The War on Weeds – Eating Your Enemy

I have had a lifetime of gardening and farming where weeds are only considered in terms of eradication. I had looked at these plants as an unwanted scourge on the landscape. Recently, I have come to appreciate their potential value as a green manure crop or for composting, as long as they are cropped before seeding. I have realised that nature abhors a vacuum so it will produce a groundcover of weeds if a vacuum is created. These plants photosynthesise and recycle nutrients and as a result they can actually improve soils with added carbon and minerals when they die. I have also come to understand that many weeds can be seen as a signpost for nutritional deficiencies or environmental imbalance. The weed seeds can survive for up to seventy years in the soil and they germinate when “ideal” conditions present themselves. This may be dry conditions, compacted soils, wet conditions, soil acidity, salt, or a lack or excess of specific minerals. However, I have never considered these yield-stealing competitors as potential food. It was a huge paradigm shift to walk in my garden and observe, identify and accept these former foes as friends. In light of my new-found interest in green smoothies I have been researching “wild greens” and their nutritional and therapeutic value. It was a major shock to find that some of my despised enemies, weeds that are abundant in my garden and on our research farm, are in fact edible and in some cases delicious. Not only that, but many of them are decidedly therapeutic and have been used in herbal medicine for centuries (prior to becoming “the wrong plant in the wrong place”).

Important: ensure you know your weeds before consuming them from your garden.

Chickweed – What the Chooks can Teach us

This creeping, small leaved pest with a tiny white star shaped flower infests my paths and gardens and it apparently acquired its name because it is a favoured food for chickens. Many plants favoured by birds and animals are also beneficial for us and if other creatures are particularly keen on a particular plant we should probably investigate the food and therapeutic potential. I have often plucked huge dandelions from a clay bank leading to the chook house and have mused at the fact that the chooks seemed to favour these “weeds” over nutritious vegetable scaps from my garden. We will consider dandelions later but at this point we will look more closely at why chickens gobble up their namesake.

Chickweed is rich in minerals (including calcium, magnesium, iron, manganese, silica and selenium) and it also contains particularly high levels of vitamin C and an important essential fatty acid called GLA. It must be remembered that these wild plants have never been hybridised, with the often associated, negative impact on nutrient uptake. Their reputation as a problem plant is often linked to their seeding efficiency. In this case, chickweed produces up to 15,000 seeds per plant and these seeds can survive for decades in the soil. The plant is constantly flowering so it becomes difficult to control. This pest-like capacity has nothing to do with the plant’s food potential. The leaves, stems and flowers can be eaten in salads, lightly steamed with other greens, steeped in hot water for ten minutes to make chickweed tea or, of course, they make a perfect additive to your green smoothies. Chickweed is a liver tonic, diuretic and an expectorant and it has been traditionally used to help clear congestion. It also has anti-inflammatory qualities and it is a herb that is commonly used in weight loss preparations. Many of the health claims attributed to chickweed seem linked to the abundant GLA component. Research has shown that GLA can clear congestion, control obesity, reduce inflammation, temper water retention and it can also serve as a liver tonic to reduce damage associated with alcohol. The good news about chickweed is that it tastes great, costs nothing and it can so easily become part of the all-important “variety” that can magnify the health impact of green smoothies. It is critically important that you have accurately identified any weed before consumption as some weeds are toxic. One of the tell tale identifying features of chickweed is a ridge of tiny hairs that runs up one side of each stem and this line of hairs changes sides at each leaf juncture.

Purslane – a Medicinal Succulent

Most of us are familiar with the powerful health benefits linked to the leaves of succulents like aloe vera and yucca and many are discovering the taste treats from the antioxidant-packed harvests from dragon fruit. However, few are aware of the suite of benefits associated with a common weed called purslane. This is a member of the portulacaceae family and is also called wild portulaca and verdolaga. There are some vibrant coloured, prolifically flowering, hybridised portulaca but these do not contain the nutrition found in the wild variety. Hybridisation is often about selecting for one set of characteristics at the expense of another. In this case there are many more pretty flowers on the hybrids but the nutritional profile has dramatically changed.

Purslane comes from India and it was a favourite food of Mahatma Ghandi. It is also a sought-after component of Greek and Asian cuisines and it is even available in cans in some regions. This plant has only recently caught the attention of nutrition researchers but some of them are now claiming it to be the most nutritious of all green vegetables. This seems like a pretty big claim but it certainly caught my attention. I have been burning my purslane for years as, like all succulents, each leaf can grow a new plant, and I was not sure that composting would destroy this regenerative potential. I will be harvesting it for the table in future!

Purslane contains higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable, an amazing 350 mg per 100 grams. The vast majority of us are in need of omega-3 fats. These fats are the building blocks for the anti-inflammatory stage of our natural healing process. The healthy omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is 2:1 but the Australian average is an unhealthy 20:1. Omega-6 fats are the building blocks for inflammation and inflammation is linked to all degenerative diseases. We all need to reduce consumption of margarine, cooking oils, fast foods and feedlot beef and increase the amount of omega-3-rich foods in our diet. This free weed is more cost-effective than salmon! Purslane also contains one of the highest levels of vitamin A (1350 IU per 100 grams) of all leafy vegetables. Vitamin A is a powerful, vision-enhancing, antioxidant that is very protective of mucus membranes. One US study showed high doses of vitamin A were more effective than flu vaccinations. This fat-soluble protector stores in the body for up to three months with the potential of flu protection for that period.

Purslane is extraordinarily alkalising. In the NTS health workshops, we find that the vast majority of participants are acidic. Acidity breeds disease in plants, animals and humans, so the consumption of alkalising foods and the correction of mineral deficits (involving the alkalising minerals) is an essential health strategy. It is the luxury levels of the key alkalising cations, magnesium and potassium, in purslane that is driving the alkalizing effect. 100 grams of purslane contains 17% of the magnesium RDA and 13% of the potassium RDA. Purslane is also rich in iron (25% of RDA per 100 grams) and every 100 grams also supplies 35% of the RDA of vitamin C.

The recognition of the alkalizing benefits of purslane is not a new thing. King Henry the 8th was renowned for his excesses in all things including food and partners (and his treatment of those unfortunate wives). He suffered badly from the acidity-related disease, gout, and his favoured tool to counter the ravages of this painful disorder, was purslane.

Purslane features luxury levels of the two potent antioxidants, beta-cyanins and beta-xanthins, which have been found to have anti-mutagenic properties. It contains high levels of vitamin E and impressive levels of glutathione – a cell regulator, blood cleanser and prime liver detox agent. Purslane also contains high levels of the sleep-promoting antioxidant hormone, melatonin. One wonders how such a special plant became a weed in our part of the world. The leaves, stems and flowers of purslane are all edible and they can be stir fried, juiced, eaten in salads and included in curries. Once again they also make a nutritious inclusion in green smoothies.

Dandelion – the Magic Bullet Weed

The botanical name for dandelion is Taraxacum officinale, which literally means “official remedy for disorders”. It turns out to be an accurate description of a remarkable herb when we see that dandelion is one of the top six herbs in the Chinese herbal medical chest and has been ranked in the top ten in several other cultures. Even the 1984 USDA bulletin called “The Composition of Foods” listed dandelion in the top four green vegetables in terms of total nutritional value. It could also be seen as nature’s remedy for calcium deficient soils, as the dandelion grows where calcium is deficient. It accumulates calcium from deep in the soil and deposits this most important of all soil minerals in the top layer when it dies. The earthworm, with its calciferous glands, teams with the dandelion to serve as nature’s lime supply when man has neglected the task.

Dandelions feature the richest source of beta-carotene of any green vegetable and they contain the third highest source of vitamin A (Haytowitz and Mathews). They are also a great source of fibre and protein and they are an exceptional source of calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and the B vitamins, thiamine and riboflavin. The Russian chemist, Gerasimova, also found they contained a rich lode of trace elements. In fact, he suggested that this plant contained a unique balance of nutrients in ratios that perfectly suited the human organism. Hippocrates talked about food as medicine and yet we somehow let this amazing medicine slip to the rank of an unwanted weed.

Despite the impressive nutritional profile of this plant, it is the huge array of phyto-chemical constituents in dandelion that are the biggest contributors to the success of dandelion as a medicinal herb. In 1985, the researcher, C. Hobbes, analysed and reviewed these beneficial compounds. They include inulin (a prebiotic that stimulates probiotic gut organisms), and the memory enhancer, choline. The potent flavonoids, apigenin and luteolin in dandelion are anti spasmodic, antioxidants that protect the liver and strengthen the heart. The high pectin content complexes metal irons and helps detox heavy metals. Several triterpenes are present which stimulate bile manufacture. One study reported a 100% increase in bile production with the use of dandelion leaves as a supplement and that figure was quadrupuled when the roots were used. This powerhouse herb also contains several sesquiterpene compounds that contribute to the bitterness of the plant and the related effect upon digestion, spleen, liver and gallbladder (think “Swedish Bitters”).

The dandelion research is compelling. Italian researchers found they could half the cholesterol level of those with liver ailments, when supplementing with dandelion. The Japanese filed a patent for the use of dried dandelion root as an anti-cancer agent. Romanian scientists found dandelion to be a more effective diuretic than two popular patented drugs and they also found that the high potassium levels could serve to lower blood pressure. In fact, dandelion can improve bone density, enhance liver and kidney function, aid weight loss, help control blood sugar levels and fight acne. The problem is that, unlike the other “weeds” we have considered to this point, dandelion does not have a great taste. In fact, it is decidedly bitter. It can still be used as a tangy salad green, like sorrel or radicchio, or it can be steamed or stir fried with other greens. However the easiest way to include the leaves, roots or flowers (all active) in your diet, is to include them in your green smoothie and the sweet fruit component will mask the bitter tang.

You could even make your own herbal tincture using either the roots or the leaf. This is not as difficult as it might sound. It simply involves chopping up the leaves or roots and placing them in a jar full of vodka diluted with 50% water. Seal the jar, shake it a few times and then leave it sitting on the shelf for a month and you have a dandelion tincture. One teaspoon, twice a day of the root tincture is reportedly a remarkable liver tonic and a similar dose of the leaf tincture supports optimal kidney function.

Wandering Jew – the Creeping Salad
I have an entire bank infested with Wandering Jew. I have laboriously removed it each month only to find that the creeping subterranean roots have refired their vegetation and returned my shrubbery to a weed patch, a couple of weeks later. When I began researching these incredible edibles I wandered into the garden, plucked a couple of leaves from the pest and was pleasantly surprised that it tasted at least as nice as any salad vegetable. A little Nutri-Salt™, olive oil and balsamic and it is delicious. My next query related to the nutritional value. It doesn’t have to contain much to better the salad staple, iceberg lettuce. This plant offers little more than a crunch in your green salad and if that iceberg is grown hydroponically then it offers crunch at a cost. Hydroponic lettuces are jam-packed with toxic nitrates and contain very little of anything else.

The edible wandering jew weed is not the same species as the popular house and garden plant. That white flowering species is from a genus called Trandescatia, and it is both inedible and toxic, while the blue flowering ‘weed” is called Commelina cyania or Native wandering Jew. It is also called “the scurvy plant” because early settlers in Australia ate this vitamin C rich plant to alleviate scurvy. This plant is native to the East coast of Australia and Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands and there has been no research conducted into the nutritional and phytochemical constituents. It is a bush food that was favoured by aboriginals for thousands of years but that is all we know. Rapid growing, chlorophyll- dense plants like this are often nutrient-rich but the fact that it is so pleasant flavoured is enough to encourage me to make this plant a regular inclusion in my green smoothies and salads.

Plantain – the Prime Fodder Crop as a Herbal Healer

Plantain is a remarkable herb that somehow became a “weed”. A flurry of recent research has determined that this former pasture weed is, in fact, considerably more nutritious than ryegrass and clover. It is a mineral accumulator with a deep-feeding tap root that thrives best in rotational grazing situations (where it is less likely to be outcompeted by rye grass). The ‘originals’ grew in soils lacking phosphorus and potassium and this still applies to wild plantain. However, the hybrid pasture plants have been tuned to flourish in all conditions. The mineral-rich leaves offer other benefits beyond weight gain. The phytochemicals in this herb provide reduced incidence of dags and scouring and there is also a reduction in the parasite burden. The herbal benefits of this plant become much more profound when considered in relation to humans. Here are just some of those benefits:

The Top Ten Benefits Of Plantain

  1. Plantain is part of a group of around 100 plants that are termed “alteratives” in the science of herbal medicine. Alteratives correct ‘impure conditions of the blood and the eliminative tissues and organs”. These herbs cleanse the blood and tone the liver and kidneys. In the case of plantain, the roots, leaves, flowers and seeds can all achieve this purpose.

  2. Plantain is a very effective diuretic used to counter water retention and associated kidney and bladder problems. Diuretic herbs must usually be accompanied by a demulcant – another herb that coats and soothes the mucus membranes and protects the kidneys. Plantain is rare in that it is a demulcant and diuretic, in one.

  3. Plantain is a vulnerary, which means it is a herb that prevents tissue degeneration and arrests bleeding. These plants are commonly used to speed the healing of wounds. Like comfrey, it contains a substance called epidermal growth factor, which can be used to repair damaged tissue, treat bruises and heal broken bones. Unlike comfrey, plantain can be easily found around streets, playgrounds and sports grounds so it can be a handy first aid tool.

  4. Plantain can be used as an anti-venomous herb and its easy availability makes it an invaluable aid in the advent of a snake bite or insect bites on the farm or in the garden. It can ease the pain of poison ivy and other stinging plants and it is remarkably effective in the control of even the most stubborn itch.

  5. Plantain can be used to treat many skin disorders. Senchina evaluated 175 herbs in terms of their relative value in treating dermatitis and he placed plantain in the top ten in his list of the 25 most effective herbs for this purpose. Renowned herbalist, Christopher Hobbes, rates plantain as his number one topical herb for skin complaints followed by aloe vera, calendula, gotu kola, Oregon grape root, St Johns Wort (another “weed”), chamomile and lavender.

  6. Plantain tea or juice can be used to heal burns including sunburn and scalds. The celebrated USDA botanist, James Duke, notes that plantain is second only to aloe vera as a popular folk remedy for burns (although aloe has been better researched). Once again, this ‘weed’ is much more available than aloe so it has great first aid potential.

  7. Plantain eases the cough reflex and suppresses the production of mucous. It can be useful in asthma, bronchitis and hayfever and it can be an exceptional natural remedy to counter the common cold.

  8. Russian scientists have recently discovered that plantain can be useful for weight loss. The plant contains mucilage which serves as an appetite suppressant while also reducing the intestinal absorption of fat. If plantain is used as a regular ingredient in green smoothies, you can access this amazing suite of diverse benefits while also shedding some excess kilos.

  9. Plantain can serve as a treatment for digestive ailments. When taken internally as a tea or in green smoothies, this herb is an effective remedy for diarrhea, gastritis, irritable bowel syndrome and other problems. Two teaspoons of seeds soaked in water will have a laxative effect similar to psyllium (to which plantain is related).

  10. Plantain is anthelminitic which means it can kill intestinal worms. This is how it reduces parasitic pressure in livestock when it is present as a pasture species.

Plantain was introduced to Australia and New Zealand by European settlers who valued the plant’s culinary and medicinal uses. The natives of both countries called the plant, ‘White Man’s Foot”, in reference to the fact that it appeared wherever the newcomers settled.

Plantain is a great addition to salads and stir fries and it can be steamed as a substitute for spinach. Harvest the young leaves before they get tough. This plant can be a wonderful green smoothie additive and you can make your own herbal tincture by combining the root, leaves and flowers in a mixture comprising 50% vodka and water. Leave on the shelf for a few weeks and you have a multi-purpose herbal tonic.

Plantain is a rich source of vitamin K, vitamin C and beta carotene along with great levels of trace minerals, mined with that long tap root. The suite of protective phytonutrients found in this herb include allantoin (heals wounds and speeds cell regeneration) and acubin (a powerful anti-toxin).

Cobblers Pegs – More Than a Sticky Seed

This weed (Bidens pilosa) thrives on parts of my property and it may well be linked to a lack of calcium and a poor calcium to magnesium ratio in the affected areas. The seeds latch on to clothing, fibre and fur and are difficult to dislodge. The plant is often called “farmers friend” in relation to this ‘tag along ‘seed, but these plants are hardly endearing when they contaminate wool, pets and clothing. Cobblers pegs are widely eaten as a food plant throughout Africa but in my opinion, they do not have a great taste due to the presence of a range of volatile chemicals. Their presence can be easily masked when they are a component of green smoothies or they can be boiled to improve the flavour. It is probably better to think of this weed as herbal medicine rather than a culinary delight. Traditionally, this herb has been most effective as a decoction. A decoction varies from a herbal tea in that it is produced from actually boiling the plant rather than simply adding it to boiled water. A strong decoction of this plant has been successfully used by herbalists to treat inflammation.

Cobblers pegs are rich in iron, zinc and calcium and the protective chemicals present include flavonoids, aurones and flavone glycosides. Recent Japanese research on this herb reveals that it is anti-microbial and it can be beneficial in the treatment of malaria, allergies, inflammation, diabetes, hypertension and cancer. Not a bad package for a despised, nuisance weed. It is important that you are careful about the location of the plants you choose to harvest as this plant has been found to be a cadmium accumulator. In fact, it can be specifically used to remove cadmium from contaminated soils. Cadmium is a common contaminant of soluble phosphate fertilisers and it remains in the soil for up to 1000 years. It is a good idea not to harvest cobblers pegs from soils with a history of heavy phosphate fertilising or from industrial or roadside locations where they may have been contaminated.

Yellow Dock/Curly Dock – Loving Your liver

The liver is the settling pond for contaminants in the environment and in our diet. In a world with tens of thousands of registered chemicals, this organ is often overworked and under nourished. Dr Sandra Cabot’s book, “The Liver Cleansing Diet”, remains the largest selling of all health books in Australia because most of us need to nurture our livers a little more. Alcohol and drugs (prescription and non prescription) also contribute to liver stress. There is a long herbal tradition involving treating and cleansing the liver and recent research confirms that certain herbs can be powerfully effective. The two most popular liver tonics can be accessed free of charge as they involve the common “weeds”, dandelion and yellow dock. The botanical name for both yellow dock and curly dock is Rumex crispus. The leaves have a tart, lemony flavour that is a delicious additive to salads. This plant (like many others) contains oxalic acid so it is not recommended to use large amounts of the leaf on a regular basis. The leaves are rich in iron and they contain a biochemical that also enhances the uptake of iron, so they are often used to address anemia. However, it is the tap root of this plant that is a revered digestive and liver tonic. The root is boiled to produce a bitter flavoured liquid that has exceptional therapeutic qualities. Alternatively, the root can be added at 5:1 with vodka to produce a powerful herbal tincture. The dock root enhances three key functions relative to digestion and liver health:

  1. One of the most important benefits of the yellow dock root relates to its capacity to enhance production of hydrochloric acid. Stomach acid is essential to break food down into particle sizes that can be fully utilised by the body. A tremendous number of people are under producing stomach acid with serious consequences. Aside from the associated digestive discomfort (which mirrors over production of acid and is often misdiagnosed), this deficiency is a digestive handicap which limits your access to the minerals in your food and, most importantly, it inhibits your capacity to utilise the protein in your food. The immune system is protein-dependant so there can be serious ramifications. Yellow dock root can restore acid production and address this malabsorption issue.

  2. Dock root also increases bile production from the liver and gallbladder and it serves as a mild laxative to remove bile after it has served its purpose. Increased bile production has also been linked to increased uptake of minerals in food. We can be eating highly mineralised food and dropping countless supplements but “we are what we absorb” and absorption is seriously compromised in the absence of both stomach acid and bile. This is why a chief symptom of low stomach acid is a lack of response from supplements.

  3. Dock root is a blood cleanser which removes toxins from the blood and lessens the load on the liver. Many liver detox regimes include yellow dock root for this reason. The liver tonic effect reduces problems associated with poor liver function like headaches, acne, irritability and mental lethargy.

Yellow dock root is also an anti-inflammatory and it can be used topically and internally for this purpose. The diuretic and laxative properties of dock root increase both elimination and urination and so can help with water retention, constipation and the removal of toxins from the body. Conditions like eczema and psoriasis can be addressed through this toxin removal. Yellow dock root is particularly high in bioflavonoids and it is the inflammation fighting capacity of these biochemicals that is responsible for the plant’s anti-arthritic benefits.

In Conclusion

Many so-called weeds can provide amazing sustenance and therapeutic benefits. An understanding of this potential is increasingly relevant in light of the likelihood of economic chaos in the near future. You can live for free on these easily found sources of food and you can also treat multiple remedies with this natural medicine. There are a few cautions if you become a wild food fossicker. If you are seeking out these herbs outside of your own garden, you need to be sure that they have not been sprayed with chemicals. This will usually be the case in a well groomed council park or garden, for example, but it is much less likely in more rugged woodlands and less tended areas. Roadsides can also be a problem if they receive regular herbicide treatments. If you have no choice, it would be a productive strategy to collect these plants from dubious sources and replant them in your garden. The next generation will be free from herbicides, dog urine or other contaminants. You can also source plantain seed from rural stores and plant this remarkable herb in your vegetable garden. I trust that this information may help you reclaim responsibility for your own health. This is a critically important step when we are mired in a symptom-treating health system where prescription medicine is now our fourth largest killer.

Disclaimer: Information in this article is a guide only and you should seek professional medical advice prior to undertaking mineral supplementation.

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