Weeding Out

A classic weedy species – the common yellow dandelion – deliberately left to flower at The Farm Between in Jeffersonville, Vermont, to provide food for honeybees and other pollinators. Nearly every part of the dandelion is edible (and, just as important, palatable) at some point during the plant’s life cycle.

It’s hard to find someone with a kind words for weeds. Home owners pay big bucks to spray the dandelions out of their lawns. Farmers uproot them without mercy. And even in a crowd of people who care passionately about the minutiae of plants, you won’t find many fans. For better or worse, botanists focus on plants they consider “interesting”–which usually translates to “showy,” “rare,”, “obscure,” “native,” or some combination of the above. Weeds, almost by definition, belong to none of those groups. They literally slip through the cracks.

Instead, weeds tend towards the small, the quick, the omnipresent, with flowers that can be euphemistically “insignificant” at best, and downright ugly at worst. Like most of us, they tend to come from somewhere else, landing here by quirks of fate in search of a better life. They are also fantastically successful, dominating suburbs and cities, wetlands and waterways, farm fields and roadside right-of-ways with vim and vigor. Think about the last time you saw one. It was probably the last time you stepped outside, right?

But the conquest of the landscapes of our daily life comes at a steep price for so-called weeds. They are deeply, deeply, unpopular, easy targets to hate, subject to perpetual calls for total extermination sponsored by botanic gardens and pesticide manufacturers alike. Instead of being a gateway to the natural world, we refuse to celebrate their existence, no matter how many pollinators they host or “ecosystem services” they provide. No matter how many generations they’ve lived here, they will always be foreigners, perpetual outcasts, never quite fitting in. Weeds bring out our darker side – we spray, burn, cut, pull, curse. And still the weeds return.

So what is a weed, exactly? That depends on who you ask. Perhaps, like pornography, you know one when you see it. Perhaps it is the wrong plant in the wrong place, usually right where you don’t want it, or where you’d rather something else grew instead. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously called a weed “a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered”. Sometimes “invasive” is used interchangeably with “weed,” but that label’s not quite accurate: a scattering of dandelions doesn’t ruthlessly eliminate grass and clover the way that kudzu might smother trees. Most invasive species tend to be non-native, but that’s not always true, either: cattails are often considered to be weeds in wetlands, for example, and black locusts and blackberries can be “weedy” in park edges and power line right-of-ways.

In an attempt to eliminate confusion with all of these conflicting buzzwords, botanists invented a new one. Most of the classically weedy species are also “ruderal” – particularly well-adapted to thrive in disturbed areas. In other words, every time we plow a field or bulldoze a forest to build a subdivision, we are creating exactly the right habitat for these so-called weeds to thrive. We are subsidizing the very species we love to hate with most of our activities – and then getting frustrated when they respond so well to our efforts to destroy them! It’s a vicious cycle.

As it turns out, though, Emerson was onto something. The very qualities that we love to hate in weeds — their sheer ubiquity and tenacity — are the very qualities that make them useful to me as an urban forager. No matter where I am in the human-dominated landscape, no matter what I’m doing, I can usually spot at least one edible ruderal species to harvest in abundance. Perhaps it’s a crowd of garlic mustard in the forest understory. Burdock along the roadsides.  Japanese knotweed in the floodplain. Pigweed in the summer field. Even in places where collecting is ostensibly forbidden, no one thinks twice if you pull up a dandelion for a spring salad. Call it “weeding,” “invasive species removal,” or “dinner,” – everyone walks away feeling like a winner. Try and pull that stunt with a beloved native plant in a city park, and you can get into a lot of trouble.

It’s no secret that wild plants tend to be more nutritious than their cultivated cousins. In search of larger sizes or thicker skins to survive cross-country travel, we’ve inadvertently bred the taste and nutrients right out of most of our food plants. Just compare the taste and texture of a tiny wild New England strawberry to the supermarket behemoths, and you’ll get an idea of the intense changes that the horticultural whizzes have wrought. Sometimes that gets us wonders – sugary sweet corn, ruby-red grapefruits, tomatoes that can weather the apocalypse without bruising – but sometimes that leads us into trouble. What survives in the Darwinian system of our food supply may not always be the best of for us.

Forget the pricey supermarket superfoods from South America. The real wonders may be growing just outside your door – for those with the eyes to see them and the willingness to stop, listen, learn and harvest when the time is right. In permaculture circles, “waste” isn’t really waste – just a resource waiting to be tapped – and this transformation is especially vivid with weeds. Suddenly, that curly dock on the side of the road isn’t an ecological blight – it’s a literal free lunch, a garden you didn’t have to plant, tend or pay for.

On my part, I try to eat something wild at least once a week, just to add some spice and excitement to my life. Most of the time, that just means harvesting the chickweed, purslane, or lambsquarter coming up amidst my collards. and raspberries. Other times that means field trips to local farms and parks for a foraging tour. Although I make a point to always ask landowner permission, most of the time, people are happy to have these species gone, and seem surprised that I even bother to ask. Still, it’s good etiquette and a great conversation starter.

Foraging, of course, is not without its hazards. Like any human task, it functions best as part of a larger cultural framework, with hands-on learning and teaching-by-example to prevent mistakes that might cause harm. It’s important to be absolutely sure of your plant IDs because you’re literally betting your life on them – plants are “all natural” but that doesn’t mean necessarily mean “harmless”. And some challenges are situational: just because there’s chickweed growing out of the sidewalk crack or plantain in the sewer line right-of-way doesn’t mean that you should eat that particular plant. Herbicide sprays aren’t something you want on your salad, so not every place that weeds grow is a great place to harvest. But good judgement, common sense, trustworthy mentors and a healthy dose of experience has made me a comfortable.

Eating the weeds transformed my relationship with them. No longer are they nuisances to bemoan, ignore or eliminate. Suddenly, I’m happy to see them, even when I’m not particularly hungry – like encountering old friends or familiar faces in the landscape. Even if I don’t harvest them in the moment, it’s comforting to know that I could, and I feel the abundance all around me. What most people dismiss as trash has become my treasure. And, frankly, their loss is my gain. But given the sheer fecundity of weeds, I don’t think I’ll need to worry about running out soon. Even if “wild” dandelions become the next big health craze, I’m sure there will be more than enough for everyone.

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