It’s such a lovely time of the year. The days are warm and sunny and cooled by breezes perfumed with lilac and wisteria. Everything is in its first flush of green punctuated with the exotic purple pop of redbud blooms and birdsong. It’s not without its drama either. Moments ago we were pummeled with hail.
Color is everywhere. Lawns are seas of purple and blue with sunny bursts of yellow as everyone puts off that first mow of the season.
Aesthetically, I appreciate a smooth expanse of cool green grass as much as the next person, it’s easy to look at, soothing in its monochromaticity, and I especially like the way it sets off a garden. But it’s also the time of year when I make sure to keep Wilson on his leash because I don’t know what people in my neighborhood are spraying on theirs–not to mention what’s being flushed into our abundant local waterways. If I had to choose between chemicals and weeds, I’d gladly choose weeds.
(I should mention that my two neighbors to the left have gorgeous lawns that are serviced by The Organic Lawn Guy (http://www.theorganiclawnguy.com) Their lawns are connected so they are mowed at the same time and it creates this big swath of lush, gorgeous, enviable green. Wilson loves to wallow in it. So it is possible.)
When I first began to realize that what I wanted more than anything was to study gardens and plants and landscapes, I set myself the task of becoming more observant of the natural world around me. It’s something I have actively practiced over the years and while I’m no expert, the effort has without a doubt enhanced my life. In the spring it’s especially rewarding to observe the world as it breaks out of dormancy and comes to vibrant life. Some of the first things out of that gate are the spring weeds.
What is a weed anyway? The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “a plant considered undesirable, especially one growing where it is not wanted, as in a garden.” Grass in your lawn is your lawn, grass in your flower bed is a weed. You can hate weeds all you like, but often the first description of where a weed grows is “disturbed soil.” Who do you think disturbed it? We did. Weeds are our familiars. They follow in our wake. And yes, there are horrible, noxious weeds out there. Weeds that poison cattle, choke out native species, and cause huge imbalances in ecosystems, but even those are our doing and our responsibility.
I don’t know about you, but I find a deep comfort in knowing about the things that grow around me, things I’ve planted intentionally and those that just show up. It thrills me to know their names, and knowing them in Latin makes me feel downright erudite. It also makes me feel like I’m taking part in history, sharing knowledge in a line that starts with Linnaeus and connects me to plant lovers and scholars ever since. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned what a poor memory I have, but for some reason, plant names stay with me. I recite them to myself when I walk Wilson. Hello Lamium, what ya knowin’? How’s it hanging Cardamine? You’re looking lovely today Veronica. I like the common names too – henbit, dead nettle, bittercress, dandelion. There’s a shared history there too. What I think is surprising and important to know about many spring weeds is that they are not only edible, but nutritious.
Two of the most familiar spring weeds are in the mint family (Lamiaceae). You can tell this by their square stems.
That’s henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) on the left and dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) on the right. I know you’ve seen them.
Henbit gets its Latin species name, amplexicaule, from the way its leaves clasp the stem. One of its common names is giraffe head, although it reminds me more of a Victorian jester, with lacy ruffs and a silly plumed hat. It’s a sweet little thing. And nutritious too, high in iron, vitamins, and fiber. You can eat it raw in salads or lightly sauteed. It’s also an important early source of nectar and pollen for bees, who need all the help they can get these days. It gets its common name, henbit because it is favored by chickens.
Dead nettle is its cousin, and it’s one of the first plants I can remember being conscious of as a child. I was sitting with a babysitter in the yard of the house I grew up in, watching a storm roll in. She had taken me out there to watch its approach so I wouldn’t be afraid. I remember the storm on the horizon and being surrounded by those funny purple flowers. I was maybe five or six. Like henbit, dead nettle is also nutritious, and useful for bees, although it’s a bit fuzzy, so perhaps try it in a smoothie. And if you cut yourself while you’re out weeding, bruise up some of its leaves and apply them to your cut, as it has styptic properties. Its flower, like many in the mint family, is a verticillaster, which is a fun botanical word for a false whorl. It flowers from March to October.
Wild Onion (Allium canadense) is another common lawn weed that is edible. They are a pain to remove from the garden because the leaves often break off leaving the bulb to send up leaves again. And once you harvest them they are a pain to clean because they are so tiny, but they can be used like spring onions, or the leaves can by used like chives. I put some in tabbouleh recently and they were lovely. Strangely, (maybe its the smell) Wilson seems to favor them as conduits for his pee-mail messages, so keep that in mind and wash thoroughly.
Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) is yet another spring edible. It’s in the mustard family (Brassicaceae).
It favors moist places, like this storm drain. Some early butterflies are attracted to their flowers. Like the other members of its family, its seeds are housed in what are called silique, long, thin, capsules. These capsules have a mechanism called explosive dehiscence. The pods explode sending seeds far and wide. Annoying, but super cool.
If you don’t want them (or other weeds) in your lawn, you would be wise to mow before they set explosive seeds. All that (pre-seed) nutritional goodness can benefit your compost pile too.
But the king of all nutritious lawn weeds has to be the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).
A member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), every part of them is edible and they are ridiculously nutritious. So nutritious in fact that it’s truly ludicrous that they are villified, we should revere them. We should lionize those dandys! Their botanical name can be translated as official remedy of disorders. They are full of Vitamin A and are probably the richest herbal source of Vitamin K, which builds strong bones and is used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. They have tons of potassium, and are a great source of calcium, manganese, iron, and magnesium. They have more protein per serving than spinach. A French common name pissenlit, or piss-in-bed (quaint, huh?), references their strong diuretic qualities. Because of those qualities, they are good for your liver and kidneys, and unlike many diuretics they do not cause a loss of potassium, maybe because they are so full of it. They are also good for your blood and for general gastro-intestinal health. In Chinese medicine they are used to treat lung and breast tumors, jaundice and hepatitis, mastitis, abscesses, and urinary tract infections. They help in weight loss. They are good for your skin. The list goes on and on and on. Seriously.
Dandelion greens can be bitter. Maybe it’s because I’m bitter too, but I like bitter greens. If you’re not a fan, it’s recommended to harvest the leaves in early spring before they flower, or in late fall after a frost when they are less so. They can be sautéed or steamed or made into a tea. The flowers can be batter-dipped and fried or added to pancakes. The roots can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute or sautéed in stir fries. The internet abounds with dandelion recipes. I’ll let you know as I try them.
And what about those perfect spherical seed heads?
How many wishes have you made with those? Merely as an object, they are so perfect. And so transient. And so efficient. Those airborne seeds can travel up to five miles from where they started.
As a consequence of being me and living in these times, I have a survivalist streak. When I lived in Hoboken and worked in Manhattan it got pretty worked up. There’s something about dealing with millions of people on a daily basis, on an island no less, that makes you wonder what would happen if? I had nightmares of suit-wearing Wall Streeters and zombie hipsters marauding through smoky streets sparkling with broken glass. It’s one of the many reasons I moved home. I wanted to be in walking distance from fresh water and loved ones. I wanted to grow my own food and harvest rainwater. And I missed green. Desperately. And as much as I love Netflix, and Pinterest, and food blogs, I mostly wish I could spend my days tending vegetables and climbing trees and walking in the woods with my dog foraging for wild food, and my nights reading, writing, cooking, playing music, and making quilts. Essential things. I don’t think I’m alone in this. And while I might not be starting my days with a dead nettle smoothie, I think it’s not just entertaining, but imperative to know that I could.