Weeds. Unwanted plants that “ruin” a perfectly uniform lawn. Or at least that’s what people will have you believe. We spray them, pull them, and will do almost anything to eradicate them. What if I told you that they are more than useful – that they are actually the healthiest greens you can find in your backyard? Would you see them differently?
In a recent trip to Europe, I was more than impressed with the tendency of Austrians and Hungarians to let plants grow wherever, and however, they pleased. The result was beautiful meadows and “lawns” that were teeming with medicinal plants, food and flowers for pollinators. As a permaculture designer, I am trained to let our landscapes mimic natural ecosystems, so I get really excited when I see people putting this into action.
Here is a meadow in Linz, Austria:
They only cut it once a year (just to keep it green and lush), and otherwise, it is left to its own devices. Yes, there are “weeds”, but it is beautiful, and functional in a way that a typical lawn could never be.
In this one photo alone, there are dozens of edible and medicinal plants. The three most common and easy to identify are:
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Named after Achilles for his use of the plant on battlefields to staunch bleeding, Achillea millefolium can be found in almost any temperate region. It can slow bleeding, and is great for healing wounds, bruises and sprains. It can be used internally (as a tea or tincture) to stimulate delayed menstrual cycles and is effective at reducing menstrual cramps (by helping the uterus relax). It can also reduce heavy bleeding.
Yarrow is useful as a diaphoretic (it can induce sweating in someone who is fevered) to help the body cool itself and helps prevent dehydration.
Best of all, this plant is so prolific that it is likely hiding in your own backyard right now. Its ferny leaves are quite recognizable, and I find that their softness makes for a great addition to your lawn if you like to walk barefoot. Not to mention, it smells terrific when stepped on!
- Plantain (Plantago major)
Often referred to as a “super herb”, this hidden gem is loaded with vitamins, protein, and starch. It can draw toxicity from the body by purifying the blood. The leaves can be tossed into salads or steamed and are more nutritious than any green you’ll find at the supermarket. The seed heads can be dried and ground into flour, making it useful in many culinary applications.
However, its most common use is as a poultice. Since it can be found anywhere and is safe to eat, you can make a crude poultice from it by simply chewing up a leaf and applying it directly to bug bites, bee stings or recent cuts. It will reduce swelling, slow bleeding and relieve the itch and pain. One of the quickest ways to remove a sliver or thistle thorn is to apply a mashed up plantain leaf on it for about 20 seconds, and magically, the thistle or sliver pulls itself right out!
This plant grows in wastelands, in the cracks of sidewalks, in lawns, and on heavily trodden paths. Its leaves have parallel veins which are one of its most recognizable features.
- Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Ah, the dandelion. Found everywhere in abundance, this superfood and medicinal powerhouse should be in everyone’s repertoire. Whether you love them or hate them, their tenacity is something to marvel at. The bees love them, too!
High in vitamins A, B, C and D, as well as iron, potassium, calcium and minerals, the greens from dandelions make a splendid addition to any salad. The flowers can be added, as well, but I would recommend removing the petals from the bract to reduce any bitterness in their flavour. The roots are best harvested in the fall. They can be dried and roasted to make a delicious coffee substitute.
The entire plant can be used both medically, and a food source. The root has classically been used as a liver tonic and blood purifier. The dandelion aids in digestion due to its slightly bitter nature which stimulates bile to helps break down cholesterol and fat. It is also useful as a mild diuretic, and is unique as such, because it helps to retain the potassium in the body while eliminating the sodium, which is rare.
So there you have it! The earth is providing us with food and medicine in the most unexpected and splendid ways. What are some of your favourite “weeds”, and how do you use them?
Disclaimer: This information is provided for informational purposes only. When harvesting wild plants, a 100% confirmation is necessary before ingesting. Should you choose to use these plants for medicinal purposes, please do so under the guidance or supervision of a healthcare professional.
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