Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Weeds: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Eat 'Em!

Several years ago, I earned a Master Gardener certificate through an excellent, on-line class via a state university.  But deep down, I know that I am just a weed farmer.

Everything grows so fast in an Alaskan summer that my property is overwhelmed by prolific “native plants” (which is the politically correct way to refer to weeds). I live the expression, "watching the grass grow."   My vegetable and flower plots wage  losing battles against nettles and horsetail. Dandelions proliferate everywhere. Sweet grass grows to 6 or 7 feet and then smothers everything near by.  We can't even find the ducks' eggs anymore.

This state of affairs used to bother me more until I made a concerted effort to learn about these plants.  As a result, I will never look at my property the same way again.  I still weed and weedwhack like a maniac, but I now appreciate some of this opportunistic vegetation for food and hair/skin care.   If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em, or pour them all over yourself.

Am I  justifying my overgrown yard?  Absolutely!  But, truly,  I have also gained immense respect for  the abundant vitamins, minerals, and flavors that lie at my feet..  Nowadays my husband encounters a demon scientist in the kitchen, conjuring up various teas and treatments that I test on him.  If he is still walking and talking the next day, that concoction is a keeper.  
Left to right:  raspberry, horsetail, nettle, fireweed, dandelion
Horsetail for hair and insecticide (how is that for a combo) and the rest for tea

Cleavers (bedstraw):  Who knew that this shy, sticky weed smells so good?  Well, apparently many generations did.  Because of its aromatic properties (deriving from coumarin), people used to stuff mattresses with it, hence its alternate name.  I find this plant huddling under shade bushes or the north side of buildings.  Up close, it smells and tastes like sweet vanilla.  Simmering a few sprigs makes the cabin smell lovely, and adds an elegant touch to a pitcher of iced tea.. Some “natural” weight loss remedies incorporate cleavers.
Nettles:  The first year I saw a few nettles,  I made the mistake of thinking the small pink flowers were pretty.  Oops.  As soon as I even thought  that, they developed  nasty prickers and then spread seeds everywhere. They became the bane of my existence, growing in thick stands that shaded and crowded out anything I preferred.   Several years ago I learned how healthy this ubiquitous plant is to eat, but the term, “stinging nettle,” deterred me.  This year, I found out that cooking neutralizes the formic acid and disables the stinging hairs. The leaves are chock full of calcium, magnesium, iron, vitamins A,C, and D among other nutrients.  The leaves have a neutral flavor, so they are easy to add to dips, soups, rice, and stews.  Aside from its internal benefits, I use it topically, too.  “Nature based” dandruff shampoos contain nettle.   Save a few bucks while weeding the yard;  made a strong tea, pour it over your head and rub it in!  

Chickweed:  This groundcover blankets my vegetable and flower gardens every summer.  Despite the name, my chickens favor other plants. However the texture is similar to watercress, so I toss an occasional handful onto sandwiches and into salads. The high water content makes dips, like pesto, creamier.  I believe it was the redoubtable Euell Gibbons who pronounced chickweed his favorite weed.  It is high in vitamins C and A, calcium, iron, and useable plant protein. 

Yarrow:   The initial reason that I transplanted wild yarrow around the cabin was a report that it repels mosquitoes.  If so, the pests in my neighborhood did not get that memo.  Still,  I enjoy the fennel/anise scent of the soft, ferny leaves, and the flat clusters of bright white flowers throughout the summer. It now forms an attractive 2 foot "hedge" around the south side of my cabin.  To me, the taste is unpleasantly medicinal but a friend adds the leaves to stuffings, instead of sage, which, come to think of it, has a musty scent on its own, so I will try it.  Dried yarrow flowers, soaked in hot water make an astringent face/body wash.  I can attest to its effectiveness, but found it too drying for my skin. 

Dandelion:  What about these familiar flowers, which bloom here twice each summer and grow far larger than any other place I have visited? Fortunately, every part is edible and nutritious.  The flowers are high in vitamin D.  The leaves and roots are rich with calcium, iron, potassium, vitamin A, B complex, C, and D.  I prefer the leaves because they are so easy to collect and tasty to eat raw or cooked.  The buds I soak in vinegar like capers.  Whole flowers flavor aged vinegars.  Separating the mild yellow petals from the bitter green sepals for sweet recipes is a pain in the butt for impatient people like me.   It takes about 2 hours to collect, process, and wash 4 cups of flower petals for one recipe.  Before or after mosquito season, this could be a leisurely endeavor, especially with children, but otherwise, who dares sit still that long!  If anybody gives you a container of dandelion syrup, jelly, or wine - appreciate the time and effort involved as you savor the mild flavor.  Some describe it as “sweetly buttery” and others as like “sweet iced tea,” depending on other ingredients.

Alder vs.  birch:  I consider alder an Alaska-sized weed, especially since we had to fight it, foot by foot, to get a toe hold for buildings here, so I include it in this list.   Believe it or not, early-in-the-season alder leaf tea tastes like Lipton's!  By contrast, birch leaf is too bitter for me, but since my husband enjoys the flavor of hops, he likes its assertiveness.   I  prefer lighter fare,  so my summer iced tea  includes the gently citrusy dandelion leaf with the sweet vanilla taste of cleavers (bedstraw) and handfuls of whatever I have weeded in the past 20 minutes.
This evening, we will paddle around the lake with cups of elderflower wine and birch sap beer, tasting what I hope will be a tasty combination of chickweed/nettle pesto. Hey, anything tastes good with enough garlic and parmesan, don't you agree?  And if I ever take my baseball cap off, you will see how fluffy my hair looks,  thanks to a nettle or equisetum hair rinse, who knows which, because I forgot to label the bottle.  Note to self:  get organized. 

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