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What exactly is a weed?

Great thinkers have argued over a proper definition for centuries. Ralph Waldo Emerson provided a redemptive perspective on the scourge of gardeners by calling them “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered”, while Doug Larson took the more pragmatic approach- that they are “a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows”.

In any case, few of us can fully agree with these pithy statements celebrating weeds. After all, it’s hard to care about their evolutionary virtues when dandelions are blanketing your backyard and your cucumbers are being choked out by lambs-quarters.

But what if these quotes have more truth than we realize? What if obnoxious garden weeds really do have more value than we give them credit for?

As it turns out, they do.

weed growing in cracked earth

The soil-building benefits of garden weeds

Weeds, by design, have evolved to thrive. Many types do best in low quality soil or during droughts. Weed seeds can even exist deep in the soil for decades before conditions are prime for growing. They are the overachievers of the world of botany, the first plants to come back after a natural disaster. And despite your best gardening efforts, they aren’t going anywhere.

With this in mind, let’s look at the benefits that weeds provide for your lawn and garden.

First, nature never intends for soil to be bare. When it is, its nutrients are either baked out by the hot sun or washed away by rain. Weeds have a bad reputation because they can grow quickly on barren dirt, but this is actually a good thing for the health of the soil. Weeds serve a much-needed purpose in the natural world because they keep soil shaded, help to restore nutrients and organic material, and through their roots keep soil firmly in place to resist erosion.

Without the benefit of weeds, your yard and garden would be a hard-packed, nutrient-deficient patch of land.

fresh arugula on a dark background

Arugula

Garden weeds: Even healthier than your vegetables?

Every gardener knows firsthand how much work goes into coaxing plants to produce food. Untold amounts of time, labor and water are spent trying to create a viable food supply, but even the best efforts are often undone by the dominating powers of scrappy weeds.

It’s a strange paradox that we work so hard to get our vegetable gardens to grow, and in the process pull out and waste every edible weed filling the space.

Remember, every garden plant we now know and love once started out as a weed. Once a plant’s merits are discovered, it is selectively bred (often unintentionally) to further bring out the traits that are so desirable.

This is how wild strawberries got bigger and sweeter, and why corn plants are so insanely productive. However, this type of selective breeding often literally ‘weeds out’ the traits that made the plants so beneficial in the first place: their nutritional content.

Traditionally, agriculture has been concerned with breeding out bitter tastes and selecting instead for starchiness and high sugar content. Sadly, as produce becomes more palatable to our taste buds it begins to lose the nutrients that made it so healthy in the first place.

Part of the reason that weeds are so successful in the wild is that they are loaded with phytonutrients, an “arsenal of chemicals” that helps them to fend off insects, diseases, bad weather conditions and hungry herbivores. As it turns out, these chemicals have health benefits for humans and can help fight off the devastating diseases of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and dementia.

Lots of the fruits and vegetables in our regular diets have these chemicals in small amounts, but because they tend to exist in bitter foods, they are far more common in backyard weeds than supermarket greens.

The best way to fill your diet with disease-fighting phytonutrients is to eat as closely to nature as you can. Many cultivated greens like arugula are still flush with them, but the easiest and most efficient way for you to pump up your diet is to simply turn towards a truly wild source of greens- your backyard weeds!

Which weeds should you eat?

Weeds may be a healthy addition to your diet, but we aren’t recommending that you make a salad from your lawn clippings. It’s important to proceed with caution when foraging for wild plants, so follow the steps listed below to ensure your success.

  • Know what you are eating: Not every weed is edible; in fact, some are highly toxic. Never eat a plant that you can’t identify, and make sure you know which parts of the plant are safe to eat. In many species, only certain parts are edible.
  • Check for chemicals: A salad of dandelion greens might make you horribly sick if the yard you harvest them from has recently been sprayed with Roundup. Take care to harvest weeds from places where chemical pesticides, herbicides and fungicides haven’t been applied, and ALWAYS wash your greens before eating them.
  • Sample first: Try a small taste of each plant first to make sure you like it and that it doesn’t affect you negatively. Why go through the effort of harvesting if you won’t eat the results?
  • Ask permission: You wouldn’t like it if someone started wandering through your backyard in search of food, so give other people the same respect. Be sure to ask permission before harvesting weeds on someone’s land.

Types of edible weeds

There are a huge amount of edible weeds that grow all over the world. Here’s a list of some of the most common varieties to get you started.

Catnip

You might see it only as a treat for your cats, but catnip actually has relaxing benefits for humans as well. Native to Europe and Asia, catnip grows throughout the world as is used as a herbal remedy tea. You can eat the mildly mint-flavored leaves raw when they are young, or dry them out to make your own relaxing tea.

bed of fresh catnip weed

Catnip

Clover

This common weed may only bring up thoughts of Leprechauns, but it actually provides a different kind of luck: good health! Red clover contains the phytoestrogen genistein, which has been found to have benefits for treating colon and prostate cancers. However, there’s some evidence that phytoestrogens can actually work to encourage breast cancer, so females should use caution and eat only small amounts.

As an important food for honeybees, clover can also be eaten raw chopped into salads or sauteed as a greens substitute. When dried, the flowers can make a nutritious tea or lemonade.

Because of the potential risk of breast cancer, pregnant or nursing women should avoid eating clover altogether.

Dandelions

A scourge of lawn enthusiasts everywhere, dandelions are actually surprisingly delicious and useful in a wide variety of dishes. They are also super nutritious. As a rich source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, one cup of raw dandelion greens contains over 100% of your daily vitamin A and over 500% of vitamin K.

You can eat the greens and flowers raw in salads or sauteed in stir fries, and the leaves can be dried to make a nutritious herbal tea. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, the yellow flowers can also be breaded and fried or even turned into wine.

Garlic Mustard

Considered an invasive in many parts of the world, garlic mustard originated in Europe and can be identified by its broad, heart-shaped leaves and faint garlic smell. The flowers, leaves, roots and seeds are good for weight loss, treating heart disease, high cholesterol and many other health ailments. You can harvest the plant all summer long, though the roots are best when collected in the early spring.

bed of fresh garlic mustard weed

Garlic Mustard

Lambs Quarters (Goosefoot)

When young and tender, the leaves of lambs quarters can be eaten in any recipe where spinach is called for, which is convenient because it peaks in early summer when the spinach crop is winding down. Lambs quarters are loaded with calcium, protein and vitamins A, C and K. The seed has the consistency of quinoa and can be delicious cooked, though it takes lots of patience to collect enough for a meal.

Mallow (Cheeseweed)

Mallow is a common sight in yards around the world, and both the leaves and seed pods are tasty and edible when harvested when they are young. Older leaves can still be eaten when cooked through steaming or boiling. This creates a gel with a similar consistency to okra that can be used as an egg white substitute for meringue. This wild edible is filled with vitamins and minerals and has been used as an herbal medicine for centuries that works as an anti-inflammatory, diuretic, and laxative.

Plantain

Not to be confused with the tropical fruit, the plantain weed is a great medicinal plant that can be used to soothe skin ailments like burns and rashes as well as in salads and stir fries. The younger leaves tend to be more tender and are delicious steamed, boiled or sauteed. If you have the patience, the seeds can be dried and ground into a nutritious flour for baking.

Purslane

Found in moist garden beds and shady areas, purslane grows low to the ground and often goes unnoticed. Keep your eyes peeled, however, because this juicy weed is filled with more omega-3 fatty acids than any other vegetable. Delicious eaten raw, thrown into a smoothie or sauteed with Asian vegetables, purslane adds a lemon touch to every dish it enters. Every part of the plant can be eaten.

closeup of purslane weed

Purslane

In summary

Though any time you invest in your garden growing vegetables is time well spent, it’s a smart idea to look at the weeds around you as a potential nutrition source. Far from “famine foods” many types of backyard weeds are superfoods filled with more vitamins and nutrients than anything you can buy from a seed catalog, much less a grocery store.

It’s time to think outside the box and feast on the greens growing all around you!

About Author

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Lydia Noyes is an Appalachian homesteader and writer that lives on a land trust deep in the mountains of West Virginia.