Ah, the sun is out, the grass and trees are finally green. What a blissful time to be outside, to garden and take care of a little patch of earth. Your perennials have woken up from their winter slumbers, and you’re getting your first crops in the ground. Things are verdant and glorious, and it is a wonder to be alive in the sunshine and fresh air and birdsong. It’s time to plant some annuals, mulch some garden beds, and, inevitably, deal with weeds.
Now, to be fair, a weed is nothing more than a plant that grows where you don’t want it to be growing. My oregano, for instance, is something that I remove weeds from in one section of my garden, and then it itself is a weed when it is encroaching on another plant’s turf. Many perfectly useful plants are pulled from garden beds and yards because they are in the wrong place. And that’s fine. When we landscape, we make choices about what plants we want where.
But those weeds don’t need to go to waste – in fact, many of them can be healthful and delicious. If you keep an organic yard (without using pesticides or chemical fertilizers) you should be on the lookout for some of these tasty spring treats to add a little wild and healthy flair to your cooking.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
This prickly plant is a delicious, highly nutritive herb that is useful for building the blood and strengthening the body. It has been a spring food for centuries, believed to invigorate and cleanse. It does have little barbs, as shown, which can easily poke you and give you a little welt that itches for a bit.
The pain is brief and minimal, and there is some evidence that the pokes can be beneficial for the body – there was an ancient practice called urtification where people would flog themselves with nettles for relief from afflictions. We’re not suggesting you flog yourself, but don’t be nervous if you get a prick or two when you harvest these. Fortunately, when you steam the leaves for a few minutes, the prickers are deactivated and the nettles become this richly flavored vegetable. The texture may seem a little unusual at first, but the taste is so delicious, due to the high mineral content. You want to eat nettle, like many wild greens, before it flowers and goes to seed, so it generally is only considered very edible in the spring. A seasonal treat!
This super invasive plant happens to be super delicious! It is an early spring plant, and can be eaten as leaves or when flowering. It has a yummy pungent garlic flavor that I’ve heard makes a great pesto. Plus, as it talks about in this article, Garlic Mustard is a plant that you can harvest without any worries about sustainability. It is incredibly prolific, and indeed, by making a thorough harvest, you are helping the native plants in the ecosystem to ward off this invader. Sounds like a tasty plan!
Plantain (Plantago spp.)
We're not talking about the relative of the banana used in Caribbean and other cuisines. Plantain is a super common herb that, while very healthy, is generally not used as a vegetable per se. But this herb is a great powerhouse of healing. If you are pulling it from your pathways, for instance (plantains, like many “weeds”, like disturbed soil), dust the dirt off a couple leaves, pop them in your mouth and chew, swallowing the juice but spitting out the fibrous pulp after a while. Plantain juice is great for the gastrointestinal tract. It might also be a good plan to keep a couple plantain about, if you can– a chewed up plantain leaf is great first aid for bug bites and bee stings.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officionale)
This sunny yellow flower is cheerful and abundant – and useful in many ways. The easiest way to use dandelion is to eat the young spring leaves sprinkled in a salad. By eating them young, they are more tender and less bitter than when they are bigger. The flowers can be collected and used to make dandelion wine, or eaten as well (avoiding the bitter green base of the flower). The roots can be dug and tinctured (preserved in alcohol) or dried. Dandelion root is a good support herb for the liver, gallbladder and kidneys.
Other common “weeds” you might have around that are secretly useful plants include purslane, oxalis, sheep sorrel, and burdock. Always make sure to use an identification guide or ask someone knowledgeable if you are unsure of what these plants look like.
Learn about the green allies that surround you, and then go forth confidently to reap their benefits instead of just tossing them in the compost. Once you have made their acquaintance, these “weeds” might just become friends you look forward to each spring - yet another way that we can connect to this amazing planet of ours.