Monday, August 9, 2010

Salad under Foot

In my last post I wrote about growing salad greens in a bowl or pot, and what a wonderful source of fresh organic leaves it is. In my exuberance, I nearly forgot about the other source of greens I’ve been exploring this summer – the weeds growing like gangbusters while my grass dies due to drought. In general usage, weeds are a nuisance and not given much attention, and they’re usually found growing where you don’t want them to grow (or are trying to grow something else. On closer examination however, some of these weeds have uses.

The most common weeds in my area are dandelion, plantago (plantain), and burdock. All three of these plants are edible, at least in part, and also medicinal. Dandelion and Plantain provide greens for salads. Burdock leaves can be harvested in the spring, but this plant is usually valued for its roots, which are eaten like a vegetable. All parts of the dandelion are edible and have various uses, including the famous wine made from its flowers.

What makes these plants special is that they grow on their own. They require no effort on your part – in fact, just the opposite is true, as anyone who has ever tried to maintain a lawn knows, effort is required to keep them from growing. They are literally free food, there for the taking – well, there is a small cost – one has to get over the idea of harvesting weeds from their lawn or other public green spaces; one has to prepare themselves to eat something they’ve been taught to despise all their lives; and one has to be willing to accept the questioning looks and possible scorn of those who believe that food can only come from stores.

If it helps, many of these so called weeds used to be cultivated as crops, and in some places still are. Plantago, for example, is still widely grown in gardens around the world. Another ‘weed’, chicory, is widely grown in some places, and is somewhat famous as an additive or substitute for coffee in New Orleans. Here where I live, it simply grows wild, any place and every place it can, and it’s flowers are a scenic staple along the sides of roads. It should also be noted that in many upscale restaurants, salads of ‘wild greens’ are a featured item on the menu, and examining these expensive little piles a green that dandelions, rocket, chicory, and other ‘weeds’ are prominently present. Our ancestors used and relied on these crops, but now that knowledge has been largely, but not entirely lost.

If you’re interested, as a Luddite Apprentice, or simply looking for a free meal, the place to start is with a good field guide to edible and medicinal plants. Then spend some time outside comparing your weeds to what you find in the book. Remember that details are important here. There are many plants or radically different species that look very similar during various parts of the growth cycle, and the only way to distinguish a friendly plant from a dangerous one may be small things like the way the leaves grow from the stem. If you have any doubt, you should consult an expert, in person.

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