European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) Eating Dandelions in Yealand, Redmayne, UK, by Gidzy, via Wikimedia Commons
And I’m happy about it. Eager to dig in, even.
Let me explain. Weeds are good for you. VERY, very good for you. They are the super foods you don’t hear about. Probably because they are free.
I credit two people for my enlightenment, Katrina Blair . . . and George Washington Carver.
Last winter I thought I’d have some time to read a few books (ha, silly me!) so I wrote a couple of publishers. One of the books I was interested in was The Wild Wisdom of Weeds (published by Chelsea Green). As an aside, I am never compensated for a review of a book, but I do accept a copy to read! I’d heard about The Wild Wisdom of Weeds via a review by Dominique Browning in the New York Times, and had listened to a terrific local podcast interview with the author Katrina Blair (it starts at about the 18 minute mark) . I was hooked from the beginning of the interview when she told of her first communication with the plant world at age eleven. She was on a mountain lake, not far from her home in Durango, Colorado, with her brother and cousins, just out having fun, swimming in the lake. They left for lunch while she stayed around, paddling around on an air mattress. She spied a lush spot of plants that seemed to beckon to her–come over here! She did, and crawled up among them, and said she felt embraced with “a euphoric energy.” Then she said the plants told her, “You’re home. You’re going to live your life with us!” Immediately I thought of Zera, my Zera, the teenager I’d created in Zera and the Green Man. But Katrina was not a work of fiction. This was her amazing beginning in an intense interest in and study of plants.
The Wild Wisdom of Weeds arrived at my home soon after and then and sat around for most of the spring and summer while I was distracted by many other projects. Once in a while I’d hear about the book, but I still hadn’t cracked it open to take a look.
Once I did, I found everything I needed to know about the subject.
The most fascinating aspect was the plants themselves. Blair has made a list of “13 essential plants for human survival,” the book’s subtitle. These 13 plants are extremely high in nutrition, higher in nutrition than cultivated greens as these plants have adapted over millennium to survive and thrive in the most extreme conditions. Their roots run deep to mine for soil minerals, they can survive almost anything. They’ve adapted all around us, are available on all continents. They can be found in most backyards (if you’re not a sprayer of poisons), so they are FREE and perfect local foods! Plentiful, common, and Blair says they are delicious. Frankly, I have taken a taste here and there of dandelion greens, clover, lambsquarter, purslane, etc. and have found them palatable, but I didn’t fall in love. To be honest, I imagine most of us will have to cultivate both our taste for these new greens and our ability to use them–as they are foreign to both our plates and palates.
But it can be done and I’m ready to start! I mean, c’mon, free superfoods in your backyard? What’s not to love? Chances are, if you’re a gardener, you have many of them growing on your property right now.
Here’s the Fab 13 in alphabetical order: amaranth, chickweed, clover, dandelion, dock, grass, knotweed, lambsquarter, mallow, mustard, plantain, purslane, thistle.
I have all but chickweed, knotweed, and wild thistle on my city lot, but thistle is plentiful in other areas close by.
Blair goes into great detail about each of these plants: their nutrition, their food uses through the seasons (many recipes included), their preparation, storage, their medicinal uses, their history. What she tells you about their nutrition alone will make a believer out of you.
Also last year I had been re-reading, for the 3rd time, Rackham Holt’s 1943 book, George Washington Carver: An American Biography. Carver, as I’m sure you know, was a scientist and an agricultural expert, but he was also very much a champion (in the early 20th century!) of sustainability, including organic farming, composting, and eating wild weeds. One of the many amazing things discussed in this book is his knowledge of wild weeds and their use as food.
In fact, it is in this book that I read his definition of a weed as “a plant out of place.” I’d heard that many times and wondered if it was the first time it had appeared in print.
In one chapter, Carver told the story of a hungry man who asked him for money for food one day as he was walking in the town of Tuskegee, Alabama. Carver gave him money and the man headed in the direction of the stores. Carver then sadly shook his head and said, “It’s pitiful, pitiful. Between here and that store there is enough food to feed a town.” He pointed to weeds by the road and wild plums on the trees overhead, and added, “And a balanced diet, too.”
That book goes on to tell, as Blair’s does, about the vitality of weeds and their comparison with cultivated plants. “But often the wild plants were more palatable than the cultivated ones, which had been robbed of vitality by coddling . . .” and other benefits, “they would dare to come up earlier than the tenderly nurtured within the enclosure, and would still be flourishing when the short growing span of the latter was finished. You did not have to hoe around them or pick bugs off or spray; they were there because they had already mastered the rules of survival.”
That is an interesting thought about the taste. Could it be that our taste buds have been dulled by inferior, weak, non-wild foods? I’d guess the answer to that is yes.
The book goes on to list some of the wild vegetables Carver ate, and they include almost all of those on Blair’s list in addition to hawkweed, Flora’s paintbrush (Emilia fosbergii), water cress, shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), pokeweed, and swamp milkweed. I looked up shepherd’s purse, and it is a mustard. I did not look up the others, but some may fit into Blair’s Fab 13. Later in the book, when Carver is quite old and ill, he only rebounds from when he decides to throw away his pills and leave his hospital bed to go outside to gather and prepare some “wild vegetables.”
Synchronicity of events is not something to take lightly. I don’t think that these two voices, over seven decades, beckoning, “Eat weeds! They’re good for you!” reached my consciousness at the same time by mistake. And so today I share Blair and Carver’s wisdom with you.
Check out Blair’s book and plan to rustle up some recipes when the dandelions bud and bloom. It’s time to taste the landscape.
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