I spent an entire day last week planting weeds. I call them weeds because they are better known as a weed than as a valuable garden plant. But one gardener’s weed is another gardener’s treasure and that is what we are here to discuss today.
When I became interested in Old World or Medicinal Herbs I had to ponder the frequency of the term ‘wort’ in the names of plants: St. John’s Wort, Rupturewort, Motherwort, Mugwort, Spiderwort, Lungwort, Dropwort, and – my favorite! – Laserwort (Saposhinikovia divaricate). a Chinese herb closely related to parsley.
The word ‘wort’ means many things, but it means ‘weed’. Those particular plants were in use for a long time and were selected either by gatherers or gardeners. In general, though, a weed is a plant out of place; a plant that interferes with the objectives of agriculture or forestry. Maybe a weed is a plant whose value has not yet been recognized or possibly a plant whose value has long been forgotten.
Take the DANDELION. My grandmother cursed its presence in her yard and garden. She tried to pull them before they set those lovely little puff balls of seeds.
My cousin’s grandmother went searching for them in the early morning and forked them up, roots and all, to cook up as greens for her midday meal. Same plant. Different grandmothers.
The dandelion that these grandmothers were dealing with (Taraxacum officinale) was actually brought to the United States by European settlers as a prized salad green. The dandelion that we offer as a garden plant is a different plant altogether. It’s a chickory that can be eaten raw in salad, cooked in soups and stews, fed to tortoises and rabbits without worry, or the root can be dried and stewed into an ersatz ‘coffee’ drink during times of civil war.
PURSLANE or Verdolaga. (Portulaca oleracea) This is a low-growing succulent plant that can make you crazy if it is not a plant you want in your garden and if it is very happy there. If you do not have chickens, and if the plant is not otherwise inhibited, it can create an amazing mass of stems and leaves that are difficult to eradicate. I love the taste of this plant and there are lovely European varieties that are easier to harvest. We offer a green and a gold variety than can be grown until frost kills it.
EPAZOTE (Dysphemia ambrosioides) in the herb world there is a term – GRAS – meaning “Generally Accepted as Safe”. Epazote is not one of those herbs. However, Epazote has been used for thousands of years as a compliment to bean dishes and is believed to help in bean digestion, eliminating gas build up. Also, it is said to help expel worms from the intestines of youngsters who say they hate the taste! It does have an uncomfortable aroma at first as a fresh plant but the dried and cooked versions taste and smell different and add flavor and aroma to bean dishes.
We have offered Epazote for a number of years and have just added a new ‘red’ variety. It’s never too late to plant Epazote.
STINGING NETTLE (Urtica dioca) is a perennial plant that we only have on hand for a short time in the spring. It is too hard to handle in the greenhouse once it develops the stinging hairs on its stem and leaves but once harvested, those stingers melt away in the cooking or steaming process. Nettle in highly nutritious and can be managed in the garden. Wear gloves; use tongs.
MORA PLANTA (Solanum nigrum) is a beloved plant in Central and South America and grows nicely here in partial shade. In El Salvador, the Mora is used in soups and also as an ingredient in pupusas, the national dish. It grows like a weed in our coastal climate and is easy to maintain.
PLANTAIN (Plantago major) is a weed that you have in your yard. It is so unassuming that you probably don’t even bother to stoop down and pull it up. And as you step over it to tend to your garden, you are actually ignoring a plant that has more food value than many of the plants you are cultivating. It is the young leaves that you want to harvest for eating raw in salads.
MINER’S LETTUCE (Claytonia perfoliata) is a great spring tonic and is easily foraged in woodlands and in partial shade. It is one of the first edible plants to appear and is loaded with Vitamin C. Named Miner’s Lettuce because those fellows understood its value in preventing scurvy. It loves a cool, damp environment and is probably not a plant you can find this time of year; but remember it in March!