When we hear the word weeds it conjures up images of straggly, ugly plants that any proud gardener would gladly get rid of without a second thought. Although we would love to wave a magic wand over our gardens to forever remove the scoundrels that lurk beneath our most prized plants, it’s worth taking some time to learn a bit more about the world of weeds.
There is a well-known saying often spoken amongst gardeners, that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. If we shine a different light upon weeds we can in fact see them as useful, in that they indicate your garden soil’s fertility and even the types of weeds growing can show what type of soil you have. For example the presence of chickweed suggests that the soil has a neutral pH.
There are over 1,000 different types of weeds that have been identified and in practical terms there are two types of useful weed: annual and perennial. The most likely annuals; that is those weeds that only survive for one season, that you have in your garden are groundsel, chickweed, annual meadow grass and fat hen. The perennials; that will go on for more than two growing seasons, are most commonly nettles, ground elder, dock seeds, bindweed, couch grass and thistle.
Image credit: Wild Plant Forager
The flowers of many useful weeds are a much needed food source for the insect life in your garden. Predators such as wasps and hoverflies will then reward your restraint at leaving those weeds alone, as they will feed off pests like aphids.
Looking at weeds overall, they do help with breaking up and aerating your soil, fixing nitrogen and giving back organic material when they die off. The more deeply rooted weeds such as comfrey and fat hen have an amazing ability to gather and store minerals which means they will provide a mega-boost of nutrients for your compost heap.
Many weeds are also used in alternative medicine to help alleviate a huge range of symptoms and incredibly, scientists are now using dandelion root sap to make rubber tyres.
Sarsaparilla is a vine weed that originates from rainforests in South America. This is mostly known for being a sweet drink and more recently a flavoured whisky brand. It is medicinally used to help psoriasis sufferers, virility in males and to detoxify the body through increased urination and sweating.
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Buttercups contain very well known medicinal qualities for different issues. Creeping buttercups are an analgesic (pain killing drug) and a rubefacient (irritates the skin) which can be used to resolve muscle aches and pains. Buttercup syrup on the other hand is great for dealing with coughs, colds and sore throats for adults and children over two years of age.
Image credit: Nen.gov
The list of weeds you can eat is far longer than one might imagine, see below for a taster of some surprisingly delicious ones:
Horseradish plants produce a wonderfully strong root that is grated to make horseradish sauce – the perfect accompaniment to roast beef. Remember, the fresher the root, the hotter your sauce will be.
Image credit: Gardening Guy
Everyone has memories of this hurtful weed stinging them below the knee as a child, but revisit the positive attributes of the nettle by making a delicious soup with the leaves in much the same way as one would a spinach soup. Like spinach it also offers up tonnes of iron.
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Often not considered a weed, these beautiful flowers are edible in its entirety and make a lovely spicy addition to salads with real wow factor.
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Chickweed is a small edible weed, which produces white, star-shaped flowers found most often in lawns. It tastes a bit like spinach and therefore can be used in salads, sandwiches or soups plus is packed with nutrients such as magnesium and potassium.
Image credit: The Natural Forager
Packed with omega-3, purslane has smooth, oar-shaped leaves. It tastes mild and lemony so is great with seafood or Asian food.
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This plant sometimes looks dusty as it has a white powdery residue on the leaves, which makes it easy to recognise. Often referred to as wild spinach lamb’s quarters contain oxalic acid which we mustn’t eat much of so it’s suggested you cook it before eating which removes it. Great mixed with ricotta in ravioli or used as you might chard or kale.
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Recognised by its green arrowhead shaped leaves, sorrel also has oxalic acid so follow the above advice for its removal, but this plant has a slightly sour taste so is great alongside fattier meats such as lamb and pork.
Image credit: Rene Caisse Tea
Worthy of a mention, this aquatic perennial is found on top of ponds and is very high in protein so, when dried, makes a vegan-friendly powder called Lentein. With a 68% protein level, this new environmentally-friendly food source offers huge potential as an edible annual weed.
Image credit: Garden Pool
These are both perennial weeds that you can find all year round. Be cautious that you have the right weed however as burdock can appear similar to some more dangerous weeds. To be on the safe side always forage when flowering. These weeds can be used to make the famous drink you may have heard of called dandelion and burdock root. This drink is a great source of vitamins and has been known to be a tasty alternative to beer.
It’s time to re-evaluate the dreaded weeds as valuable foods that have the ability to provide us with fantastic nutrients. Don’t overlook these edible vegetables, especially as they are so easily grown and foraged on our doorsteps.
So next time your heart sinks at the thought of a big weeding job, think twice about what you’re taking out of the ground and consider whether it deserves a place on your table.