Native Nibbles And Winsome Weeds
As every gardener knows, weeds are always with us. When we prep and plant beds, whether for ornamentals or edibles or both, removing weeds is almost always a large part of the process. However, as I’ve matured, I’ve found myself growing more relaxed about the presence of weeds. Watching a haze of happy pollinators including hummingbirds (!) feasting at the flowers of plants I was itching to yank makes me pause before pulling. Why not wait a little longer and let the beneficial critters eat their fill? It’s also fascinating to see how many pollinators are showing up, not just bees and bugs and birds but wasps and yellow-jackets as well.
These last are treated like the weeds of the insect world, fit only to die, but a recent study reveals that wasps are in fact important as predators and as pollinators (as are mosquitoes, by the way). For years, it was claimed that wasps are hairless, therefore not effective as pollen packers. In fact, many kinds of wasps are covered in fine hairs that make them quite good at transporting pollen. Here’s a link to a very recent study (published last week) that highlights the ecological contributions made by these maligned insects. Like so many things we humans love to hate, we are quick to remember that wasps can sting but slow to recognize that they also eat aphids and prey on destructive caterpillars and pollinate all sorts of plants, from figs to orchids.
Want to know more? Check it out:
Some Weeds Are Still Weeds
That said, some weeds are definitely still on my hit list, especially those that are fast growing and difficult to remove. Even so, it’s worth learning more about the plants we call weeds before we remove them wholesale. For one thing, many of the common plants that make themselves at home in our gardens are beloved by bees, providing nectar and pollen when there’s little else available. In addition, many underrated plants are also both edible and surprisingly flavorful, making intriguing additions to the salad bowl, adding a tasty tang to egg dishes, and adding refreshingly spunky flavors when used as garnish for grilled fish or poultry.
Like what? Well, for starters, how about hairy bitter cress? AKA Cardamine hirsute, I’ve called that pesky little critter many unkind names for its super annoying habit of shooting scads of seeds everywhere, including into my face and eyes. When you yank out a succulent little rosette, consider giving it a rinse and adding it to your next salad. The frilly leaves add a peppery nip to blander greens such as tender young dandelion foliage. The flavor is sometimes compared to watercress, but it puts me more in mind of the zippy taste of radish seedpods (though not as crunchy). A member of the mustard clan, bitter cress gains heat as the plants mature, though it seems like a new crop appears every time I turn around, so there’s never a shortage (damn it).
Bitter Greens, Classic Or Unusual
And dandelions? But of course! Dandelions are much prized in Europe, where they are still carefully gathered every spring. The foliage tastes mild in early spring, but heats up as summer approaches. If you like bitter greens such as arugula, endive, or radicchio, you may want to add a few mature dandelion leaves, slivered into a fine chiffonade, to a bowl of warm brown rice or buckwheat groats. Some folks roast the roots, while others still make wine from the cheerful, shaggy flowers. With so many uses, it’s amazing that these useful plants aren’t snapped up for the kitchen instead of tossed on the compost heap.
I was delighted to learn that bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria) is not only edible but quite flavorsome. This pernicious spreader is the bane of many gardeners, being very eager to grow and extremely hard to eradicate. The variegated form is still sold at nurseries, and I admit that the plant is quite pretty, especially the variegated form. However, it’s utterly implacable, so if someone offers you a few starts, resist, resist, resist! If you, like me, inherit a patch, relentless removal may eventually allow you to plant something else but until every scrap has vanished and no more appears for at least a couple of years, I recommend covering the infested area with deep wood chip mulch piled generously over several layers of heavy burlap sacks. Until such time as bishop’s weed is vanquished, take revenge in adding the young foliage and flowers to salads etc.
Natives To Nibble
Plenty of native plants that appear spontaneously in gardens are usually weeded out, yet quite a few can make good eating. Snipped into salads and smoothies, sprinkled into sandwiches and wraps, tucked into tacos and omelets, our wildlings deliver a potent punch of flavor and nutrients. A favorite among these is Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), common throughout the Pacific Northwest. Valued as a pleasant spring green for millennia, this willing little annual got its nickname from goldrush prospectors who used it to avoid scurvy, a trick they learned from native people all along the west coast. Miner’s lettuce is easily grown from seed (Ed Hume carries it; it enjoys cool, moist conditions and can be sown along with early lettuces and peas.
Wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta) is another wild thing that’s found in almost every backyard at some point. Like French sorrel (though not related), wild sorrel adds a light, refreshing tang to salads and makes a piquant garnish for creamy soups. My grandkids call it ‘lemon clover’ for the citrusy savor. Stinging nettles, another are also highly prized, used fresh for spring soups and dried for teas and tisanes. Do wear gloves when you pick and prepare them, as the sting is no joke. Years ago, the father of my children fell through the rotting floor of an old chicken coop into a head-high stand of extremely vigorous stinging nettles.
What Stops the Sting
Fortunately he wasn’t allergic to the nettles, as he was pretty well covered with the little stingers (such a situation could be life threatening to someone who was). Even so, it took longer than he appreciated to soothe the rash that resulted. The trick is to wait for at least ten minutes before trying to rinse or brush off the stinging chemicals. Once these chemicals dry, gently wash the skin with mild soap and water, then pat affected areas with a dilute solution of vinegar. If you aren’t near water, gently dab on the juice of a large dock weed, which helps neutralize the sting. To remove any lingering nettle hairs, gently press duct tape or packing tape on ares that remain painful; pulling away the tape will usually remove the tiny, irritating hairs. Usually.