"The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves." - Bill Mollison

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Good Weeds

We awoke to face a wintry wonderland, the snow had returned with cold in tow. It is of little consequence to me though, as I am fully aware that this grim beast stands on precarious footing as summers gates will soon swing wide and a new greener life will prevail.

Weather aside, I often wonder if anyone is aware of the abundance of food that nature provides, practically forces upon us, in the form of so called weeds. I prefer the term "wild edibles" and always look forward to adding them to our salads not only for flavor but the immense nutritional benefits they provide as well.

Two of the most prevalent and hardy of the wild edible greens that inhabit my garden are chickweed and catmint. Both are widely available and can be easily obtained and enjoyed if you can overcome the stigma that ensues when one is found to be a weed eater.

We find chickweed all winter long in areas that have been protected from snow and usually allow it to take hold in our fall garden. There are at least thirteen various types of chickweed all of which are supposed to be edible. Common chickweed also called Winterweed is an annual ground cover whose trailing body has paired oval leaves with pointed tips that form on opposite sides of the stalk. A line of fine hairs run down the stalk and alternates at each leaf junction.

The flower is white, deeply lobed, almost heart shaped, and consists of five petals that seemingly form almost year round, and close after dark and during periods of wet weather.

Although considered an annual it still flowers and seeds under protection throughout the year in our garden. This most interesting plant has a pleasant corn like flavor and is also an excellent source of fodder for our chickens...hence the name. Reported to contain traces of nitrates we are carful to consume it in moderation. From a nutritional standpoint this plant is said to be loaded with vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, silicon, zinc, sodium and high amounts of vitamin A, C, D, as well as B6 and B12.

We do try to keep this plant contained through weeding as it spreads very quickly and only allow it to thrive going into the cold months to be used as a valuable ground cover and food source. Since we also feed this to our chickens there is usually not much left come spring, and we do not have to worry about it re-seeding all over our garden.

Catmint, or catnep (nip) is a member of the mint family and is a very cold hardy perennial. Ours have silvery-gray to purple foliage, paired mottled leaves and variously colored flowers that, in our area, have small almost pink blooms that show mid to late summer. With a flavor that I can only describe as bitter minty, it is or was most commonly used as a seasoning, cold and flu remedy and of course as a stimulant for cats. Not only does it contain many of the same beneficial nutritional properties as chickweed but also adds quite a zest to our salads in small doses.

Catmint also contains nepetalactone an essential oil that is supposed to be many times more effective at repelling insects than the toxic chemical DEET. I have tried growing it around my broccoli plants to repel aphids, and it did seem to help. Even more then preventing the bad bugs I noticed the flowers seemed to draw many beneficial insects into our garden, especially parasitic wasps that kill aphids. Not only is it a natural insecticide but also contains thymol that can be used as a fungicide to help prevent dampening off in seedlings.

We are careful to control the amount that are allowed to re-seed every year as this plant has a most stubborn root system, is extremely prolific, and unlike chickweed will regrow if the roots are not removed.

These are only two of the many wonderful "wild greens" that we incorporate into our daily diet. I think that perhaps the more wild herbs and greens may posses even greater health giving properties then their domesticated counterparts. I am by no means an authority on wild edibles and am only attempting to relate that which I personally have observed when discussing such. I hope that more people will learn to embrace the foods that nature so readily provides, and benefit from the abundance thereof. Perhaps if people were aware that some of the most healthy food on the planet is right under foot they would not be so quick to dismiss these magnificent creations with chemical disdain.


Chiot's Run said...

We have garlic mustard that has overtaken part of the back of our property. We have been eating it mixed with our lettuce & other greens every day. It's got such a lovely spicy bite. I'll have to look up these other wild greens, I'm not very familiar with them.

Mr. H said...

Hi Susy,

I wish garlic mustard would take over in the back of my property...sounds like a great salad addition. I will have to see if can get some growing in our area, I just looked it up in Wikipedia and it sounds most interesting.

You probably have chickweed growing in your yard somewhere as it thrives all over the planet in various forms. Catmint is a fairly common herb and can usually be picked up anywhere plants or seeds are sold, terrible tasting but but it does have many other qualities.

Hmmm...garlic mustard,


Leigh said...

Nice weed portraits! I have a love/hate relationship with chickweed. We have a lot of it, more than we can eat, so I spend a lot of time ripping it out or burning it... I am in awe of how quickly it is able to set seed.
Another pest control use for catnip - I keep a good clump of it by our blueberry bushes to make an inviting cat hangout to deter birds when the berries are ripe.

Mr. H said...

Hello Leigh

Chickweed really is invasive, but we are fortunate in that it can also be used as nutritious free chicken feed. Before we had chickens I would chop it up and add it by the bucket full to our mulch pile along with other weeds...before it went to seed of course.

Apparently you can have many generations of chickweed in a years time, so that is why they seem to seed so readily I suppose.

I like your idea of hanging catnip around the berry bushes. It also reportedly repels rodents, I may have to try it out on the many voles that haunt my garden from below.


Ruralrose said...

This is a most excellent blog - your writing is so personable and your garden so enviable - i enjoyed my visit very much, thanks - peace for all

Mr. H said...


Thank you so very much for the compliment and for the above planting information.


Wendy said...

I love the scent of catmint, it's a valuable herb that I have used. Wondering about the idea of catmint being planted on your property & attracting cats when you have chicks? How far away does the catmint need to be from the chicks? We want to get ducks, and I realized that a cat used to come and sleep in my catmint, so wondering if we put this in our front yard of a .26 acre house, is that far enough away if the ducks will be in back?

Mr. H. said...

Hi Wendy - I would think that if the cats are going to try and go after your chicks it will be because they hear them or smell them and that the cat mint would not make any difference. We have catmint growing in huge clumps everywhere and have never had a problem with it attracting cats, normally they seem to get excited about the catmint after it has been crushed and pretty much ignore it otherwise.

But yes, I think you will have to be very careful with the ducks until they are fully grown.

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