Weeds -- Guardians of the Soil

by Joseph A. Cocannouer

10. Weeds as Food

A VERY largre percentage of our soil-building weeds are in one form or another edible. Most of them are very nourishing. And my Nature-loving mother did know her potherbs. She searched the forest and meadows for her weed greens, often the very same weeds she fought so relentlessly in her garden. Mother considered the wild, eating weeds far superior to any greens that even she could grow. She planted mustard to give a bit of tang to the more delicate wild plants, or to assure our daily minerals if something prevented her gathering the wild greens. Turnip greens she grew in the fall when edible weeds were not plentiful. But the domestic greens were only for emergencies. Wild plants when available were the favorites.

In the spring, from the time of the first chirp of the little bird she always called the pewee, we were constantly cautioned to be on the lookout for the old standbys in the coves or in the protected forest spots. As soon as we reported that the young weeds were two inches tall, every morning soon after breakfast mother was off for the fields, her "yarb" kettle on her arm. Neither rain nor mud stopped her. Those weeds that she hated in her garden were now a special gift to her from Nature; weeds were now food, not pests.

Mother's weed collection was not large. I think she placed curled dock first and lamb's quarter second. Poke she ranked high. The poke weed, known for its poisonous roots, was particularly prized because it was the one weed that mother liked to cook with her meat. And because of the danger of harvesting a bit of the poison-filled root, she wouldn't trust anybody but herself to gather those "asparagus" shoots of the poke. I don't recall how mother cooked the poke shoots. I just know they were delicious.

She served up to us the sow thistle, the smooth-leaf pigweed -- but never the coarse-leaf villain. Stinging nettles occasionally came onto the table when the plants were young and tender. Dandelion and wild lettuce were sometimes combined, but as a rule they were served alone like other weeds. These two weeds were looked upon as a sort of "Sunday greens," because they were rarely abundant on or near our farm, and Mother was especially fond of their flavor.

As I recall, our weeds were always cooked much the same way: boiled in a large kettle and seasoned sometimes with a bit of bacon or ham grease, or more often served without any seasoning at all. Each of us seasoned to suit his taste,. And it was a long time after my mother's day that I learned why those wild plants were so much more savory than the majority of cultivated vegetables: even young weeds, by the time they are big enough to start going into the "greens kettle," are foraging extensively; their husky roots are already near, or in, the lower soils, feeding in that rich store-house down there.

The Pawnee Indians almost invariably cooked their weeds with meat of all kinds, preferably after the meat had become stale. Before edible weeds appeared abundantly in their cultivated fields, the squaws were weed gathering daily in the forest and gulches. The Indian women harvested all the weeds that were my mother's favorites, plus many others. They prized the rough pigweed, and purslane they also valued highly, often drying the stems and succulent leaves of the latter for winter food. The Pawnees -- the very old members of the tribe -- ate weed roots of several kinds. The wild morning-glory and the wild turnip I remember particularly. Weed seeds were eaten, but probably not so extensively as with Indians of some other tribes. The seeds of both pigweed and lamb's quarter were harvested by some of the squaws and ground or pounded into a sort of flour to be mixed with meal in making bread or porridge.

Professor Edward F. Costetter of the University of New Mexico, in his studies of the food habits among some of the Indian tribes of the Southwest, has brought to light interesting information on the use of many common weeds as human food. The Indians of Arizona and New Mexico still employ weeds much as did the Pawnees formerly. Some weeds, however, are put to more extensive use. Pigweeds, for instance, after being first boiled, are then fried in lard. These weeds are also canned for winter food. The Southwest tribes commonly grind the seed of both pigweeds and lamb's quarter for bread and porridge.

Several years ago, while exploring in Arizona and old Mexico, I now and then ran onto small plots of wild lamb's quarter that was being grown for the seed. Professor Costetter reports that the common milkweed is especially prized in some places, the young stems and leaves being cooked with meat. The roots and young pods of this plant are eaten both raw and cooked.

The late war in Europe, despite the suffering and destruction it brought about, gave birth to a new weed knowledge that should play an important role in rebuilding some of those ravaged countries. Necessity forced the investigation of the food value of many weeds that until then had been given little attention. Some weeds that had long been looked upon as worthless were found to be highly nutritious fodder for livestock. Once these weeds were correctly processed, that is, cut and cured into hay or made into ensilage, livestock not only devoured the hay and silage, but gave back gratifying returns.

American farmers will probably be more than a little surprised to learn, for instance, that the detested bindweed, when cured into hay, gave returns from dairy cows considerably above either alfalfa or clover. Many weed experiments were carried on at one of England's leading experiment stations, where the weeds, of course, were under control.

Thistles of several kinds, when treated correctly, were also found to rank high as stockfeed. Thistle ensilage is not entirely unknown in the United States. Stinging nettles, a European weed that is now established in many parts of our own country, the English investigators found to be excellent feeding, when cured, for both dairy cattle and poultry. These nettles are rich in protein, and laying hens, fed the cured leaves and stems as a major part of their ration, showed a marked increase in egg production. With dairy cows, nettle hay produced a very noticeable increase in milk and butterfat.

How well I recall those dense patches of stinging nettles that we had to wade through bare-legged to reach the best fishing places! We could have made an abundance of chicken feed and cow feed from those nettles had we only known. Mother knew the nettles made good greens, but never dreamed of drying them and feeding them to her hens. Acres of those weeds, growing along the creek and in uncultivated bottoms, went to waste every year -- and are probably still going to waste.

The searching English scientists also discovered that many other weeds needed only a bit of special treatment to bring out their value as food for livestock. The rough-leaf pigweed was found to make excellent hay. Pigweed hay and thistle hay brought returns only slightly below those received from bindweed hay.

Any weed that gave the least promise as human food was tested thoroughly with the aim of helping out the limited ration of a hungry people. Rural America today is more or less familiar with the common yellow dock, one of the most famous greens of the South. Many southern housewives will tell you that no potherb can excel the dock in richness. And they are right. The yellow dock stands near the top of all potherbs in food value. Every garden should have a patch of this dock, especially since it requires no care once it has become established in a fairly damp spot. During spring and carly summer a few square feet of these weeds will give an abundance of solid nourishment.

As a general thing, American farmers have given little thought to the curing of weeds for hay. It has long been known that sunflowers make excellent ensilage. And I have seen several other weeds used in the same manner. Giant ragweeds for one. One farmer told me he obtained his best ensilage when he mixed weeds with his cultivated legumes in the silage trenches. The stock seemed to prefer this ensilage to all others. Wild hay always contains a percentage of weeds. As a rule these weeds have passed beyond their valuable food stage before the grass is ready for cutting, but stock will go for many of them after the weeds have passed through the sweat in a stack.

But not all Americans are unaware of the value of weed hay as a forage for livestock. Lately I have had some very interesting reports on ragweed hay, and from widely different sections of the country. In every case the farmer was enthusiastic about the results he had obtained from this much-maligned weed: "Cattle preferred it to alfalfa and did well on it," one said. Another wrote me, "This hay is not bitter when cured and stacked right, like green ragweeds are. My cattle seem to like ragweed hay better than any other forage."

These farmers indicated that they were using identical methods for making the hay: the weeds are cut when lush and green, but before they become too woody. The hay is left in the swath or shock for a short period, the same as alfalfa, but when stacked it is given a bit of salt now and then as the stack goes up. These farmers seem to think that the salt in some way improves the value of the hay other than to perk up its flavor.

It goes without saying that the seed problem will enter in until somebody comes along with a satisfactory solution to it. The annual ragweeds must of course be planted each year save where a crop is permitted to go to seed on the land. Since no farmer has written me about planting ragweeds, I take it that all depended on natural seeding, or they were making hay from the common perennial which is found in many sections. However, annual ragweeds are heavy seed producers, and gathering and threshing the seed should not be difficult. A few years hence ragweed hay may well be filling an important forage niche on many American farms.

If a weed makes better hay than alfalfa or clover, then that weed must be good. Now, we have proof that many weeds will come close to doing that if they are cut at the right time and cured correctly. But any farmer who does not wish to make weed hay can turn his weeds into high-class ensilage. For making silage, weeds can be cut almost any time so long as they are not completely dry.

Why so many wild plants are repulsive to white people is difficult to understand, especially since many of these same plants have been ranked as nourishing food by our Indians as well as other primitive people since the beginning of time. One such plant is the common milkweed, a native perennial found generally throughout the United States. When the tender stems are boiled in two or three waters so as to remove the milky sap, the resulting product is a fair substitute for the best spinach. The small pods when cooked resemble okra -- some who have tried it consider the milkweed pod more savory than okra, though the milkweed is not so easily cooked. And the milkweed roots are not bad "potatoes" -- once you remove the original bitter taste.

Then there is the wonderful ground cherry. The ground cherry, a valuable weed in any field, has been ignored too long. Its fruit, produced in a husk, is most delicious whether eaten raw or made into preserves or pies. This weed should be a companion in every garden where it can be made to grow. One member of the goldenrod tribe has long been known among the Indians as a favorite tea plant. This variety, often listed as the "sweet goldenrod," can be distinguished from the other strains by crushing and smelling the leaves, which have a delightful aroma, resembling anise. It is a tall, slender plant and grows along the edges of fields or near the forest where the soil is a bit sandy. The beverage made from the cured leaves is very pleasing.

Now my favorite beverage: sumacade. Gather the common sumac panicles in late summer when the berries are brilliant red and sour. Then squeeze out the juice in any manner you like, strain, add water, a bit of lemon, sugar to taste -- and drink ice-cold.

A research botanist remarked to me not long ago: "Rare is the weed that is not edible. I have eaten almost everything in the weed line in every community where I have lived, and have seldom found one that was not pleasing to the taste; most were delicious." As Indian John used to say: "All wild plants good. Indian eat 'em and live long time!" It used to seem to me, when I was a lad in the Indian country, that Indians did outlive white folks. I don't know how much weeds had to do with it. Old John may have been speaking with more wisdom than I at the time suspected.

I remember how as a boy I enjoyed digging and eating raw the roots of the evening primrose, but I did not know that those roots were cooked and served as a root vegetable until I had traveled in Europe. Though the primrose is native to America, it was the Europeans who first discovered that the roots were highly nutritious. This weed is commonly grown as a choice vegetable in both England and Holland. It should also be given a place in American gardens along with other favorite root vegetables.

And finally, I would put in a word for the lowly sheep sorrel, a weed found throughout most of our country in cultivated as well as neglected fields, or along the edges of woods. This sorrel has pink flowers and thick juicy leaves, all of which are pleasingly acid. While most folks know that sheep sorrel is edible, few know that it is delicious when served in a salad, or when used as pie filling. Those sorrel pies my mother used to make! No, I don't know how she made them, but she probably applied her good cook's ingenuity to a rhubarb recipe.

There is evidence that "weeds" are creeping back into the civilized man's diet. For much information about weeds as human food, we owe a real debt to some European and American biologists and chemists. There are now a few excellent publications which treat of weeds as food, giving the latest discoveries in considerable detail. Skeptics would do well to get hold of one of these books and then go weed foraging. I'll guarantee him some pleasant surprises. Probably the best all around book on the subject is: Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America by Fernald and Kinsey (Idlewild Press).

Next: 11. Weeds and Wildlife

Back to Contents

Back to Small Farms Library index

Community development | Rural development
City farms | Organic gardening | Composting | Small farms | Biofuel | Solar box cookers
Trees, soil and water | Seeds of the world | Appropriate technology | Project vehicles

Home | What people are saying about us | About Handmade Projects 
Projects | Internet | Schools projects | Sitemap | Site Search | Donations |