Edibles in the Weeds

Bunching onions blooming along the edge of my garden.

As we prepare our land and plan our gardens, we often rip up everything we see. “Everything that grows must go!” used to be my motto until I learned about edible weeds. We can spare our backs, pharmacists, and pocketbooks by learning how to identify and use the plants that are already growing in our yard. Clover, burdock, and plantains (not the banana, but that is good too) are common edibles with medicinal qualities. Walking throughout Deanwood and the greater east of the river community, there are numerous examples of high-quality edibles growing wild and the residents who use them.

The days of TV Land have taught us to idolize smooth grassy lawns as being clean and proper. In reality, many of us are addicted to their look and the habit of maintaining them. Each week, like a ritual, we rip up the “weeds” to make the space, buy the sod and seed to supply our addiction, spray pesticides and herbicides to keep anything else from growing, and cut it all down when it gets too tall. Rip, buy, spray, cut, repeat every week, every year. As fun as it can be to hop on the fancy five-horsepower lawnmower to trim the turf before the kids get in a few games, why not let the butterflies flutter over the clover while the kids play?

Weeds growing at many heights and in various colors and styles are labeled as wild overgrowth, and left unchecked can earn residents a fine by the Sweep team. However, if the right herbs are chosen and nurtured, your space will go from an unkempt junkyard into a pollinator’s paradise, filled with fluttering butterflies, buzzing bees, and chirping cicadas. Be sure to look for spaces with standing water, and plant a few bad-bug repellants or mosquitoes will quickly turn your paradise into a stinging swampland.

Dandelions, a common yellow blight to many lawn lovers, is a powerful medicinal herb and tasty addition to a garden salad. The leaves can be washed and thrown into a salad and eaten raw or dried and drunk like tea. Dig below the surface and use the roots for even greater medicinal qualities. Check with your local herbalist or elder for uses and remedies.

Speaking of our elders, my elder neighbor offered some sage advice as I pulled up this leafy green sprouting up between my peppers. He calls it “poke.” “Pokeweed” is the more common name. Phytolacca Americana is the clinical name. Pokeweed is unusual in that it is only edible during its early stages. Once it grows to full size, the leaves, stems, and berries are quite poisonous unless properly cooked. The berries are used to dye foods and clothes, the roots as an anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer medicine in teas and soups. The early shoots are often boiled and eaten like asparagus and are a favorite among our elders, especially those from the Deep South.

Next to the pokeweed the bunching onions were in bloom. Wild bunching onions, some of the first indicators of spring, came up early this year along with the good weather. This variety isn’t edible, or at least I didn’t like them when I ate them, but there are many others that are spread out all over the east river area. Toward the end of their life the sweet little white flowers were blooming all over the garden space, making for a light, romantic border that I couldn’t have planted better myself.

Clover is a new favorite of mine. The purple bulbs are bright and colorful and they attract bees and butterflies, making them a doubly beautiful addition. There are many varieties of clover that are also useful to remediating your soil. Let them grow and see how your soil quality improves. They add nitrogen, help break up tight spaces, and also are an excellent cover crop, useful at preventing soil from drying out and eroding with the rain. Dry the flowers to make a good herbal tea; use the leaves to add to your salad along with the dandelions.

Chickweed is a playful edible weed that spreads out nice and low in abandoned nooks or creeps up high along your fence when left unchecked. On my way home I found some chickweed drowning out planted flowers in a neighbor’s yard. Chickweed and henbit like to grow together and take over open spaces. Both can be eaten raw and make excellent herbal teas.

All of these weeds make for nice snacks when walking through our neighborhoods. Take advantage of them and make yourself a cup of medicinal herbal tea for free, using what grows in your yard. I’m no doctor or medical professional, and certainly don’t take my advice without doing research. That said, I know I’m not only a gardener but a student of nature, and I trust Mother Earth to supply me with the tools I need to eat, drink, and live healthy.

Here, east of the river, we are fortunate to have land surrounding our homes, and unlike the rest of the District, our land is still open and affordable (for now). The weeds may be a blight to eyes trained only to find peace in straight lines and dark Kentucky bluegrass from fence to fence. As you retrain your eyes and minds to see the beauty in the stray leaves, I hope that when you’re hungry you’ll find the edibles in the weeds.


For more gardening tips, information sessions, workshops, delicious recipes, and products follow the Wynter Gardener on Instagram and Facebook @wyntergardener or email her at WynterGardener@gmail.com.See you next month!