If there is one unifying characteristic among the weeds of the world, it’s strength. Unlike many intentionally cultivated plants, weeds tend to be tolerant of the poorest growing conditions, which they transform into lush and fertile habitat. In this way, weeds are also alchemists – they take the worst and extract the best and the most from it. This bounty they generously offer us, if we’re open enough to accept it.
What’s considered a noxious weed in one place, or at one time in history, has often been a cultivated or wildcrafted species in another context, and many of the most common food crops today are separated from their weedy cousins by only minor genetic differences. Here are five of the strongest, most useful and – dare I say, inspiring – “weeds” on the planet.
The humble dandelion has a taproot capable of penetrating rock-hard clay, and even cracks in concrete, where little else will grow. From this root, they produce edible leaves that are packed with calcium, iron, vitamins A, B, C and D, as well as iron, calcium, potassium and zinc. The leaves are profoundly bitter, though it is a taste that is easily acquired for most who try to incorporate dandelion into their diet. Harvest them when young and chop them finely for use in salads, or use the mature leaves to make an extra-rich vegetarian soup stock. The roots themselves are not directly edible, but can be roasted and ground for use as a nutritious, non-caffeinated coffee substitute.
Not to be confused with the tropical, banana-like fruits of the same name, plantain weed (Plantago major and Plantago lanceolata in particular) may be the world’s second most common weed after dandelion and is equally useful. Like dandelion, it thrives in poor soil and extracts nutrients that are chemically locked up and unavailable for use by most plants. As a patch of plantain becomes established, those nutrients are released in the soil, benefitting the plants around them and leading to soft, fertile topsoil, where before was only a hard, sun-baked wasteland. Plantain leaves are edible and have quite a mild flavor in soups and salads, though only the very young leaves can be eaten raw: once the plant matures, the leaf fibers get very tough and stringy and only soften when cooked, like spinach. This is also one of the safest and most useful medicinal plants: a poultice of the crushed leaves is known in cultures all over the world for its power to relieve the pain and inflammation of bee stings and other bug bites.
Yellow dock grows in fields, roadsides, fields, and forests, and often shows up in disturbed areas alongside parking lots. This plant has a powerful taproot that is known to accumulate copious quantities of iron – so much that it can be used as a supplement for people suffering from most forms of anemia. Although it’s occasionally taken in powdered form, it’s most often taken as a tincture.
If you’d like to try making your own yellow dock tincture, you can follow the directions as laid out here. Ultimately, you just need to fill a mason jar with clean, finely chopped yellow dock root and add high-proof alcohol (at least 80-proof, vodka or brandy work best) until all the root bits are covered with the liquid. Let that mixture sit in a cupboard for at least a month for the alcohol to extract the active compounds, then decant into glass dropped bottles before using. 20 drops of the tincture taken once per day can be helpful for those deficient in iron. Additionally, the young leaves of yellow dock are edible and add a wonderfully tangy flavor to salads.
*Note: as mentioned in our previous article about tinctures, when it comes to working with any medicinal plant, it’s important to do research ahead of time to educate yourself about possible side effects, and/or contraindications they make have with medications you’re currently taking. Additionally, if you’re at all concerned about making your own tinctures, you can purchase them from health food stores or herbalists. If you’re foraging for medicinal plants and have any doubt whatsoever about the plant you’re gathering (as there are many lookalikes), it’s far safer to just buy a pre-made tincture instead.
This tap-rooted thistle is known for its burs, which like to get stuck in clothing, hair and animal fur. This trait can be annoying, but was actually the inspiration for Velcro; one of the earliest examples of biomimicry. Besides this novel modern use, burdock has an ancient history of use as a food and medicine. Medicinally, it has been used to treat everything from acne to indigestion. Food-wise, the root is used as a vegetable in many parts of the world. The Japanese call it gobo, and like to pickle it and eat it with sushi. It can be baked, roasted or boiled like any other root vegetable, and has an exquisite sweet and earthy flavor.
An excellent substitute for spinach, this plant grows on its own without any of the work needed to cultivate its more well-known counterpart. While North American and European gardeners are busy pulling it out of their vegetable beds, African, Asian, and Central American gardeners are more likely to cultivate it in theirs. In these regions there are many named varieties, some of which are cultivated for the leaves and others that are grown for their edible seeds. Common lamb’s quarters is actually a close relative to quinoa; the traditional grain consumed in the Andean highlands.
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