Weeds: Real Nutrition, for Free
Reading time: about 4 minutes | First published 25th July, 2020 | Updated 10th July, 2023
If you’re walking over chickweed and dandelion in your lawn or ignoring a nettle patch by the garden wall as you hop in the car and drive to the grocery store and pharmacy, you’re passing up opportunities for a quality of nutrition that no supermarket or pharmacy can ever provide.
When our grandparents were told, “eat your veggies,” that was good advice. But nowadays there are veggies, and then there are other veggies. In terms of nutrition, they’re not all created equal.
Imagine a graph that measures nutrition. At the bottom there is very little, and at the top there’s lots.
On this graph, I'd place supermarket vegetables at the bottom, heirloom varieties of vegetables and herbs from home gardens, community gardens, and small, diverse farms in the middle, and wild/undomesticated plants (many of them known as “weeds") at the top.
Supermarket veggies are seriously lacking in variety and nutrition
The food plants we see in the supermarket represent a tiny sliver of all the food plants available to us.
Besides being a very narrow selection of the plant foods available to us, supermarket vegetables are the least nutritious veggies you could be eating. They almost (through no fault of their own) shouldn’t be called by the same name.
One of the reasons for this is that they’re bred for appearance and keeping ability over nutrition, vigor, or anything else remotely useful.
Another reason is that they’re usually grown in mono-cultures using synthetic, petroleum-based inputs, in impoverished soil that has nothing to offer them in the way of real nutrition.
But hey, so long as there’s a pharmacy next door to the supermarket we should be right – we can make up with pills for what’s lacking in the veggies…
Heirloom veggies from gardens and small, diverse farms – a big step in the right direction
Just in case you dislike pills as much as I do, let’s explore some more options.
Heirloom food plants grown in home and community gardens or on small farms that focus on things like diversity, nutrition, and soil health, are a big step in the right direction.
These veggies would never cut it on a supermarket shelf because this is "real food." Real food means that:
- you get to enjoy odd shapes, sizes, colors, and quirkiness – these veggies weren’t bred for consistent appearance;
- you have to eat it or put it in a jar quickly – these veggies weren’t bred for keeping ability;
- before you eat it or process it you might want to pick out the caterpillars and shake off the spiders – these veggies come from an environment that’s wriggling, kicking, and teeming with life.
You'll get far more nutrition out of these veggies because they grew in a nourished and nourishing environment.
(You might also sleep a little easier knowing that these veggies help you answer "yes" to questions like these:
"Am I making food choices that directly support the communities and ecosystems that are feeding me?"
"Does whoever is selling this food care about its impact; are they behaving like a responsible citizen?"
"Was it grown nearby and will I be eating it in it's natural season?"
A real food diet is a sustainable diet that will nourish not only you and your family, but other families and our living planet, also.)
Wild plants take it up another notch
Wild plants take nutrition up another notch again, because they have a few attributes that domestic plant foods don't have.
Wild plants still have all their wild vigor -- something a bit like what we call the "hybrid vigor" that occurs in cross-bred animals. They can thrive in much more challenging conditions than the plants we've bred selectively for thousands of years, and they pass on some of that vitality and vigor to us when we eat them.
The picture above is of narrow leafed plantain (Plantago lanceolata) persisting in a pavement crack.
Just a weed, right? Well. The plantains (there's the narrow leafed and also a broad leafed variety - Plantago major) can be used as first aide for bee stings and minor wounds, they also benefit gut health and skin health, and you can put the young leaves in a salad and the older leaves and the seeds in any veggie dish, soup, or stew. Not too shabby for a weed in a pavement crack.
Obviously the one in the pic is looking a bit crushed and you'd want to look around for a happier one if you needed food or medicine, but I chose that picture to make a point: wild plants are tough. They can handle adversity. They take advantage of opportunities and they have ways of hanging on through hard times, ready to burst forth with new life again when the conditions improve.
A match made in nature, a very long time ago
We first began to cultivate and develop domesticated plants about 11 to 12,000 years ago.
Which seems like a long time, until you digest the idea that humans and our ancestors thrived as hunter-gatherers—eating wild plants (and the animal fats, proteins and co-factors that enable us to utilize the plants’ gifts)—for about 2 million years before that.
Some wild plants consistently follow people around. (Think of dandelions in lawns. And did you know that Native Americans called plantain "the white man's footprint"?) The plants we call "weeds" move in rapidly where-ever we've made a mess of the soil (and since we eat from the soil, making a mess of the soil means making a mess of our own health). Maybe the weeds move in because they can help restore health.
(That's another of the ways I define "real food" -- it's food that supports health on many levels -- for soils and ecosystems, communities and individuals.)
Not everyone calls them weeds. Some people call them “nourishing herbs.” Our fore-mothers were allying with them for nourishment and healthcare for tens of thousands of years--and probably much, much longer--before we began to domesticate the plants we find in supermarkets today1.
Some of the plants we’ve relied on for all of the time we've been human were here before us. Dandelions, for example, evolved over 30 million years ago2.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, dandelions are still going strong. They’re still popping up through cracks in the pavement, laughing at the chemicals people spray on their lawns, brightening our days with their sunny flowers, and waiting for us to remember the nutritional and medicinal gifts they have to offer.
The wild, edible plants that insist on following us around, with all their vigor and tenacity, are full of bio-available nutrients that our bodies can easily assimilate. They may not suit our domesticated pallets that have been conditioned to expect bland sweetness in everything we eat, but they are a concentrated source of real nutrition, abundantly full of vitamins, minerals, and healing compounds, and they’re readily available, for free.
This picture is of dandelions and chickweed in one of our veggie garden areas. I found a study (scroll down to find tables 7 and 8, here) that showed that chickweed, dandelion, and other wild greens collected in urban and industrial areas outranked kale for nutrition. So stick that in your green smoothy and suck it up 😉
(Ok. I cant help myself. I know this won't endear me to the raw food peeps, but here it is: smoothies are not that good for you because blending up raw plants doesn't break open the cell wall. To really benefit from eating plant foods you need to cook, ferment, freeze, or dry them first, as I explained here.)
Is there a catch to eating weeds? If there is, it's not too onerous. It's that we will have to develop and use some initiative and persistence -- just as the weeds do. Perhaps they're showing us. By paying attention to them and learning to use them again, we can be better nourished and we'll also be redeveloping the strengths we gradually lost as we made the shift from wild plants to supermarket veggies.
Wild edible greens harvested in industrial, mixed-use, and high-traffic urban areas ... are abundant and highly nutritious. ... Tested species were safe to eat after rinsing in tap water. ... Wild greens could contribute to nutrition, food security, and sustainability in urban ecosystems.”
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- Archeological evidence shows that 45,000 to 80,000 years ago, our ancestors already had sophisticated knowledge of culinary and medicinal herbs: “Neanderthal dental tartar reveals evidence of medicine” ... “Shanidar: anthropological and archaeological site, Iraq” ... Medicinal Plants in a Middle Paleolithic grave Shanidar IV.