Although defined as “a valueless plant growing wild” (as per Dictionary.com), weeds can be generously utilitarian: offering food, medicine, cultural enrichment and even a method of cleansing soils from toxic heavy metals.
The full definition of a weed is a “plant that grows where it is not wanted“. Essentially weeds create a problem for humans attempting to exert control over a garden or field, and are defined according to this nuisance. In our quests for neatness, production or achieving great yields, we are blinded to the remarkable nature of weeds.
Weeds simply grow. Wild, unplanted and without warning. They pop up, like a disruptive garden exhibit. There’s something very exciting about that.
Interestingly, coinciding with the seasonal arrival of many medicinal weed species is the human bodies’ seasonal need for a certain nutrient boost or tonic support for particular organ system, such as an additional boost of Vitamin C at the end of Winter, or the array of traditional cleansing herbs in the Spring. This seasonal alignment is another testimony to the benefits of eating seasonally.
Dandelion – a most generous weed
I’d like to highlight the remarkable Dandelion. It’s common name is taken from the French that refers to the leaf structure thought to resemble a lion’s tooth. It grows well around much of the year, but really comes into bloom in the Spring and Summer, and can be found all around the globe.
Taraxacum officinalis is the Latin name of the medicinal species.
More than likely, you have once closed your eyes and made a wish while blowing a dandelion seed puff ball into the wind. And someone has probably checked out “if you like butter” by seeing the reflection of the yellow flower under your chin (everyone likes butter!).
Dandelion has added magic to many childhoods.
Health benefits of Dandelion
Therapeutically, Taraxacum offers a bounty. The white sap from dandelion flower stem can be squeezed out and applied directly to warts every day to make them disappear.
Its long taproot acts on the gall bladder and liver, and helps stimulate the flow of bile through the hepatic system, acting as a ‘tonic’ to liver and gall function. This action can help move constipated bowels. The bile excretion helps to draw out fat-soluble toxins from the body (when sufficient fibre is on board), stimulates digestion and also enhances appetite.
Its feathery leaves acts in a similar way to the root, but with gentler effect. It also has a great effect on the kidney, increasing urine excretion (a diuretic action). Unlike pharmaceutical diuretics, dandelion leaf is rich in minerals, including potassium, so it preserves the body’s mineral balance, whilst reducing excess fluids that are often associated with swelling from premenstrual irregularities and congestive heart failure. When using herbs for medical purposes, please consult with a trained herbalist to ensure your needs are appropriately and safely addressed.
Dandelion as food
Dandelion offers an exotic edge to daily food and beverage intake, and a nutritional bonus of minerals and vitamins.
The roasted root makes a delicious warm drink. It can be drunk black, or with oat milk and honey, or blended with other herbs. Fennel, liquorice root and dandelion root is a favourite blend. Dandelion leaves can be eaten. The newer, tastier leaves can be included in salads. More mature leaves can replace, or partly replace, spinach in cooking a spanokopita or stir-fry. I throw in a few dandelion leaves into tabouli and salsa verde recipes too. I generally only use a few however, to ensure the bitter taste isn’t too overpowering.
Dandelion can also play a role in detoxifying soil polluted by heavy metals. This process is called phyto-remediation (using plants to regenerate polluted soils) and dandelion is one of many plants that effectively takes up lead and other heavy metals in polluted soils. This is one of Earth’s methods for self cleansing. It’s a pertinent reminder to ensure the dandelion you are using is grown organically – in soils that have been cultured and are alive and well. It also illustrates how many minerals dandelion’s root and plant are capable of taking up out of the soil. An additional benefit of the deep tap root is its capacity to bring deeper minerals into the top soil.
Rich bounty in weeds
It’s not just dandelion that offers a potential rich bounty. Other ‘weeds’ include cleavers, sorrel, chickweed, plantain, fennel, nettles, oxalis, purslane, mallow, fat hen, angled onion and amaranth, just to name a few. All of these can provide us with nutrition, healing and creative engagement in some form.
We can reclaim the traditional knowledge of the plants that live alongside us, and begin to see them in a new way.
Here’s a new definition for weeds to try on; one that seems a little more appropriate today:
“Weeds are pop-up plants that delight the watchful eye, and can bestow a great many treasures – culinary, therapeutic, cultural, environmental, aesthetic – and inspire awe of our natural world.”
Sally Mathrick runs weed walks on a regular basis.
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