Native plant advocates who volunteer to pull weeds often call themselves “Weed Warriors.” Now there is a countervailing movement of weed advocates who find value in the same plants that are detested by the native plant movement. Weed worshippers are found in the permaculture community because they share a desire to avoid the use of herbicides. We also find them amongst foragers who think of weeds as a source of nutritious, free food. These origins of weed worship come together into a coherent botanical philosophy in a recently published book, The Wild Wisdom of Weeds: 13 Essential Plants for Human Survival, by Katrina Blair. (1)
Ms. Blair grew up in Colorado, in a family that lived close to nature. She developed her interest in wild plants early and has spent her life cultivating that interest both with her formal education and her experiences. She is the founder of Turtle Lake Refuge in Durango, Colorado. This is the mission of Turtle Lake Refuge:
“Our mission is to celebrate the connection between personal health and wild lands. We manifest this goal through promoting and practicing sustainable practices. Examples of our work include growing, harvesting and preparing local, wild and living food for the community, educating about the great values of the wild edible abundance available in our area, providing local micro-greens for the public schools, restaurants and stores…and educating about organic land stewardship practices.”
Turtle Lake Refuge serves lunch in their community twice each week. Here is a sample menu from a spring lunch, which reflects their commitment to “wild edible abundance:”
– Comfrey and hollyhock Green Juice:
Comfrey, hollyhock, lemon and honey
– Miso Soup:
Miso, tamari, fresh chives, cabbage and red onion
– Quinoa Beet Salad:
Sprouted Quinoa, beets, tamari, sunflower oil, ginger and garlic
– Sushi Roll:
Seed cheese, beets, buckwheat sprouts, pea sprouts and avocado
– Poppy seed Lemon Bar:
Buckwheat flour, honey, lemons, cashews psyllium and poppy seeds
Ms. Blair explains why she has selected 13 weeds for her book which are found all over the globe, wherever human civilization is found, that is every continent except Antarctica. They are therefore representative of the plants that often arrive with humans and are capable of surviving whatever changes in the environment accompany human civilization. In a sense, they are symbols of resilience and adaptation in a rapidly changing world. She also tells us why weeds are just as important as the native plants that preceded the arrival of humans:
“Humans are creating change on a large scale at an exceedingly rapid rate, and yet if we try to hold back nature by eradicating every new species that appears on a barren land, we block nature’s progression of adaptation. There is an accepted perspective that change is negative and therefore justifies momentous efforts to block diversity from becoming established for fear that it will alter the native habitat. It is important to remember that “native” habitat only represents a moment in time. All habitats evolve and are changing constantly. If the wild weeds are resilient enough to be able to handle the climate and take root, they play an important role in the evolutionary aspect of nature.” (1)
The thirteen weeds that Ms. Blair chooses to tell us about in her book are: amaranth, chickweed, clover, dandelion, dock, grass, knotweed, lambsquarter, mallow, mustard, plantain, purslane, and thistle. We have chosen the dandelion to illustrate the usefulness of weeds because it is plentiful and well known in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Dandelions are found everywhere. The origins of its English name are found in its name in romance languages: diente de leon (Spanish), dent-de-lion (French), diente di leone (Italian). These names all translate to “teeth of the lion” in English, a name that surely derives from the deeply jagged leaf, which apparently suggested the shape of the teeth of the lion. When named by the English, that reference to the shape of the leaf was lost in translation.
Dandelion seeds may have been brought by humans to new homes because they were known to be useful. But dandelions are not dependent upon intentional transport. Their wooly seed heads are dispersed by the wind and readily attach themselves to grazing animals. I remember blowing them into the wind as a child, oblivious to the fact that I was dispersing their seeds in the process.
An early reference to dandelions is found in the writing of the Roman military commander and naturalist, Pliny the Elder in 77 AD. He explained the healing properties of dandelions. Dandelions are used in Chinese herbal medicine—possibly for thousands of years—as well as in Indian traditional medicine, ayurvedic medicine. Ms. Blair uses dandelions to treat a wide variety of medical conditions, from a laxative to an anti-inflammatory which reduces swelling.
Every part of the dandelion, from its roots to its leaves is edible, according to Ms. Blair. The roots are used to make dandelion beer for the annual Dandelion Festival at Turtle Lake Refuge. Dandelion ice cream is also popular at the festival. Ms. Blair provides recipes for Dandelion Pesto, Dandelion Quiche, Dandy Candy, and Dandelion Root Stew. We are most familiar with dandelions as a salad green which adds bite to any salad.
Dandelion is equally useful to bees and butterflies because it is one of the first flowers in the spring.
The Druid’s Garden recently published a post about the usefulness of dandelions, including a description of how they can restore degraded soil.
Ms. Blair makes a similar case for the usefulness of the other 12 members of her weed family.
Opposition to herbicides follows….
As you might expect, if you eat wild plants you are probably opposed to use of herbicides in the places where you forage for your food:
“My deep passion for honoring the wild weeds intensified due to our local city and county’s practices in weed control. Hundreds of gallons of herbicides were being sprayed on the plants in town and on nearby wildlands with the intention of eradicating plant species considered weeds. Since I grew up loving all plants equally, I found it tragic to witness a once healthy plant that was contributing so much richness to our landscape become a twisted and dying being due to poisoning from herbicides. My passion for all plants inspired me to do what I could to change the discriminatory treatment of these noble weeds, who I have come to know as the true heroes of our time.” (1)
Ms. Blair tells the story of how she and her collaborators were successful in convincing the City of Durango to quit using herbicides in public parks. It is both an interesting story and one from which we can learn. They began by showing people how to use the weeds they were killing. The “Dandelion Brigade” harvested dandelions from their neighbors’ lawns and showed them how to make dandelion lemonade and other taste treats. They started an organic lawn service called “Grassroots” which made and distributed organic compost. These efforts convinced the city to create its first chemical-free public park, and eventually a second park. Then their efforts stalled because the city decided these two parks gave the public sufficient chemical-free options.
The second stage of their effort began with a ballot measure that, if passed, would have banned all herbicide use from every public park in Durango, including golf courses. They spent many months lobbying in support of that new ordinance and were confident that it would pass. Apparently the city was afraid it would pass as well and therefore began to negotiate with the supporters of the ordinance. This negotiation resulted in a compromise which accomplished much of what supporters of the ordinance set out to do. Although they still believed in the ordinance as originally written, they decided that a compromise would ultimately result in greater support throughout the community. The first phase of the compromise plan converted over one-third of the parks to organic management. The second phase would slowly transition most parks—except golf courses—to organic management methods.
The process of changing city policies regarding herbicide use was long and difficult. It required both patience and a willingness to meet people halfway by showing them how to substitute for herbicide use and by being willing to compromise.
Ms. Blair is not alone. She is a member of a big and growing movement. The favorable review of Ms. Blair’s book in the New York Times is an indication that foraging and respect for weeds are now in mainstream culture. Closer to home, we have our own contingent of lovers of wild food, which often includes plants commonly considered weeds:
- “The Wild Kitchen is a roving underground supper club. From a roof-deck in the Mission one week to a houseboat in Sausalito the next, The Wild Kitchen knows no geographic bounds. One hundred diners sit around the communal table, enjoying eight course meals, each course highlighting a sustainably foraged ingredient from the local landscape. These meals connect the eater with their natural surroundings in a new way. The Wild Kitchen brings eaters together to grow community around the foods nature provides.”
- “Reaping without Sowing: Urban Foraging and Berkeley Open Source Food” is a research project at UC Berkeley which is “studying the availability, nutritional value, and possible toxicity of wild edibles that volunteer in urban food deserts. Our research hypothesis is that in many such areas, there is a free, abundant source of nutritious fresh food: edible weeds.” The project identifies both native and non-native edible plants growing wild in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Quinoa is a specialty food item, found in high-end stores such as Whole Foods. It is growing wild along roadsides in Los Angeles because it is a plant that thrives on disturbance. Quinoa is an example of a plant that is adapted to human civilization and is also a source of food.
We hope that the foraging movement will grow and eventually become as strong and influential as the native plant movement has been in the past. And we hope that herbicide use in our public lands will be abandoned in the process of making the transition from venerating native plants to respecting ALL plants.
- Katrina Blair, The Wild Wisdom of Weeds: 13 Essential Plants for Human Survival, Chelsea Green, 2014