Weeds. Friend or Foe?
Every year, gardeners and landscapers spend thousands of dollars removing native flowers from their lawns and beds. These plants are then replaced with costly plants that are indigenous to other regions.
More money is spent pampering these plants to help them survive their new environment. Ironically, many of these specialty plants that require so much maintenance are considered weeds in their native habitat
What is A Weed?
A weed is defined as a wild plant growing where it is not wanted. By definition, a "weed" that is purposely cultivated in a garden is no longer a weed but a "native plant". This also means that cultivated plants that escape their gardens and become a nuisance in fields and pastures have become a "weed" (invasive species).
A prime example of this is kudzu. It was introduced in America at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It is now a ecological nightmare in the southern United States where it out-competes native vegetation and suffocates it. The harm that it does outweighs the fact that it is edible, has medicinal value, produces a usable fiber and can be used for making beauty products.
Ornamentals that are highly sought after for decorative flowerbeds, such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) considered troublesome, invasive "weeds". Switchgrass can devastate cotton crops if it is not contained.
Therefore the definition of a weed will often change from region to region, and gardener to gardener. Many common weeds can be easily controlled, propagated and harvested for their beneficial properties.
What is a beneficial weed?
A weed can be considered beneficial for many reasons. It can attract certain wildlife, such as birds, honeybees and butterflies.
It can have medicinal qualities, it can be used for cooking, or it can be used to make dye, paint, fiber, insulation, or alcoholic beverages. Some weeds are even on the aromatherapy list.
Weeds are also called beneficial if they can be used as a companion plant to domesticated flowers and vegetables. A companion plant is one that provides needed nutrients, breaks up hard soil, or repels certain pests to protect the more valuable plant.
Because of these reasons, it is easy to find seed packets that contain wildflowers. Many people like the way wildflowers look in nature or along the sides of the road, but ruthlessly spray the same plants with harmful herbicides if they appear in the yard.
The truth is, beneficial weeds are worth keeping. They are just as pretty (sometimes prettier) than purchased plants. Since they are native to your region, they are easy to grow and resistant to local weather patterns and pests.
Here are some weeds that make great 'pets':
Dandelions are one of the most misunderstood weeds in the yard. Even though they give us a cheerful yellow bloom (that looks similar to the marigold) most gardeners will not tolerate their presence.
If left alone, the dandelion bloom will mature into a cottony ball of seeds that easily float on the breeze and start new dandelions. This is why they are so hard to eradicate. If you are trying to grow dandelions, the seeds are easy to collect, but don't forget that the plant grows from its tubers too. If the root is divided into several pieces, each piece will grow a new plant.
Love them or hate them, dandelions are quite useful.
Medicinal benefits of Dandelion:
Diuretic (Tea from roots or leaves)
Lowers Blood Pressure
Helps regulate insulin absorption
Tones the liver and gall bladder
Increases lactation in breastfeeding mothers
Reduces inflammation and swelling
Works as a gentle laxative (roots)
Aides digestion and metabolism
Stimulates a weak appetite
Because of its detoxification benefits, dandelion can also help to cleanse the organs, which leads to reduced acne, eczema and other skin conditions.
Culinary Uses For Dandelion
Dandelion greens are a healthy addition to soups, salads, and stir-fries. According to USDA Bulletin #8, "Composition of Foods" (Haytowitz and Matthews 1984), dandelions rank as the 4th most nutritious green vegetable. The greens are loaded with nutrients, such as zinc, calcium, potassium, iron and magnesium. They also contain Vitamins B, A, D, and C.
The presence of these vitamins and minerals are responsible for the health benefits of the dandelion. The blossoms can be fermented and used to make homemade wine or to flavor cough syrup.
Dandelion in The Garden
The dandelion has some outdoor uses as well. The long taproot helps to break up hard soil and to bring up needed moisture for surrounding plants. Like many other weeds, dandelions can steal much needed nutrients from surrounding plants if they are too numerous. However, in small amounts they can help bring up nutrients that are too deep for the roots of other plants to access.
Plant dandelions next to tomato plants to help keep soil soft, moist, and nutritious. For weed control, collect the blossoms before they turn to seed.
Other Properties of Dandelion
On a more mystic note, dandelion is ruled by the Air, which makes it a lucky plant to air signs such as Libra, Gemini and Aries. It is the symbol of friendship and wit, and is used in matters of intellect and friendly relationships. If you make a wish and blow all of the seeds from a dandelion in one breath, your wish will come true. If you see a dandelion ball floating toward you it is considered a message from angels.
Milk weed is a favorite of butterflies. Some species such as the Monarch, use the plant as a host plant for the caterpillars. Therefore, milkweed is invaluable for those who love to watch butterflies, and it plays an important part in a delicate eco-system.
Medicinal Uses For Chickweed
Although Milkweed isn't commonly used in complementary medicine yet, it has its place in traditional folk remedies. Native Americans used this plant for treating heart and kidney conditions. It was also used as a contraceptive, and as a topical treatment for cuts, burns, warts, and boils.
Culinary Uses For Chickweed
Some milkweed varieties are considered toxic. Common milkweed though is quite edible. It in a favorite staple among those dedicated to a lifestyle of foraging for food. The flavor is described as being similar to green beans or asparagus. The shoots, flower pods, blossoms and shoots are all edible. Caution should be taken to correctly identify the plant before eating. If the plant is bitter, it is most likely not common milkweed.
Milkweed In The Garden
Milkweed, like dandelion helps to break up hard soil. It also repels army worms. It is the perfect companion plant to basil, as they repel each others common predators.
The fluff from the milkweed plant can be used in fiber arts. Over the years it has been used as insulation in homes and in clothing. The fiber can be spun to create a silky thread while the woody stems of certain varieties were used in Native American crafts, such as baskets.
During hard times, pioneer women used milkweed as quilt batting. During WWII the fluff was collected and used for making life vests for soldiers.
Milkweed is associated with Summer Solstice and can be used in protection spells.
A favorite plant of Southerners, the poke or polk plant is often regarded with suspicion. Many believe the plant to be highly poisonous, but the truth is the tender spring shoots are perfectly harmless, and delicious treat.
Known by the nickname Poke Sallet in many places, the polk plant is striking and unusual. The broad leaves are soft, the thick stems are bright pink and resemble bamboo. In the summer, the plant will produce bunches of small purple berries.
Despite the bad reputation, polk deserves a place in your yard or garden.
The polk plant has many medicinal uses, but it is not recommended that any of these remedies be used by someone unfamiliar with the plant or its potential side effects.
Properly prepared, the benefits include:
*treatment of arthritis
*Treatment for leukemia
Treatment for respiratory complaints
The fresh spring shoots of poke should be collected as early as possible. By the time the plant has three or more sets of leaves, the greens will be tough and slightly bitter. The older the plant the more inedible the leaves.
Young greens should not be eaten raw, but rather boiled twice with a change of water. A standard recipe involves boiling for five minutes, changing the water, then boiling five minutes more. Afterwards the greens are drained and squeezed and often sauteéd with onions, bacon, or eggs. They will have a similar texture to spinach, but the flavor is much richer with a buttery under taste.
The berries should not be eaten, however most audacious southern children have tried one or two. They are extremely bitter.
Polk berries make a beautiful purple ink or dye. The ink can be used on paper or fabric to create a startling pinkish-purple hue. The roots will produce a brilliant yellow dye when boiled.
Polk is used for courage. Carry a piece of the dried root in your pocket when you are facing a situation that requires bravery.
Common chickweed is an annual ground cover. It has pretty white flowers and soft leaves. It makes the perfect addition the garden, as it can be harvested and eaten all year.
Medicinal Properties of Chickweed
In folk medicine, chickweed is used to treat a host of maladies. When steeped in vinegar it can be a useful tincture to have around the house for cuts, scrapes, burns and skin irritations.
Modern herbalists may also prescribe chickweed for arthritis, bronchitis, and other inflammatory conditions.
Culinary Uses For Chickweed
Chickweed is highly edible, either raw or cooked. It is a popular addition to salads, soups, stir-fries, and sandwiches. Chickweed is rich in saponins, which can aid in weightloss. The greens themselves are rich in vitamins and minerals.
Chickweed In the Garden
As an addition the garden, chickweed can serve as mulch, keeping the roots of other plants cool. Since it is already planted, it is easy to harvest for use in the kitchen.
Other Properties of Chickweed
Chickweed is used to attract a lover and to maintain harmony in relationships.
Clover is a sweet addition the yard or garden. It creates a cool soft carpet of leaves, peppered with plump white blossoms. Who hasn't searched in a field of this soft plant in hopes of finding a four-leaf clover to carry for luck? It isn't just superstition...clover is very lucky for animals, humans and plants!
Medicinal Benefits of Clover
Red and white clover are both used in herbal preparations to combat a variety of disorders. Red clover is used to stablize hormone levels in women. White clover tea is used as a wash for wounds, as a treatment for cold, as a remedy for gout, and as a blood cleanser.
Culinary Uses For Clover
Clover leaves can be harvested when young and eaten raw or cooked in much the same way as spinach. They are a nutritious addition to the diet. The blooms can also be eaten, and are sometimes added to salads.
Clover In the Garden
Clover creates a lovely green lawn that can last through even the driest summer. As an added benefit, it produces nitrogen, which enriches the soil for other plants.
It is particularly useful in arid climates. It helps to retain moisture and stabilize the soil humidity. In many places it is being used as a replacement for grass on lawns.
Other Uses For Clover
Like dandelions, clover attracts the ever-important honey bee. The whole plant is useful for livestock feed. Clover is considered lucky, and is used in money spells, love spells, and protection spells.
Weeds Make Good Pets
This is just a small example of the weeds that can benefit gardeners. Other weeds that are helpful include:
Gardeners who practice companion planting report an improvement in the flavor quality of herbs and vegetables. This is usually in response to additional nutrients, fertilizers, and moisture provided by the weeds. Stinging nettle is particularly effective in stimulating vompanion vegetables to produce the oils and chemicals that give them their individual flavors.
With proper management, weeds can be kept under control in your yard and flower beds. By harvesting the seeds or berries for culinary, medicinal, or functional purposes you reap the benefits of the plant while controlling unwanted spread.
Resources and Links of Interest:
Useful Weeds In The Garden
Beginners Guide To Companion Planting
Using Weeds As Companion Plants