Friday, 31 July 2015

Edible Weeds - Plant Identification


"Weeds thrive in the company of humans. They aren't parasites, because they can exist without us, but we are their natural ecological partners, the species alongside which they do best..Weeds made the first vegetables, the first home medicines, the first dyes...They seem, even from the most cursory of looks, to have evolved to grow in unsettled earth and damaged landscapes, and that may be a less malign role than we give them credit for."
Richard Mabey "Weeds - How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature"

Micro-greens are a growing trend in food production. It takes a lot of energy to create those micro-greens making them an expensive way of accessing nutrient rich food. A nutrient rich alternative could be as close as the back yard or local reserve and provided free of charge.

That alternative is edible weeds. 

My collection of salad weeds and flowers washed and spun

Not all weeds are bad guys, far from it:

some are nutritionally rich,

some medicine,

some attract good insects for your garden

and some help you take care of the soil.

This assessment will profile weeds that can be harvested and even encouraged in gardens as a way of adding extra nutrients to a household's diet. All the plants chosen are weeds that just arrive in my garden or herbs that will self sow, like a weed.

These are wild plants, not cultivated ones, so good identification is important. The textures and flavours are not what our palates are used to (hairiness, bitterness, toughness) so I will encourage others to just add these high nutrient freebees to their salad greens or pot of greens.

One of my objectives when starting this course was to better inform my kitchen/garden blog The research I gathered for this assessment I will use over time on my blog to gently and creatively introduce edible weeds to my readers. The various common names I will utilise (e.g. Nipplewort, Starflower, Gallant Soldier, Goosegrass) to entice people to read my blog and hopefully encourage them to try a few edible weeds.

While the first reason for choosing these weed plants is for edible attributes, I have also included the various other uses each plant has, and have summarised this in bold with each identification.

 Plant 1: Violet Viola odorata

I would like to start with a weed I welcome with its sweet perfume every spring, the delightful Violet Viola odorata in the Violaceae family.

Violet Viola odorata in the Violaceae family.
There are no leaves on the flower stalk and the heart shaped shallow-toothed leaves rise separately from the ground.

Violets are useful as a perennial ground cover and both the young leaves and flowers can be tossed into salads or finely chopped and put into dips and sauces.  Two violet leaves have as much Vitamin C as an orange! The flowers heated in sugar syrup will extract a floral scented syrup to use in desserts. The Romans used the flowers to make wine and Egyptians and Turks valued the flowers for use in sorbets.

Uses: Groundcover, nourishing edible, sensory

Plant 2: Galinsoga parviflora aka Gallant Soldier

This weed is growing in such abundance at our Sanctuary Community Gardens that I just had to find out what it is. Thanks to Julia Sich's "Guide to Edible Weeds and Wild Green Smoothies" I discovered its name.

Our mystery weed is an annual called Galinsoga parviflora from the Asteraceae (daisy) family. It was named after an 18th Century Spanish physician and parviflora is latin for small flowers. and to make it easier to remember it's common name is"Gallant Soldier" which is a lot easier to remember....and it did do the work of a soldier guarding and looking after the soil by laying an armour to prevent evaporation of the soil moisture in between crops.

It has pointed yellowish-green leaves in opposite pairs that are toothed and pointed with a hairs on the leaf margin and stems. The small flowers in clusters have five white petals with three lobes at the tips. The flower centres are yellow disc florets.  It flowers from October to April and likes to grow amongst vegetables and flowers in cultivated land and tolerates sun and semi shade.

It may be thought of as a weed here but overseas it is a valued potherb.  It originates as the name suggests from South America and is known as Guascas in Columbia and is an essential ingredient in Bogata chicken and potato stew/soup (ajiaco)

Use the leaves especially of young plants and even stems and flowers in salads, smoothies, or cooked.  It's mild in flavour but is high in calcium, vitamin A, magnesium, potassium and zinc.  It is astringent in its action and ean be used to help clot the blood of cuts and wounds....and if you can't find a dock or plantain Galinsoga can be used to neutralize the sting of nettles.

Uses: ground cover, medicinal first aid, nourishing edible.

Plant 3: Shepherds Purse Capsella bursa-pastoris

Shepherds Purse Capsella bursa-pastoris was the first plant I remember learning about in primary school – I was fascinated by its name and the heart shaped pouches.

"The common garden weed shepherds Purse is named for its seed heads, which resemble the little pouches or skips worn by medieval peasants. Open up a purse and the seeds spill out like tiny gold coins. They're covered with a thin layer of gum, which becomes stickier still when it's moistened - as for the instance by contact with the soil - so long as it can cling to the feet of birds." Richard Mabey

This annual from the Brassica family is most recognisable by it seed heads on flowering stalks that reach up to 30cm in height. It has small white flowers usually from September to January.

Before flowering it can be recognised as a rosette of arrow shaped and toothed stem leaves with ear-like projections clasping the stem.

All of this plant is edible – the little seed pouches are peppery and can add zing to soups, the dried roots have been used as a substitute for ginger, and is cultivated as a cabbage flavoured spring green in Japan, China and Korea. A very nutritious plant giving you essential minerals of calcium, phosphorus, potassium and vitamin A.

It’s had a history of use as a medicinal herb and has strong astringent and antiseptic powers to stop nose bleeds and to lessen overactive menstruation.

Usually found on waste or roadside land as a pioneering plant, it's a weed that appears on recently disturbed soil so is likely to turn up in your garden. It can be used as an indicator plant and if appearing in large quantities will indicate either rich nitrogen or saline soils.
Uses: Nutritious edible, soil indicator, medicinal

Plant 4: Yarrow Achilea millifolium

The perennial Yarrow Achilea millifolium in the Asteraceae family is another plant I remember from my childhood.  It would have been in the farm pasture but I particularly remember its clusters of white flowers and occasionally pink flowers up to half a metre high on the roadside.  Later I introduced the coloured species of scarlet, purple-red and salmon pink into my cottage garden.

"Millefolium" means "coming of a thousand leaves" and refers to the very small, fine and feathery leaves.

The word "Achillea" refers to Achilles, who used yarrow for himself and for his soldiers to mend battle wounds. Yarrow carries other names that reflect it's herbal healing properties: bloodwort, carpenter's weed, knight's milfoil, old man's pepper, nosebleed and staunch grass.

Yarrow has astringent properties for healing but it is also used for the treatment of all fevers, haemorrhages, diarrhoea, respiratory illnesses and rheumatism. It's a valuable herb to have when fever strikes your household as it promotes perspiration. On taking it as a tea, retire to bed.

While the odd young leaf can be added to salads or a smoothie yarrow is mainly used medicinally as a healing herb. Both the leaves and flowers have phyto-chemical flavonoids, which have anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-tumour and anti-oxidant properties. It's certainly a medicinal powerhouse in something that is so commonplace. Flowers and leaves can be dried for use over winter in teas.

And yet there is more...yarrow is one of the herbs used as an activator in the compost heap adding copper, nitrogen and phosphorus. It's a good companion plant because it attracts bees and beneficial insects.

Uses: companion plant, compost activator, nutritious edible in small amounts, medicinal

Plant 5: Stinging Nettle Urtica

The most common stinging nettle I have in my garden is the annual Urtica urens. There is also a perennial nettle Urtica dioica as described below. Our native tree nettle Urtica forex stands 2 metres tall and is our most poisonous native tree and should be avoided.
Nettles have an "ouch" effect in the garden if accidentally brushed against but they have many more good things about them including high nutritional food and healing properties.

Urtica urens

The annual stinging nettle Urtica urens grows up to 60 cm tall, usually on a single stem, and has short stinging bristles on the square shaped stems and on the leaves.  It has clusters of tiny flowers in the leaf axils where the leaf meets the stem.

Nettles are nutritious and there are plenty of recipes using cooked nettles, especially from English cookbooks, although Julia blends them raw into her green smoothies. Nettles are a great source of calcium, magnesium, cobalt, iron, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, silicon, copper and sulphur as well as vitamins A, C, K and B. They contain lecithin that is good for our blood vessel walls and our nervous system.

With all those goodies it's not surprising that nettles are highly prized by herbalists for their healing qualities including being a blood-purifier of the highest calibre. Because of it’s high alkaline-mineral content (silicon and iron) and blood-building properties, the leaves neutralise and dissolve acidic wastes in the blood. Nettles help lessen allergies, are beneficial for anaemia and is a powerful preventative of rheumatism.

The silica in the leaves makes an excellent hair rinse. Make as you would a tea - steep overnight in a jar filled with boiling water, strain off the greenery and put into your compost, the liquid you add to the rinsing water for your hair.
This is the new growth of the perennial nettle Urtica dioica  after being cut back a month ago
The perennial stinging nettle Urtica dioica we have growing at our community garden has rhizomes that form dense patches.  They can grow up to 1.5 metres high if left undisturbed but there are plenty of gardeners harvesting the nettles in our patch that it is kept under control.

Nettles are a complete plant food and one of the best activators for the compost heap. They can stimulate the growth of nearby plants and make them more disease resistant. Soft fruit bushes improve markedly if nettles are allowed to grow amongst them for one season - probably a good idea in the first year when picking of the fruit is often discouraged but otherwise this suggestion does rather take away the pleasure of going out and picking the fruit from the tree...last thing you want is to brush up against nettles in that sensory process.

I was interested in Richard Mabey's story on perennial stinging nettle in the UK:
"Phosphates in the soil persist for exceptionally long periods, and the wooded sites of Romano-British settlements near Salisbury are still dense with nettles thriving on the remains of a human occupation that ended 1600 years ago. They are flourishing in Wiltshire's modern landscape too. Fertiliser run-off from huge expanses of industrial arable farming, plus phosphates from household detergent, drains off into the River Kennet.  In summer a twelve-mile stretch is an almost continuous double ribbon of nettles, some of them ten feet high."

Uses: Food for Red Admiral caterpillars, medicinal, nutritious edible, compost activator

Plant 6: Plantain Plantago species

The two most common plantains are Broad-leaved Plantago major and Narrow-leaved Plantago lancelet are from the Plantaginaceae family. They're known as esteemed healers since ancient times.

Plantago major

Richard Mabey best described them.....
"Plantain, "the mother of worts", is present in almost all the early prescriptions of magical herbs, back as far as the earliest Celtic fire ceremonies.  It isn't clear why such a drab plant - a plain rosette of grey-green leaves topped by a flower spike like a rat's tail - should have pre-eminent status.  But its weediness, in the sense of its willingness to tolerate human company, may have a lot to do with it. ...It thrives on roadways, field-paths, church steps. In the most literal sense it dogs human footsteps. Its tough, elastic leaves, growing lush with the ground are resilient to treading. You can walk on them, scuff them, even drive over them, and they go on living. They seem to actively prosper from stamping, as more delicate plants around them are crushed. The principles of sympathetic magic, therefore, indicated that plantain would be effective for crushing and tearing injuries. (And so it is, to a certain extent. The leaves contain a high proportion of tannins, which help to close wounds and halt bleeding.)"
Plantain has been used herbal for respiratory disorders including asthma, whooping cough and bronchitis.

In first aid terms it's a treatment for bee stings. Chew up a leaf or rub the leaf and apply to the sting. The stinging will cease, five minutes later all pain will subside and 30 minutes later you won't see any sign of where you were stung. You can also use it in the same way for mosquito bites.
Plantago major

All plantains are high in protein and also contain vitamins C, E and K as well as boron, calcium, iron, molybdenum, potassium and sulphur.  The narrow leaved variety has a very bitter taste unless very young, so it's best to use the broad leaved variety for eating.

Plant 7: Speedwell Veronica persica

This pretty blue flower Speedwell Veronica persica from the Plantaginaceae family
can be found scrambles around most gardens and is named after St Veronica.  There is plenty of Speedwell at the Sanctuary gardens and I have always seen Speedwell as a harmless weed and good ground cover. I now realise until now it can be a nourishing eat and have medicinal qualities.

It's name suggests a sprawling habit that will climb over plants. The small blue flowers are 1 cm wide and appear as solitary flowers. The upper three petals are bright blue and the lower petal whitish or pale blue. They open on sunny days on thin stalks, flowering all year round. The pale to medium green leaves grow in opposite pairs, are oval, short stalked, coarsely toothed and hairy. The stems are round and flexible growing up to 70cm long and easily root at the nodes which are the part of stem out of which the leaves grow.


As it has soft hairy leaves it can be included in a salad with other greens but probably is best added to a smoothie.   It has an astringent quality to it and in the past was used as an black tea substitute in France because of the astringency and it's smell is reminiscent of tea.  They called it Europa Tea.

It is as a tea that it is used medicinally to clear excess mucous, calm sore throats and eyes and assist with bad skin.  Who would have thought that this small and abundant weed could do all that.

Uses: ground cover, medicinal, nutritious edible, small flowers for beneficial insects

Plant 8: Purslane Portulaca oleracea

Purslane Portulaca oleracea is an annual succulent in the Portulacaceae family. I was introduced to one of the least appreciated edible weeds at our Sanctuary Community gardens and discovered it has the highest proportion of Omega-3 fatty acid of any other leafy vegetable plant.

You can tell Purslane has succulent relatives with its fleshy, hairless, rounded leaves. When young it has green stems,turning into reddish branched stems as it ages. It has a small yellow flower and it is best harvested for eating before it flowers. It has a low spreading habit and is found only in summer and autumn because frost kills it.

It's described as having a slightly sour, salty taste but I found the samples I had from the gardens were mild. I think the mildness of my sample was due to its growing conditions in a lush plastic house with plenty of water. It naturally grows in areas that are semi-arid so the flavours are intensified. It's an ideal dry soil plant.

Purslane provides ground cover and creates a humid micro-climate for nearby plants, stabilising ground moisture. It has deep roots that bring up moisture and nutrients that other plants can use, and some plants including corn will "follow" purslane roots down through harder soil that they couldn't otherwise penetrate.

Purslane is seen as a vegetable rather than a weed in a lot of countries around the world. The best time to harvest is in the afternoon because at night it's leaves trap carbon dioxide, which is converted into malic acid (the souring principle of apples), and over the following day the malic acid is converted into glucose. In the early morning, the leaves have ten times the malic acid content of those harvested in the late afternoon.

Try adding it to a Greek Salad as this often how it is used in Greece, or cook it and use it as you would spinach as they do in Turkey. Aborigines in Australia use the seeds of Purslane to make seed cakes. The mucilaginous quality means it's suitable for soups and stews.

There are nearly as many uses for this luscious little ground cover as there are names including verdolaga, pigweed, little hogweed, red root, pursley, and moss rose ....not too keen on hogweed or pigweed but pursley or moss rose I like.

Unfortunately I didn't gather the seeds but Kings Seeds do sell seeds under the vegetable section offering a variety that has a "blend of red and gold leaf types with orange stems that have a crisp mild taste".

Uses: Companion Plant, Ground cover, Nutritious edible, dry climate plant

Plant 9: Onion Weed/Wild Garlic Allium triquetrum

Garden escapee Onion Weed or Wild Garlic Allium triquetrum is in abundance under the bare trees at Western Park in Ponsonby. From the Amaryllidaceae family,  it's genus is Allium, as are onions and garlic. It's seen as a pest but why not harvest and eat it?

Also known as Three Cornered Leek due to it's flower stalks are shaped like a peaked roofline with a definite fold down the centre of the leaf.  There are similar bulbs but the leaf structure is a good identification key when foraging for onion weed.

Early spring flower stalks produce an umbel inflorescence of drooping bell shaped white flowers with a defining fine green stripe down the centre of each petal. The non flowering leaves are strap-like and can be used like garlic chives.

Onion weed is a good ground cover beneath deciduous trees over the colder months and could be utilised more in orchards because when walked on, it releases the garlic odour containing sulphur. Its anti-microbial properties will deter damaging insects and fungi from your fruit. The flowers are visited by bees at a time when there are not a lot of other flowers blooming. Over summer and autumn when you are tending or picking from the trees the onion weed will have died down.

Harvest it to use onion weed in your kitchen as an alternative to spring onions. Cooked it has a subtle leek or spring onion taste. Raw its great in pestos, salads and salsas. Use the delicate white flowers in salads. Check for the distnctive green line before harvesting. Crush the leaves and you will smell onion.

Once the leaves have died down you can lift some bulbs and pickle like miniature cocktail onions. With onion weed on your property, even if you run out of onions in the pantry, you will always have an alternative on hand.

Onion weed added to your diet on a regular basis helps to reduce blood cholesterol levels, acts as a digestive system tonic, stimulates the circulatory system and is anti-microbial. This winter green is a gift that comes at a time when we need protection against colds and flus.

Uses: Ground cover under orchard trees, Nutritious edible, Bee plant, Insect repellent under trees, reduce fungal infections on fruit trees

Plant 10: Lesser Celandine Ranunculus ficaria

Lesser celandine Ranunculus ficaria I introduced to my garden and like you do, I shared it with my sister, who now curses this abundant perennial in her garden. I have spent lots of time digging up the tiny tubers in the damp areas of my Dunedin garden where it thrives. But now I have a most satisfying turn it into a food source.

Lesser Celandine as the plant name suggests, Ranunculus ficaria, is from the buttercup family and other common names Fig buttercup and Bulbous buttercup indicate the leaf shape and the swollen roots.

The leaves are glossy heart-shaped and smooth. The shining bright yellow flower has 12-20 petals.

Wordsworth wrote about it, 
"It is remarkable that this flower, coming out so early in the spring as it does, and so bright and beautiful, and in such profusion, should not have been noticed earlier in English verse. What adds much to the interest that attaches to it is its habit of shutting itself up and opening out according to the degree of light and temperature in the air."

If used as a ground cover in a wild corner of the garden it is an impressive early spring display.

It's the only plant in the Buttercup family that is edible, but does need to be processed by heat treatment before eating due to a mild toxin that can cause blistering in the mouth.

The best part of the plant to eat are the swollen tuberous roots. They retain their high vitamin C content even after boiling. Clean all the dirt off the roots and boil in water for 2 minutes, drain off the water and boil again in fresh water for another 2 minutes. Taste, and if still bitter, repeat one or two times. A heap you can mash like potato or fried with garlic after you complete the pre-cooking process. It tastes like rice or potatoes.

One thing is for sure, eating it makes the weeding more satisfying. The roots should never be composted because even a tiny piece of root will become a new plant.

"Celandine's petals like buttercups, seem able to reflect the light, as if they were made of yellow metal, or soil, or most persuasively, molten butter. John Clare tells of a game where children held the open flowers under each others chins (as buttercups are today) to see if a golden reflection foretold a golden true.... the flowers register the sun uncompromisingly, opening wide on warm days and closing up in the cold. " Richard Mabey

Uses: woodland ground cover, cooked nutritious edible

Note: Greater Celandine Chelidonium majus L is from a completely different plant family, the Papaveraceae (Poppy family).  It too has a yellow flower but thrives in dry conditions on stone walls.  The yellow-orange juice from the stems have long been used for painting on warts. Do not eat. 

Plant 11: Lawn or Common Daisy Bellis prenennis 

You know it's getting close to summer when the Meadow or Common Daisy Bellis perennis appears on the lawn.  Our lawn is covered late spring so I delay mowing as long as I can to share the daisy blooms with the bees and insects who pollinate them.

They belong to the Asteraceae family and the distinctive feature of this family is that the flowers are composite, meaning they are made up of many small flowers (in the yellow area of the photo).  

Their heart-warming sun shaped blooms with perfect yellow disc centres surrounded by white ray florets (often tipped red) are usually found in a sea of green grass. Summers lying on the grass making daisy chains are a fond childhood memory.

The lawn daisy is a herbaceous perennial that increases by short creeping rhizomes and forms rosettes of small rounded or spoon-shaped leaves that are approximately 2–5 cm long and grow flat to the ground.

You can eat the daisy leaves but they can be quite bitter so choosing young new leaves would be the key. The daisy is mainly used medicinally to help bruising. The plant in flower is a homeopathic treatment for a host of other complaints. Chewing the leaves is supposed to be a cure for mouth ulcers.
Uses: Medicinal, edible when leaves young, bee and beneficial insect plant, ground cover.

Plant 12: Borage Borago officinalis 

Borage Borago officinalis is also known as Starflower obviously named for the shape of it's five petal flower.  It's an annual from the Boraginaceae family.

It's a plant you will probably have to introduce to your garden but once established Borage works in a truly weedy fashion by readily self sowing.  You need to transplant very young seedlings as the tap root means transplanting is difficult.

The sweet honey-like Borage flowers often star in my salads as blue really stands out and the leaves add a slight cucumber flavour. Because of the hairy nature of the leaves I tend to cook or wilt the leaves and have successfully made the most vibrant green soup from young borage leaves. 

In Italy borage is commonly used as a filling of the traditional pasta ravioli and it's used to flavour pickled gherkins in Poland.

Borage grows to a height of 60–100 cm (2.0–3.3 ft), and is bristly or hairy all over the stems and leaves; the leaves are alternate, simple, and 5–15 cm (2.0–5.9 in) long.

Bees absolutely adore borage and it is supposed to be a good companion plant to legumes and tomatoes.  It's a Mediterranean plant that has a variety of culinary uses. I wouldn't be without it in my garden as all parts of the plant can be eaten, the blue flowers are so pretty and the bees just love it.

Uses: Bee plant, nutritious edible, companion plant, flowers decorative on food

Plant 13: Calendula aka Pot Marigold Calendula officinalis

Calendula is one of a few plants that I know from it's correct genus name but is also commonly called Marigold (although this is confusing as the Tagetes flowers are also called Marigolds). It's one of those herbs that I introduce to any new garden I have.

Calendula officinalis is a perennial that's not fussy about soil type from the Asteraceae (Sunflower) family but is often treated as an annual. It may not survive really cold temperatures in winter or really hot summers and its form tends to get more straggly after it's first year of blooming.  

The leaves are oblong-lanceolate, 5–17 cm (2–7 in) long, hairy on both sides, and with margins occasionally waved.

Medicinally the leaves and the flowers are used to make powerful healing and anti-inflammatory creams and ointments to repair skin. I was introduced to it with a Weleda nipple protection cream. It was most effective and I was so thankful for the relief that it gave me all those years ago that now I recommend Weleda to all new Mums. Weleda use Calendula in a number of other skin protection products like nappy rash ointment and skin lotions.

But it's the flowers, (yellow to bright orange ray petals attached to a central flower disc), made to  capture the strength and heat of the sun, that I use most frequently. Calendula is my top edible flower that I add to salads and in other dishes just before serving.  Calendulas add more than colour, there are nutritional and medicinal benefits for the digestive tract, liver and gall bladder. 

One thing is for sure it will self sow, and if you choose it will always be with you.  Young plants do transplant quite well if they haven't chosen an ideal place to settle in your garden.

Uses:  Edible flower, medicinal, Bee and beneficial insect friendly, sensory.

Plant 14: Lemon Balm Melissa officinalis

Melissa officinalis, known as lemon balm is a perennial herbaceous plant in the mint family, Lamiaceae and can grow 70–150 cm (28–59 in) tall. It has successfully been used as hedging between two plots at Sanctuary Community Gardens.

The leaves look similar to some varieties of mint and have a gentle lemon scent. It's an aromatic herb with simple gently toothed edged leaves that grow in opposites up the stem. The stems have tiny hairs on them. During summer, small white and sometimes pink flowers appear along the stem comprising of four petals fused together to create a tiny cup. The flowers are full of nectar so are loved by bees hence the genus name Melissa (Greek for 'honey bee'). The plant tends to look untidy at this stage but try to keep the clippers away until the bees have had a go. It can be regularly trimmed and the cuttings used for cut and drop ground cover or in the compost heap.
Melissa officinalis
Like mint, lemon balm first grows like a ground cover putting on height in spring. It can self sow easily once established and will try to increase it's girth vegetatively each season, but I welcome this lemon fragrance to my garden.

It is useful as a ground cover in my vegetable plot over winter and I remove a lot of it in spring to plant other crops. But you have to be warned if it finds the right conditions it will grow vigorously so you should give it space from other plantings.

It is a valuable plant to have in your garden either to add young leaves to your salads, make a lemon balm pesto to go with fish dishes, or to use as a calming herbal tea to reduce our 21st century stresses and depressed moods. Lemon balm is used in traditional Austrian medicine prescribed for internal use (as tea) or external (essential oil) as an application for the treatment of disorders of the gastrointestinal tract, nervous system, liver, and bile.

"An aromatic cordial made of lemon balm combined with lemon-peel, nutmeg and angelica root, was formulated by the Carmelite nuns of the Abbey St Juste in the 14th century, supposedly for Charles V of France. This secret recipe, later patented, was known as ‘Eau de Carmes’ (Carmelite water). It enjoyed a widespread reputation over many centuries and was deemed highly useful against nervous headache and neuralgic affections. In fact, it is still for sale to this day in German pharmacies."                      Mayo Times, article by Sabine Hiller "Lemon Balm in History - and in the Kitchen ".

Uses: Bee plant, Flavouring, Medicinal, Herbal Tea, Ground Cover.

Plant 15: Red Dead Nettle Lamium purpureum

The annual Red Dead Nettle is in the Lamiaceae family, the same family as mint, but unlike mint or lemon balm it's not an aromatic herb. It's plant name Lamium purpureum relates to its family name and the colour of it's distinctive leafy flower-heads with reddish-purple flowers that have spots of dark purple on the lower lips. This weed I have previously found a bother as it seems to often come up first in a row of any seeds I plant. Now at least I know I can eat it and actually benefit from its presence in the garden.

Lamium purpureum

Red Dead Nettle's leaves have soft hairs unlike real nettles. The toothed heart shaped leaves are in opposite pairs with long leaf stalks. The stems are square and hollow and are either erect or spreading in habit. It's usually plentiful in loose soils in the garden, river beds, arable cropland, driveways, grows almost everywhere. It's adaptable, growing up to 50cm tall in lush conditions or quite low growing where it's dry and is most commonly found during the cooler months.
Lamium purpureum
It turns out it's a highly nutritious plant full of fibre, chlorophyll, vitamins, iron and other minerals. The oil in the seeds is high in antioxidants. It's mild tasting so is a great plant to include in your salads or smoothies.

Uses: Nutritious edible, bee plant

Plant 16: Broad-Leaved Dock Rumex obtusifolius

Dock is not commonly thought of as edible, but it's highly nutritious and has medicinal values. It's a perennial weed in the family Polygonaceae, as is sorrel and buckwheat. Dock is sour tasting indicating that it has a high iron content.
Rumex obtusifolius
It grows to a height of 50 to 130 cm (20 to 51 in) and is easily recognisable by very large oval leaves with heart shaped leaf bases and rounded tips, and some of the lower leaves having red stems. The edges of the leaves are slightly wavy, and the upper surface hairless. The leaves can grow to about 40 cm (16 in) in length. The flowers consist of large clusters of small greenish flowers changing to red as they mature. The seeds produced are dry and reddish-brown.

Dock is a problem because the seeds have toothed wing structures, allowing them to be dispersed by wind or water, easily attaching to animals or machinery to be spread great distances. They can lie dormant for years before germination.

Called "Butter Dock" because the leaves were used to wrap and preserve butter, the leaves are also used for rubbing on skin when stung by nettles and as a remedy for other skin conditions. They have astringent and cooling qualities so are good to apply to blisters, cuts burns, and even haemorrhoids.

Dock contains iron, phosphorus, magnesium and potassium drawn up by their deep roots. Leaves have the same amount of oxalic acid as spinach so eat in moderation as you would with spinach.

I like a few plants in the garden making sure I cut off the seed heads to prevent a population explosion. I regularly harvest the large leaves to lay them down to deliver those nutrients back to the soil. Young seedlings I weed. Docks manage to wedge themselves in areas that are hard to get at, and the best chance you have to get out all the roots is during winter when the soil is wetter and roots can be pulled more easily.

Uses: medicinal, nutritious edible, nutrient high green fertiliser.

Plant 17: Chickweed Stellaria media

Chickweed is not just for the birds. Do yourself a favour and add this nutritious annual weed to your salad or use like sprouts in a sandwich when it appears in winter and early spring. 

Stellaria media
 Stellaria means "little star" and reflects the white, five, deeply divided, petalled flowers that grow on thin stalks in clusters around the stems of the upper leaves. The flowers are quickly followed by egg-shaped seed capsules. It's from the Caryophyllaceae (pink or carnation) family. Even though the Chickweed flowers are tiny they have similarly deeply divided petals to a carnation.

Media means "in the midst of" and to me it refers to the way chickweed grows in and around and over other plants. The tender, small, oval leaves with pointed tips are pale green in opposite pairs, on round, thin, sprawling stems. In my garden it doesn't seem to completely overcome other plants and often it's me who ends up causing damage to other seedlings when I try to weed it. It would smother young seedlings or seeds but established plants are happy to live alongside this sprawling armour for the soil.

Stellaria media
It's nutritional values make Chickweed sought out by those with hens or caged birds. It prefers cool, rich and moist conditions. It won't live through summer. It indicates a high nitrogen level in your soil.

Chickweed contains mucilage and saponins which assist in the absorption of nutrients, especially minerals. It's a rich source of vitamin C, calcium, chlorophyll, carotenes needed by the liver to produce vitamin A, folic acid, essential fatty acids and protein. Consider Chickweed as an easily obtained nourishing, calming and strengthening food. In the past, before lettuce was developed, it was used in the same way as lettuce is today. For adding to a smoothie you can just grab a handful, but for including in salads I tend to remove quite a bit of the stem to make it more attractive and easier to digest...this does take time.

Medicinally it's used to relieve fevers, infections e.g. bronchitis, sore throats and inflammations and can ease the pain of arthritic swollen joints. It has been used externally for abscesses, bites, cuts, dermatitis, eczema and psoriasis.

Uses: Nutritious edible, ground cover, medicinal, forage for birds

Plant 18: Nipplewort Lapsana communis L.

This weed from the Asteracea (sunflower) family can be found everywhere in the semi-shaded parts of my garden and especially likes growing along the wall of our courtyard. How pleased I was to learn that it can be eaten. It can be used as a salad plant or added to your cooked greens. In the past, as the name suggests, it was used as a soothing remedy for sore nipples.

The juvenile form produces"spoon-shaped" leaves that later become more pointed. This is the best stage to harvest if you want to avoid the bitterness of older plants.

Lapsana communis

Nipplewort is an annual and it's seeds can sprout at anytime, but most of them do so during wet months. The soft green leaves have one large terminal lobe with variously shaped smaller lobes below. The plant will form a basal rosette that in spring bolts up to an erect plant of 100-120 cm. The inflorescence has many branches and the flower-buds, that resemble nipples - enough to have suggested a medicinal use. The flower-buds open up to reveal small dandelion-like blossoms over summer.

Nipplewort can be confused with Sow-thistle or Prickly lettuce. Nipplewort doesn't have the row of spines found on the underside of its leaf that is characteristic of Prickly Lettuce, nor are the leaf margins of Nipplewort toothed as is characteristic of the Sow-thistles.

The leaves are covered with velvety hairs making it a little chewy but add a dressing and mix with other salad greens and it won't be noticeable. The young leaves (taste before you add) will only have a mild bitterness, but as the plant matures it's best boiled or steamed to remove any bitterness.

Nipplewort usually shadows mans footsteps; our shoes, clothing or car tyres are often the means of carrying the seeds to a new location. And it's a prolific producer of seeds - around 1,000 per plant. To disburse they dry and rattle in their cases and get tossed by whatever force agitates it - could be wind, a bird or a person brushing against it.

The best way to keep the population down is to weed it out before it seeds and unless the soil is quite heavy or dry, yanking up unwanted Nippleworts is easy. Now at least I know its name.

Uses: Nutritional edible, compost material before seeding, flowers for bees and beneficial insects, Medicinal

Plant 19: Oxalis aka Pink Wood-Sorrel Oxalis articulata

I have to admire this little plant's tenacity to reproduce and grow so quickly. This pink flowered Oxalis articulata is a member of the large Oxalidaceae (wood-sorrel) family. Introduced as a garden plant from South America, it soon became too successful and has now become one of the most cursed weeds in the garden.
Oxalis articulata
The distinctive three green leaflets, with top notches on the leaf, create a heart-shape similar to some clovers. Some species exhibit rapid changes in leaf angle in response to temporarily high light intensity.
A large bucket full of oxalis Oxalis articulata at the Sanctuary community gardens

The flowers have five purple-pink petals, fused at the base to create a vase shape. The roots are tuberous and succulent. This variety is a perennial, reproducing vegetatively by the production of bulbils, which detach to produce new plants. Once you have oxalis, it will be hard to get rid of.

The leaves and flowers have an astringent, fresh taste, similar to garden sorrel. It's often called Wood-sorrel but garden sorrel and oxalis are not in the same family, but they contain oxalic acid. In large quantities oxalic acid may be considered toxic interfering with proper digestion and kidney function. Oxalic acid is also present in commonly consumed foods such as spinach, broccoli, grapefruit and rhubarb. General scientific consensus is that the risk of actual poisoning from oxalic acid in persons with normal kidney function is "wildly unlikely". So enjoy the zingy clover-shaped leaves and the delicate flowers as an interesting addition to your summer salads.

Oxalis has been an edible wild plant consumed by humans around the world for centuries. Kiowa Indians chewed wood sorrel to alleviate thirst, Cherokee ate it to help mouth sores and a sore throat, and the Iroquois used it to help cramps, fever and nausea....I feel better about it already.

In the past I have tried digging oxalis up and end up just disturbing the roots of the plants I want to grow. I have since learnt that oxalis has a mechanism for survival. When there is a vibration in the ground caused by a garden fork the plant will propel barely visible baby bulbils into the surrounding soil. The gardener is fooled temporarily but there will be more oxalis...soon. It's susceptible to a rust disease caused by the fungus Puccinia oxalidis. Oxalis doesn't like light restriction so as trees and shrubs grow the problem reduces. To look on the positive side, it is an effective ground cover.

Uses: Nutritious edible, Medicinal, Ground cover.

Plant 20: Wild or Alpine Strawberry Potentilla viscera

Wild or Alpine Strawberries are in the Rosaceae (Rose) family and I wouldn't be without these herbaceous berry producing perennials. All through summer and into autumn I can reward myself with small strawberry treats while gardening.

Potentilla vesca

Glossy bright green leaves divided into three leaflets form a basal rosette. Leaflets are up to 6 cm long with a toothed margin, sparsely hairy on upper surface, with a fine greyish covering of hair beneath.

I used to call them Woodland strawberries but on further research, I'm sure Alpine strawberry is the variety I'm growing. The true woodland strawberry doesn't fruit multiple times or create runners. Mine do.

Strawberries have a history of being considered from the genus Fragaria, but recent research suggests they belong in the genus Potentilla. Other Potentilla flowering species have five open rounded petals like the alpine strawberry. Most online searches still name the wild strawberry as Fragaria vesca.

Potentilla vesca

The berries the size of your thumbnail are sweet and fragrant but do not keep well – you have to use them the day you pick them. In France they are used in fruit tarts. They are perfect little flavour capsules to add to a salad.

Potentilla vesca was probably cultivated by the ancient Romans and Greeks. The plants produce rooted runners bearing small clusters of leaves, which can easily be removed from the parent plant and transported elsewhere for cultivation.

During the 13th century the French cultivated strawberries to use as a medicinal herb for numerous digestive discomforts. The roots, leaves, and fruits of the Alpine Strawberry were used as a digestive aid and skin tonic. The berry was prescribed for diarrhea and digestive upset, while the leaves and roots were supposed to relievie gout. The berry itself was rubbed on the skin to ease the pain of sunburn and to relieve blemishes. The juice of the strawberry brightened discoloured teeth.

Wild strawberries are also an effective ground cover under trees creating an armour for the soil and the small flowers are attractive to bees and other beneficial insects.

Uses: Nutritious edible, medicinal, ground cover, bee and beneficial insect plant

Plant 21: Cleavers Galium aparine

The weed Cleavers has appeared on my "pretty annoying" list as it scrambles over and smothers other plants. Sometimes aptly called the"Velcro plant" as the tiny hook-like stiff hairs on the stems grab a hold of you. It's easy enough to pull out, if not a little rough and scratchy to touch, but I didn't realise I could eat it. It's also known as "Goosegrass" because geese and other poultry just love it.
Galium aparine

Cleavers is an annual in the Rubiaceae (Bedstraws and Coffee) family. Because of the coffee relation, the rounded fruit of Cleavers can be roasted and ground up to make a passable coffee tasting drink.

Galium aparine

Cleavers have long weak square shaped stems that can reach up to three feet (1 metre) or longer. The leaves are simple and linear in whorls of six to eight along the stem. The white to greenish flowers are tiny, star-shaped, clustered in groups of two or three, emerge from early spring to summer. The globular fruits (burrs) are covered with hooked hairs which cling to animal fur, or people's clothing, aiding in seed dispersal.

Botanically Galium aparine is derived from Greek meaning "milk seizer". Shepherds would use Cleavers as a strainer for milk and other things by bunching it up or making cross-hatched layers.

Cleavers has a long history of domestic medicinal use as a general detoxifying and lymphatic tonic, which means that it will help you get rid of toxins. Use in combination with other herbs for making spring tonic drinks. It strengthens your immune system and, thanks to its high concentration of citric acid, it has considerable anti-tumour activity.

Cleavers makes an excellent facial wash as it tightens the skin to reduce wrinkles.

To prepare as a vegetable use young shoots before flowering occurs or just the tips of older plants and boil until soft. Serve warm with butter or olive oil and seasoning. Or, cool and add to an omelet. Look for new growth in spring. Older plants are not edible because of the high silicon content but that silicon will be a great additive to your compost.

It's often stated that Cleavers can be used to curdle milk for cheese making, but this is an attribute of a close relative, Our Lady's Bedstraw Galium verum.

Uses: Medicinal, Nutritional Edible, Compost herb, Face Wash

Plant 22: Dandelion Taraxacum officinale

The Dandelion from the Asteraceae family is "king of the weeds" for health giving properties reflected in its latin plant name Taraxacum, meaning "remedy for disorders". It's an abundant wild edible but identifying it can be difficult from the many look a-like plants from the same family.

Taraxacum officinale

Dandelions are perennials and have a single yellow flowerhead on a hollow stem, containing white sap. The name "dandelion" comes from French, meaning "lion's tooth" describing the deeply lobed leaves with triangular teeth pointing towards the base of the leaf.

Taraxacum officinale

To check if you have a dandelion or not, turn the leaf over and run your finger along the main vein of the leaf. If it's smooth with no hairs, it's a true dandelion. Most of it's relatives have hairs on the veins or on the leaves, but no worries they won't do any harm if eaten.

The dandelion is a beneficial weed with its deep tap root bringing up nutrients from deep down to plants with shallower roots. It adds minerals and nitrogen to the soil and will attract pollinating insects. plus releasing ethylene gas to help ripen fruit. The global seed head, that we as children used as fairy wands, should be removed if you want to restrict the number of future dandelions.

The leaves contain high amounts of vitamins A, B and C, potassium, calcium, iron, phosphorus, and other minerals. They have an impressive amount of protein in their green leaves. The downside is that the leaves are bitter but this effect can be reduced if you cover the plant to blanch it as you do for other bitter vegetables like endive. That bitterness will improve digestion and help lower cholesterol levels and increase blood and lymph circulation. If used sparingly and put together with something sweet like apple or mandarins it makes the leaves a lot more palatable.

I have used the flowers to make a delicious Dandelion cordial and you can add flowers to smoothies or salads.

Uses: Nutritious edible, medicinal, deep rooted companion plant, Bee and insect friendly, compost activator

Dandelion flower heads harvested for Dandelion Cordial

General References used in this assessment:
"Wild Food" Roger Phillips
"Julia's Guide to EdibleWeeds and Wild Green Smoothies" by Julia Sich
"Virtues of Weeds" by May Philip

Specific Plant Reference Material:
Lemon Balm:
(Article by Sabine Hiller BSc(Hons) MIIMH MNIMH – is a qualified professional medical herbalist based in Westport. She is a member of the Irish Institute of Medical Herbalists and the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (UK).)
Alpine Strawberry reference Kew Gardens

Further Reading on the Subject:
Quell Gibbons Stalking the Wild Asparagus 1962
Second Nature Michael Pollen
Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from dirt to plate by John Kallas

"Cultivated plants are usually not as well adapted and strong as wild plants, so we try to help them grow by doing things such as tilling the soil. Sometimes it is also necessary to regulate competition. It is important to bear in mind that everything in nature has a reason. We must try to understand the natural processes and influence them in our favour. Just fighting the symptoms of a problem will not work - especially seeing as we have caused most of these problems ourselves." from Sepp Holzer's Permaculture

"The air and the soil are busy with constant streams of chemical messages - plant pheromones - designed to deter predatory insects, seduce pollinators, kill off competitors, encourage companion plants and warn other plants of insect attack. The pheromones may be volatile, and transmitted from leaves through the air, or water-soluble root-exudations that leach through the soil. The more plants that are involved, the more complex the play of messages becomes, and in long-established plant communities this chemical polyphony may be one of the devices by which interlopers like weeds are kept out. But in disturbed ground with few established plants, there is little existing activity, and weeds can begin their own chemical barrage to suppress competitors. Field bindweed and creeping thistle exude pheromones which inhibit the germination of most grain crops." Richard Mabey

Weeds are often more nutritious than the crops we grow...
"The mineral cobalt, essential for nutrition in ruminants, reaches concentrations in plantains and buttercups 160 times that in grasses. Dandelion, stinging nettle and thistles have up to five times the proportion of copper as grasses, and the same species have one and a half times that of iron. Magnesium, a deficiency of which causes "grass tetany" in grazing animals, has concentrations in grasses of about 0.4 per cent, but over 1 per cent in chicory, ribwort plantain and yarrow."ichard Maybe

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