I try to find value in the mundane, the little things that are easily overlooked. Maybe this is why I am curious about the weeds around us, especially the ones that invade our empty urban spaces. The industrial areas here are peppered with grasses, weeds, and wildflowers like California poppies, Queen Anne’s lace, pink perennial peas, sumac, and fennel. When I ride the bus home from work I delight in the golden tufts of grass and California poppies along the train tracks. As much as I am tempted to hop off the bus to take a closer look, I think of my own urban plot. My plot promises plenty of ripe berries and sungold tomatoes. I love our backyard on a summer evening. The bees buzz on the leek blossoms and globe thistles. The dappled light shines through the hop bines and horseradish leaves. Here in the golden glow it is easy to overlook the flaws and unfinished projects. The piles of gravel and spilling bags of mulch blend in with the landscape. I usually only spend a few minutes out here before starting the evening chores, but I feel all the better for the time spent.
The way we view plants is cultural, and this cultural lens informs our perception of what is good or bad. Similarly, the language we use defines our relationship with plants. One man’s weed is another man’s nutrition. There is a solipsism too, if you don’t care where flavor or nutrition comes from, then why take notice? Of course, not all plants deserve our admiration, some are toxic or deadly. Some are garden bullies like crabgrass or bindweed that drive gardeners like me nuts. But there are many overlooked resources; it just takes time and knowledge. It is crazy that we pay money for things like iceberg lettuce, a plant that has little flavor or nutritional value, but we use chemicals to rid our yards of lambsquarters, chickweed, and purslane, plants that are packed with abundant nutrients and flavor. It amazes me that people feel so much anger towards dandelions. I think there is something to admire about them. The more I learn about them, the more I see how they benefit the garden and lawn. Crazy talk, you say? Dandelions are workhorses, using their deep taproots to bring nutrients from deep in the soil up to the surface to share with the plants around them. But until we take the time to observe, learn more, and challenge the dominant cultural paradigm, we define our enemies and only accept complete eradication.
We are preparing our backyard to attain certification as an official “backyard habitat”, but in order to do so, we are required to limit certain weeds and eradicate others. I will gladly get rid of the recommended weeds, but this certification process has made me think more about the plants we share our space with. We have also invested a fair amount of time researching and planting native plants, especially drought-tolerant varieties. Sometimes it seems that there is an arbitrary distinction between herb/vegetable/native plant/weed. Maybe plants are defined by more than location and perception.
Being an advocate for certain plants means questioning who defines them for us. I have started to to redefine some of the plants around me. One of the best ways was an amazing class I took last summer at Wildcraft Studio about the local weeds and natives that produce gorgeous natural dyes. Chelsea and her interns are cataloguing many of the Columbia River Gorge plants to see what colors can be produced from them. Instead of pulling weeds and putting them in the city compost bin, I now wonder what can be extracted from them first.
There is one powerhouse weed growing in our vegetable bed that makes me happy, purslane, also known as verdolagas. For a backyard gardener with a small plot, I see purslane as an beneficial groundcover. It does spreads like mad. if your livelihood depends on the production of produce, I totally understand your anger towards this particular weed. One small purslane plant can produce thousands of seeds. I have read that one plant can produce up to 50,000 seeds. I have also read that one plant can produce 240,000 seeds. Either amount tells you that this plant needs to be eaten all summer long! I let purslane grow around our veggies to trap moisture, keeping the soil nice and humid.
When our purslane starts to creep and grow, I harvest it for salads and tacos. The crunchy texture and lemony, vegetal flavor are also welcome in a savory stew or stir fry. Purslane harvested in the morning will be a bit more sour than purslane harvested in the afternoon or evening. Purslane also varies is saltiness depending on the soil where it grows.
To learn more about the weeds growing around me, I reserved The Wild Wisdom of Weeds: 13 Essential Plants for Human Survival by Katrina Blair from the library. This book examines common weeds (found on every continent) that are also nutritional powerhouses. At first glance The Wild Wisdom of Weeds seems a bit hippie-dippie and most of the recipes are raw/vegan, but Katrina is a biologist and permaculturist, and has inexhaustible knowledge. I plan to buy this book in order to use it as a reference.
Wild Weeds has recipes, but it is so much more than a cookbook. It is an in-depth study of 13 amazing plants with detailed nutritional information and techniques for harvesting and preserving plants, plus how to use what you have gathered from flower, seed, leaf, and root. I plan to experiment beyond the “eat fresh leaves all summer long”. The recipe I wanted to try first was the purslane elixir. I have eaten a fair amount of purslane, but I never thought to drink it. I recently made a variation of this elixir. It was the perfect thirst-quencher on a hot day. One thing to note about purslane is that it is a little similar to okra in the amount of slime, dare I say mucilage? When mixed with water it isn’t noticeable. It reminds me of another favorite juice: aloe juice.
Purslane is packed with nutrition. It is one of the only plant sources of alpha linolenic acid, an omega three fatty acid that is also found in fish oil. It is good for high blood pressure and regulating cholesterol levels. It is full of potassium, magnesium, and melatonin. It. has more beta carotene than spinach! So don't compost all of it! Eat it. Or drink it.
If you don’t have purslane invading in your garden bed, you can buy seeds from Seeds of Change, Seed Savers Exchange, or Baker Creek. Or you can collect your own seeds by finding unsprayed plants in the wild and bringing home some of the tiny black seeds in your pocket.
This thirst-quenching lemonade comes together easily with a blender. You don't need a fancy Vitamix type blender; I used an electric hand blender and a quart mason jar. Remember that purslane harvested in the morning will be a bit more sour than purslane harvested in the afternoon or evening.
If you don’t have purslane, use a small handful of mint, salad burnet, red clover flowers, thai basil, or lemon balm instead. Just be sure that the herbs are free from herbicide or pesticide residue.
I like to use a blend of both lemons and limes, but use what you prefer, or have on hand.
Yield: 3 – 5 servings, depending on thirst
A handful of fresh purslane, from your yard or farmers market
The juice from 3 - 4 limes, small lemons, or a combination of both
2 ounces simple syrup, honey syrup, or maple syrup or more to taste
2 cups of water
Additions: cilantro stems, mint, or basil, a couple dashes of citrus bitters, such as Dram Citrus Medica or Scrappy’s Black Lemon
In a blender combine the purslane, any additional herbs, citrus juice, syrup and blend well. Add a cup of water and blend some more. Strain the mixture through a wire strainer. Add ice, and another cup of water, if desired. Adjust for sweetness. Serve on ice and garnish with cilantro blossoms, lemon wheels, or edible flowers.
This lemonade makes a nice base for a “weed” margarita too. No, not that kind of weed, but the purslane kind.