For organic gardeners and agriculturalists, weeds are a top priority issue. At the farm, weed removal is a daily chore. What is a weed? My philosophy is that a weed is a plant that is not being intentionally cultivated in one area. For example, while they are not so welcome on the farm or in our raised beds, there are places along the Nature Trail where these native plants are allowed to flourish and become a beautiful part of the landscape. I appreciate these places because I can go there to see these plants in all their stages of life and learn about the role they play in our local ecosystem. Although they present a huge challenge for me, I have come to see a lot of these plants as old friends. After understanding a little about these plants, what their root system is like and how they propagate, removing them also becomes a more fluid ritual. Learning each of their names and stories has become for me an endless source of joy.
For the most part, this has happened not through active research but through experience. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is the local first plant I learned to identify and call by name. This tap-rooted perennial is an infamous source of frustration to the land owner seeking that hegemonic ideal of the perfect lawn, a monoculture of bright, close cut grass complete with a white picket fence. But kids love dandelions! It is a child’s tradition to make bouquets of the beautiful yellow flowers and, more importantly, if you make a wish, take a deep breath, and blow off the whole soft globe of seeds, your wish just might come true. In addition to this, dandelion has many health benefits. Its leaves can be made into a salad, while the whole plant, especially the roots, are commonly used in herbal medicine. Dandelion contains phenolic acids, carotenoids such as lutein which is excellent for eye health, and polysaccharides. It acts in the body as a diuretic, hepatic, cholagogue, anti-rheumatic, laxative, tonic, and bitter. It has been used to treat liver, gallbladder, kidney ailments, weak digestion and hangovers.
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris L.), also known as chrysanthemum weed, wormwood, and felon herb, was the first weed I learned to identify in college. It stuck with me after getting introduced to it on a foraging walk offered by Wild Foodies of Philly. Mugwort can be used to make a tea that is a digestive aid, expectorant, anti-asthmatic, and dream enhancer. It also has a pleasant aroma and is used to make smudge sticks. It is a perennial that spreads by rhizome fragments, rarely by seed. It is originally from Europe though it has naturalized throughout the eastern United States. It is well adapted and difficult to remove.
Portulaca oleraca was the next weed that I became interested in, due to its lush abundance in the summertime. Around here it is called purslane; but my dad, who is from Mexico City called it verdolaga, and it is also known as little hogweed, redroot, and pursley. Purslane contains protein, iron, vitamins A, C, and E, omega 3 fatty acids, and antioxidants. Friends of mine have experimented with harvesting this plant for consumption in smoothies and salads. Purslane is widespread throughout the world. It is believed that it was introduced to the United States during the pre-Colombian era by natives who cultivated it for food. It is still commonly eaten in Mexico.
Another abundant weed on the farm was introduced to me by Jamaican friends as Callaloo. Turns out, it cooks like spinach and is popular in West Indian cuisine. The genus of this cosmopolitan plant is Amaranth, commonly known as Pigweed. The genus Amarathus is diverse and includes over 70 species. At the farm we have three: smooth pigweed (Amarathus hybridus L.), Powell amaranth (Amaranthus powellii S. Wats.), and Redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus L.). It can be an excellent source of protein, calcium, vitamins A and C, manganese, iron, and folate. This plant was known as huauhtli to the Aztecs who cultivated its grains in large scale for consumption and ritual use. After the Spanish conquest, cultivation of amaranth was outlawed. In modern times, however, it has been revived as a popular nutritional snack.
I was an active volunteer at the farm during my junior year at Haverford, when I came back from my semester at the University of Havana and I was living in ehaus with Alanna Matteson ‘15. She was the farm leader at the time. She held the CPGC internship at the farm that summer and I would spend a lot of time helping her on the farm. Alanna introduced me to comfrey when she found a cluster growing on the nature trail and asked me to help transplant some into the farm to use as a fertilizer. Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) is a powerful plant that spreads easily from root fragments (a.k.a. slippery-root) and blooms beautiful purple flowers. Historically it has been used to treat severe burns, acne, and sprains. It was said to have bone building properties, which earned it the nick names boneset and knitbone. Its modern use is mostly topical due to its contraindications when ingested. The roots of wild comfrey contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids which can cause venous liver congestion. Two neonatal deaths are ascribed to the consumption of comfrey root. The leaves do not contain these alkaloids and are safe for use during pregnancy.
Burdock is another great one that is easy to spot. Articum lappa L. originates in the temperate regions of the Old World but has become naturalized in Pennsylvania. Its bright purple flowers dry in the fall to become burs, a seed pod covered with hooked bracts that make it incredibly sticky. This to makes its seeds easily spreadable by animals and people. Because of this quality, Burdock was the direct inspiration for the invention of Velcro! Its large, fleshy taproot is popular in Chinese and Japanese cuisine. It contains 102 of the minerals needed by the body, as well as lignans, amino acids, and inulin. In folk medicine it is used to treat skin conditions, as a diaphoretic, diuretic, blood cleanser, and to cleanse the kidneys, ulcerations and gout symptoms.
Pennsylvania smartweed, hairy galinsoga, plantago major, and giant ragweed are other characters who I am getting to know at the farm. Of course, not all weeds are medicinal or edible! Some are even dangerous. People who live in rural parts of Pennsylvania teach their kids at an early age to identify poison ivy and poison oak. At the farm I found pokeweed, horse nettle and deadly nightshade. I was attracted to the berries on these plants, which I learned were poisonous. But even these plants are valuable and beautiful. Place-based knowledge such as plant identification instills us with pride in the environment that we share and offers an opportunity to deepen our personal relationships with Earth.
Resources: Uva, Richard H., Joseph C. Neal, and Joseph M. DiTomaso. 1997. Weeds of the Northeast. South Korea: Cornell University Press