Weeds: Real Nutrition, for Free
About a 4 mintue read
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 nutrition, 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 – 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.
There are over 20,000 species of edible plants in the world. Fewer than 20 of them now provide 90% of our food."
Besides being a very narrow representation 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.
Most likely you already know all the reasons why, but just in case, two of the main reasons supermarket vegetables are unable to do a good job of nourishing us are:
- they’re bred for appearance and keeping ability over nutrition, vigor, or anything else remotely useful, and
- they’re usually grown in monocultures 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;
- optionally, 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.
Most importantly, you’ll get lots of nutrition out of these veggies, because they grew in a nourished and nourishing environment.
Wild plants take it up another notch
Wild plants that have not been domesticated take nutrition up another notch again.
Domestic plants do what we think they should do, so long as we give them the right conditions in which to do it. They need a little helping hand in that way.
Wild plants care much less what the conditions are, and they’re not so much into doing what we think they should do. (I often feel I could use a little of that kind of initiative and resourcefulness.)
Wild plants are pro-life. They’re vigorous. They know how to do abundance. They know how to 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.
(I don’t know about you, but I could do with some of that kind of energy and resilience.)
Some wild plants consistently hang around where people are. They move in rapidly where-ever we've made a mess of things. They thrive in soils and circumstances that domesticated plants call uninhabitable.
Some people call these wild plants “weeds,” but other people call them “nourishing herbs.”
A match made in nature, a very long time ago
Humans co-evolved with wild plants.
Domestic plants (obviously) are relative new-comers. We first began to cultivate and develop them 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 of the plants we’ve relied on for all that time were here before us. Dandelions, for example, evolved over 30 million years ago1.
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.
"Dandelions have work to do. They are every man’s flower, a poor man’s medicine, a starving man’s food. Despite war and climate change, the rise and fall of civilizations, dandelions have been going strong for 30 million years."
Lilli-anne Buffin, "On Dandelions"
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’re a concentrated source of real nutrition, abundantly full of vitamins, minerals, and healing compounds, and they’re readily available, very often for free.
Two more articles follow this one: "What's Happened to Your Mineral Intake?" and "Easy, Natural Ways to Increase the Available Minerals in Your Food."
Please leave a comment...
Please share your questions or your experiences using weeds as food - scroll down to the comments section.
[…] vers le bas pour trouver le pissenlit près du bas. Enfin, je mentionne les pissenlits dans la section sur les plantes sauvages dans ce […]
[…] first article in this series discussed the relative nutrition available in supermarket veggies, heirloom veggies […]
[…] dramatically less available to us in the food we eat. This article, which follows on from “Weeds: Real Nutrition, for Free,” explores […]
Hi dear friends.
I am known as the ‘weed eater’ I can live very humbly and frugally from mother nature.
I forage beautiful fresh organic leaves, funghi and fruit just walking around my community.
Chickweed, fat hen, blackberry, Lilli Pilli fruit etc.
I live in southern Australia ~ Tasmania ~ where we have abundant native foods to forage.
Thanks for your comment Carmel!
Your article made me smile 🙂 I love the way you related the attributes of weeds to improve your own life.
Thanks Cathy 🙂
Great article. There are indeed a lot of edible wild plants. I keep discovering them in my property, Parque Bambú, in Ecuador. http://www.bospas.org
Thanks for your input, keep writing.
Thanks for the encouragement and the link, Piet.
thanks! We have been promoting our “weeds” for a long time, and more and more people are waking up to these plants’ nutritional value. I repeatedly tell my neighbours, why would we want destroy nature’s diversity and resilience in order to grow a small selection of plants, break our backs, when we can just go pick food? This is the link to our latest illustrated report.
Best from the islands of Zanzibar, Antje
Hi Antje, why indeed? Crazy isn’t it. Thanks for the link!
You are absolutely positively correct.
Your message needs to be broadcast everywhere.
Silly humans… oblivious to the free nutritious food that would flourish if it wasn’t poisoned, paved-over, sodded, and despised.
You’re welcome, Mary, thanks so much for commenting.
Great article Kate! It’s so liberating knowing some wild edibles, I love that once you know your weeds you can see food EVERYWHERE. I’ve been introducing dandelion seeds to our land lately. I think they prefer a damper climate but I’m hoping they’ll take off in some of the shadier parts.
Hi Erika, there were no dandelions here when we came, either. In our case I think its a bit too wet. But I’ve been dropping seeds around, and they’re getting going slowly but surely. Thanks for commenting!
Yes weeds are great. I picked some ribwort (narrow leaved plantain) this morning to dry for using in skin healing lotion together with dandelion flowers and calendula. These useful weeds also attract beneficial insects. I find their lush green leaves make an attractive border so I mow a path between and let the ribwort and dandelion form a border. Chickweed is a common addition to my meals and the chickens love them too of course. If I’m making a green smoothie I can easily make up the bulk of it with fresh wild greens and balance it with fruit. I have a permaculture garden and as the seasons change I love to observe the wild or volunteer plants that pop up and seek to identify them and their uses.
You’re messing up the system, Marian, don’t you know you’re supposed to get your smoothie ingredients from the grocery section, your chicken food from a bag, and your insect control from a spray bottle? Just kidding, of course. Thanks for your comment and your lovely descriptions.
Weeds, weeds, weeds – they’re coming up in my garden and in lots of conversations I’m having lately! I usually only harvest and eat my favourite weeds, maybe it’s time for me to widen my selection… Thanks Kate!
You’re welcome, Bel. Thanks for the comment!
I am currently in the process of creating a food forest using the principles of permaculture. Your article adds another dimension to what I am creating. Thank you.
I’m glad it was helpful, Terry and thanks for the comment.
Exellent article, thank you! alas I live in the hot wet tropics where I’m still trying to find out what’s edible and what not… what’s growing in our supermarket is exactly the same as in yours!
Hi Refugio, I’m glad you liked the article. I’m not sure from your comment whether you’re saying that where-ever we live in the world the supermarkets stock the same foods because of the globalization of food systems, or if you’re referring to our similar climate and therefore similar food plants. Whichever meaning you intended, I agree with both!
Lately I’m focusing on increasing the minerals in my diet, and I’m looking mainly to leafy greens, both domestic and wild, to help me do it – I’ll share more about exactly how I’m going about it in the next post.
Great article Kate with the comparison made clear! The Townsville Permaculture Club has a great brochure on edible greens that grow really well in the dry tropics but I gave a talk on edible weeds based largely on what my migrant parents gave us to eat growing up! Stand outs (besides the wonderful Dandelion) are Purslane, Emilia and Milk/Sow Thistle. Isabell Shipard is a great authority (“Self-Sufficiency”)
Thanks for your comment, Milena. I received a book voucher for my birthday recently, and Isabell Shipard’s herb and self-sufficiency books are at the top of my list. Does the Townsville Permaculture Club have a website where I could find the brochure you mentioned?
I can email you a digital copy. perhaps if you send an email to me I can then reply
I will send you an email 🙂