“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Aldo Leopold. A Sand County Almanac, 1949.
“I like the plants that you call weeds,—
Sedge, hardhack, mullein, yarrow,–
Which knit their leaves and sift their seeds
Where any grassy wheel-track leads
Through country by-ways narrow.”
Weeds. The mere word turns my husband’s face into a scowl. He firmly believes that the only “grass” allowed to grow in his yard must be Tiff Green, Tiff 419 to be exact. It is the high maintenance species used on golf course greens. At the first sign of a wayward piece of bird seed sprouting in said grass, he is on the phone with the guy who has a tank full of herbicide on the back of his truck. I, on the other hand, prefer native grasses and flowers in the landscape, plants that attract and support wildlife like birds, butterflies, and bees. While this difference of opinion has spawned some entertaining banter for our children, our compromise has been that he gets his Tiff lawn, and I have a few special sections of the yard (in the back) to grow my milkweed, sunflowers, and Queen Anne’s lace.
Imagine then, his surprise, when one of the dreaded weeds of spring showed up center stage on our dinner table, nicely sautéed al dente in butter. After taking a guided nature hike with an ethnobotanist a few years ago, I took an interest in edible wild plants. Only last spring did I discover that the pretty flowering weed, henbit, that welcomes spring in waves of purple over untreated lawns, fields and roadsides, was not only edible, but highly nutritious and full of vitamins, iron, and fiber. I could not resist the temptation to serve up a bowl to my family.
Definition of Weeds
What defines a weed anyway? According to Penn State Extension, “A weed is a plant out of place, not intentionally sown, whose undesirable qualities outweigh its good points. Some crop plants can become weeds when they grow where they are not wanted. In contrast, a number of plants usually thought of as weeds may actually be helpful in controlling erosion or serving as food for wild animals
and birds.” Regardless of our perspectives on what separates a weed from a desirable plant, this is an easy and helpful topic for nature study. There is certainly no shortage of these prolific invaders of our gardens, fields, and forests, and children should learn to identify the plants that grow in their area, along with their benefits and disadvantages.
Poison ivy, for instance, is definitely a weed when in the path of our skin, and therefore it is one of the first plants children should learn to recognize and avoid. Animals and birds, however, are not adversely affected by urushiol, the toxin that causes the itchy rash on people. In fact, over sixty species of birds are known to eat the whitish fruits of the poison ivy plant, especially in winter when other food sources are scarce. Deer dine on the fruits and foliage, and cottontail rabbits eat the twigs and bark. Milkweed is the primary food source for monarch butterflies, but on range land, it is toxic to livestock.
Weeds Worth Collecting
Finding a few weeds for this study can be easily accomplished close to home. Winter perennials such as creeping charlie and the charming yellow dandelions that little children love to present to moms in bouquets can be found in early spring. Henbit and common chickweed are winter annuals that can be found before the last freeze. Work with whatever you have available. We identify the specimen first, and then collect samples for pressing. After drying between layers of cardboard and paper towels or newspaper for a few weeks, they make lovely herbarium specimens. When putting my collections into the plant press, I include a note card with the common and scientific name of the plant, the date, and the location where it was collected so this information can later be transferred to the page where the specimen is displayed. For fun, I usually include a few notes about who was with me when we collected the plant. Blogger Niki Lawrence describes the process of creating herbariums as…” exciting and rewarding, as each plant you press provides you with a valuable experience, allowing you to connect more closely with the plant through observing and working with it, and helping you to understand and remember it in a way that is never possible from just reading about it in a book. It consists of a three part process – collecting the plant material, pressing & drying, and mounting.”
The adventurous forager seeking a “personal connection” with the weeds might serve them in a salad or as a cooked side dish. Incidentally, all of the above named weeds are edible and nutritious, except, of course, poison ivy. After all, if you can’t beat the weeds, eat the weeds. Just be prepared for the jokes about bringing new meaning to the term “weed eater”.
Disclaimer: Be vigilant and careful when collecting and processing any wild plant for consumption. Get help from an expert to identify the plant beyond a doubt.
Identify weeds of Oklahoma:
How to identify poison ivy in all seasons:
- Handbook of Nature Study, pgs. 512-545
- Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Bradford Angier
- The Book of Weeds by Kenneth Thompson
- Weeds Find a Way by Cindy Jenson-Elliott
- A Feast of Weeds: A Literary Guide to Foraging and Cooking Wild Edible Plants by Luigi Ballerini