Foraging while gardening
Plants in the wrong place
There are other weeds that are plants simply in the wrong place, as determined by the gardener who, for example, gets to decide that grass shouldn’t grow among the flowering perennials, or that non-natives shouldn’t grow among the natives. Some people, such as a permaculturalist or two, might tell you there are no weeds, merely plants taking advantage of situations, filling in a niche or a vacuum, since nature doesn’t like vacancies. Ecologists might speak of “invasives” or “weedy species,” but “weed” is not exactly part of the scientific lexicon either. It is a term defined most fully by the human-designed context of yard, garden, and farm and as a result can also be a legal term. I’ve heard landscapers recommend plants that have achieved the legal standing of noxious weeds. How should one feel about this?
Weeds with benefits
There is another category of weed, however: those plants that, native or not, might take over if you let them, but if managed properly, add to a yard’s biodiversity, don’t look bad, and offer nutritious supplements to your diet and that of various pollinators and other wildlife. This is a category useful to gardeners relaxed about what fussier gardeners might consider “appearances,” who don’t like to kill plants unnecessarily, and understand that mostly, weeds are in the eye of the beholder. Thus, to me, a few dandelions in the grass are tolerable, and almost everyone knows you can add their young leaves to a salad for extra tang.
When I’m out weeding, I’m foraging as well. There are thinnings, natural microgreens such as parsley and radishes (both leaves and tiny red roots) that must be pulled so the others can grow strong and healthy, the cilantro that pops up everywhere, and the oregano that always needs cutting back. My iced tea gets brewed with handfuls of the mint that appears in unlikely places. These are plants that have been let in to the garden on purpose, however. What about the others, the ones who just show up one day? Lately I’ve been adding the leaves of young violets, Asiatic dayflowers and lady’s thumbs to the evening salad.
Our native common violets (Viola sororia sororia) grace the yard in early spring. Bumblebees appreciate them, since they bloom when little else does, but lawn fetishists loath them. In turf grass they don’t really take over, but give them some bare soil in a semi-shady, moist environment, and watch out. Not only do they have their lovely spurred flowers, but later, in late May and early June, they have a second greenish, unnoticeable bloom, at which time you’ll notice hundreds of babies around each mother plant. This is because the second, cleistogamous, bloom produces seeds which are ejected from the capsules in fall.
Unless you want to use violets as a groundcover (effective in the right
spots under bushes and trees) you’ll want to thin them out before they develop their tubers. Young violet leaves are good in salads, though, as pointed out in Edible Wild Plants, they are “somewhat bland and best mixed with other greens.” I haven’t tried other suggested uses yet, such as candying the flowers, adding the leaves to soup as a thickener, or drying the leaves for tea. They are a source of nectar for bumble bees. Halictid and mason bees and Syrphid flies also visit the flowers and birds occasionally eat the seeds, while caterpillars of Fritillary butterflies and small mammals nibble the leaves.
The young stems and lance-shaped leaves of Asiatic dayflowers (Commelina communis) are also good in salads. Their flavor is also bland, but but because they are somewhat thick and fleshy they can add some body and variety of shape to your lettuce. These creeping annuals have a pretty blue and white flower, at which I have seen bees, but in my experience are best picked before they bloom. More mature, blooming plants can be steamed like spinach. You could also add them with other chopped greens to a saute. They are prolific, and will appear seemingly at random, but, in my yard, at least cause no harm and are not pernicious, though they can be pesky in the wrong place. Their roots don’t run deep and if you miss a few one day you can get them the next. The dayflower is also an alley weed par excellence, one of that wild tribe that clusters around telephone poles, along fences and next to garages. Besides their usefulness to bees, songbirds, such as mourning doves, eat the seeds.
Another player in the alley mix is lady’s thumb (Polygonum persicaria), though you’ll also find this low plant sprawling in the woods, vacant lots, and neglected corners of your yard. The narrow leaves have a dark triangular “thumbprint.” The tiny pink flowers are clumped tightly together on erect stems. They have a mild flavor and again are best in salads when young. You can also steam or boil them like spinach if you collect enough. Caterpillars also like them; those of coppers eat the foliage while gray hairstreaks eat the flowers and fruit. Birds like the seeds. Though the plant hails originally from Europe, as Dr. John Hilty at Illinois Wildflowers says, “the ecological value of this little plant is
rather high, notwithstanding its weedy nature.”
None of these three plants will go away without a lot of effort and the use of toxic chemicals. They are so generally pervasive that if banished from the yard they’ll surely reappear later, or most likely sooner. Yet they aren’t thuggish, look pretty nice, and offer benefits to humans and non-humans alike. These are weeds I can live with, and do.
Note: It goes without saying that no one should eat any foraged plants unless sure of their identification. References include Edible Wild Plants: Eastern/Central North America, by Lee Allen Peterson, and Illinois Wildflowers.