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Some weeds and their uses.

A weed, as Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, is simply a plant growing in the wrong place.

He also might have said it's a plant growing at the wrong time. There are many examples of plants we now consider weeds that were once treated as valuable plants.

Crabgrass, for example, was once recommended as a forage crop in the south by the USDA. Crabgrasses were the first cultivated grains and were grown for food for thousands of years. The seeds are nutritious, and it's still an important cereal crop in some parts of the world. (Survivalists, take note!)

It's a strange world: while science and agriculture work to make crop plants grow better, crabgrass is considered a nuisance... because it grows too well.

Lamb's-quarters--a British native and a spinach relative--was once considered one of nature's most delicious vegetables. Young plants were gathered and boiled, used in salads or made into soup. Lamb's-quarters has more iron, protein, vitamin [B.sub.12] and vitamin C than raw cabbage or spinach. It also has more calcium and vitamin [B.sub.1] than raw cabbage.

The seeds of lamb's quarters taste something like buckwheat. Dried, they can be ground into flour. Pioneers added them to breads, pancakes, muffins and cookies.

Lamb's-quarters leaves are a source of ascaridole, an oil used to treat for round worms and hook worms. The plant was once valued in Europe as an important animal fodder.

When spinach was introduced from Asia in the 16th century, lamb's-quarters became a "weed."

Broadleaf plantain is a European native that was once considered a valuable medicinal herb and a tasty vegetable. The leaves contain a fluid that was used to treat cuts, scorpion stings and snake bites.

Some people still use young leaves of broadleaf plantain like spinach and brewed to make a tea, and the seeds are popular with birds.

Quack grass has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. The underground stems, or rhizomes, are the useful part. About 11 percent of the rhizome is a sticky, gel-like substance which possibly accounts for its use in medicine and other products such as glue.

Thistles native to the Mediterranean were used for medicinal purposes for more than 2,000 years, and the roots of some species were used as food.

Chicory is another European native with several uses. The roasted and ground roots have historically been used as a coffee substitute, and the young leaves are still picked as salad greens.

Purslane was brought to the US by immigrants for its value as a salad green. The succulent leaves have a lemony flavor.

Dandelion's use as food is still common: young leaves of this European native are used in salads, the flower heads are used to make wine, and the dried and roasted root is brewed as a coffee substitute.

And surprise: at least one company has been selling dandelion seed to people who apparently don't have enough wild ones!

Jerusalem artichoke is an American native. Its potato-like tubers are eaten raw or cooked, and can also be made into a flour.

Milkweed is also a native of the western hemisphere. Young shoots are used like asparagus, and there has been a lot of experimenting with using its pod plumes as a substitute for goose down.

Others, including the notorious kudzu and multiflora rose, once touted by extension agents, are now cursed by most landowners afflicted with them. The white and yellow sweet clovers, while still valued by some farmers and many homesteaders as soil improvement crops, are considered weeds by many others.

There's a mirror image to this. The best-known example is the tomato which, when introduced in Europe from the New World, was considered a decorative plant--but poisonous. Today the tomato is the most popular vegetable garden crop in the US.

Who knows what plants might be considered weeds--or valuable plants--tomorrow!

RELATED ARTICLE: Canada thistle

Canada thistle is one of the toughest, most persistent, most difficult to eradicate weeds there is.

This perennial has roots that may reach 10-15 feet deep. They contain buds that produce more new shoots. One plant may spread over a 20-foot circular patch in one year... and that's from root spread alone.

The stored root reserves keep the thistle coming back. Those reserves are sufficient to keep the plant alive for two years even if no top-growth is permitted.

Food reserves peak as the plant matures. Those reserves keep the plant alive in winter and enable it to produce new growth in the spring.

Tillage and herbicides are most effective before the summer and fall buildup of nutrient reserves, but controlling this field and garden pest is a tough, long-term job.
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Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on Canada thistle
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Sep 1, 1998
Previous Article:Tillage tools.
Next Article:Phosphorus, potash and trace elements.

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