—many people prefer this wild green cooked for this reason. Winter cress grows more spicy and bitter as the season progresses; it can be added to milder cooked greens when its flavor begins to intensify. During the winter we find this plant in its basal rosette stage (all the leaves emerging from a central point on the ground with no erect stem). The leaves are smooth with rounded lobes, and have an obvious mustard-like aroma when the leaves are crushed. In the winter, depending on where you live, the older leaves can be quite fibrous and intense in flavor. Pick the tender new leaves all winter if you live in a southern climate, and if you live in colder country wait until very early spring to pick the succulent fresh greens. When the ground begins to warm, the plant sends up a flowering shoot that can be used like a mini broccoli or broccoli-raab while still young and tender. After the flowering stem begins to toughen, I simply use the bright yellow flowers to garnish salads and other dishes.
I hope you are inspired to get to know the wild plants of your neighborhood more, and that you learned something new about these familiar “weeds”.
Please do not publish or share without permission of the author:
Juliet Blankespoor – Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine
Blog Castanea – http://blog.chestnutherbs.com
Jenn Cloke, originally from Atlanta, has lived in Western North Carolina for since 2006 and wears her Appalachian mantle proudly. Jenn was the Communications Coordinator for Organic Growers School from 2012 to 2014. She and her family run a small farm at the foot of Cold Mountain.