7 Medicinal and Edible Weeds
A gust article by Sally Bishop
Medicinal and edible weeds?! But a weed is just a useless nuisance, right?
Technically, a weed is simply any plant that's growing where you don't want it to. You might be surprised to learn that identifying weeds in your own yard can actually be beneficial.
There are three main ways these plants can be used:
- Food: Many leaves are a tasty addition to a dinner salad. Many flowers are, too. Other flowers can be battered and fried, like fritters; candied for cake decorations; or made into jelly.
- Teas, infusions or tinctures: We're all probably familiar with teas made from leaves, flowers or roots, but the real powerhouse of nutrition is the infusion. An infusion is a tea that steeps for hours, rather than minutes, so even more of the vitamins and other nutrients can find their way into your drink. A tincture is when the plant material is allowed to steep in alcohol or vinegar for several weeks. After it's strained, the liquid is full of nutrients and medicinal qualities.
- And as a topical remedy: Topical remedies range from the simple (crushing a leaf and applying it to the skin) to more involved (infusing oil and making salves).
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Yup, identifying weeds can come in handy for everything from a dinner salad to a cough remedy! Below are some common medicinal and edible weeds you might find in your own area:
Ah, the poster child of unwanted plants, identifying these weeds is easy. Every time I see that commercial with the poor hobo dandelion plant wandering down the street, I want to invite him to my house. She makes up for her bad reputation by being the most versatile of edible weeds you'll ever find.
- Its most notable medicinal action is that it nourishes the liver. There is some talk of cleansing the liver, but I prefer to think of it as nourishing and supporting an organ that knows how to do its job.
- Tea and infusion can be made from the leaves or root. The roasted dried root brews into a coffee substitute, usually paired with chicory root, but many recipes abound.
- The leaves, especially young leaves early in the spring, make a smashing addition to your salad. I have a friend who makes green smoothies all the time with dandelion from her back yard, and her kids drink it up.
- But, oh, the flowers. Be sure to pinch or trim the green sepals off of the flowers, as they have a bitter taste. Then the flowers can be dipped in batter and fried like fritters, made into jelly, wine, cookies, and can even be infused in oil, which will relieve sore muscles.
Lambsquarter, or wild spinach, is like free spinach, but more nutritious. Also called goosefoot (the leaves look like geese feet), fat hen or pigweed, its mild flavor make it well suited for just about anything. Lambsquarter has more vitamin A than spinach, and three times as much calcium.
- Lambsquarter vinegar is rich in minerals.
- Small, tender leaves are great in salads.
- If the leaves are larger, they can be cooked like spinach
- The plant can even be dried and ground as flour replacer.
- You can even replace some spinach or basil with lambsquarter in pesto.
- Medicinally, the leaves help with tummy aches, and tea is useful for diarrhea.
Sounds like marshmallow, doesn't it? Well, the original marshmallow treat was made from the root of this plant. Boiled in water, it makes a (don't gross out) mucilaginous goo. Add beaten egg whites and sugar, and you have marshmallows.
Mallow is one of those brilliant weeds that resist eradication by snapping off at the base when tugged, so the root is ensured to grow another plant. Loosening the dirt around the plant with a shovel is the best way to get it up.
- The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked.
- Tea made from mallow is a soothing demulcent, meaning it heals the mucous membranes, like lungs and digestive tract.
I had no idea what mullein was until a few years ago, when herbs and edible weeds really grabbed my attention. It's not a small weed, and is rather majestic to me.
Mullein has large, soft, fuzzy leaves, and stays close to the ground its first year. Being biannual, in its second year, it grows a flower stalk that can top 6 feet! The flowers seem to bloom randomly up and down the stalk, so that makes harvesting them interesting, but avoid the seeds, as some sources say they are toxic.
- The oil you get from infusing the flowers for several days or weeks relieves the pain of ear infections as well as soothes eczema and other skin ailments.
- The dried leaves make an excellent tea or infusion for the lungs - whether it's to treat an infection or a more chronic condition like asthma. Take care to strain the tea through cheesecloth or something similar, as the fine hairs of the leaves might irritate the throat. For that reason, mullein isn't generally considered among the edible weeds.
Nettles is the only weed on this list that I don't have in my yard, but I buy dried nettles and drink its infusion often. It's one of the most important nourishing herbs, as it contains many vitamins and minerals. They are often called "stinging nettle" because of a chemical on the hairs of the leaf, but once cooked or dried they no longer sting.
- Interestingly, some people find relief from pain (such as osteoarthritis pain) by applying fresh stinging nettles to the skin.
- Infusing the leaves in vinegar results in a tasty, vitamin-rich base for salad dressings.
- Making infusions is an increasingly popular way to enjoy those nutritional benefits. Pour boiling water over dried nettles, let sit for 4-8 hours, sweeten or add a pinch of salt (greens are usually eaten savory, after all), and enjoy!
I was so excited when I first started identifying weeds such as plantain in my yard! The taste is quite acrid so, like mullein, it's not always included on the "edible weeds" list. It is safe to eat, however. Whatever chemical makes that acrid taste is also responsible for an amazing ability to heal the skin.
- You can go to the trouble of creating a salve, or you can crush or chew on a leaf and apply it to bee stings, cuts and scrapes.
- As a tea, plantain is known for helping diarrhea and healing the digestive tract.
Violet is a plant I have a hard time calling a weed! It doesn't produce as prolifically as dandelions; it doesn't have thorns or spines; nor does it strangle other plants. It's such a small plant, and the spring flower so delicate, I admit to nurturing violets wherever I find them in my lawn.
- The leaves of this edible weed can be dried for a tea, which acts as a mild laxative.
- Violet flowers can be candied for an edible dessert decoration, tossed straight into a salad or made into a violet jelly. It's delicate and floral, of course, and nothing like fruit jelly.
Resources for Identifying Weeds
Start identifying weeds in your area! Do you know their names? Poke around and you will surely find some medicines and other fun uses, for free, right in your back yard.
But remember: Before you eat or otherwise use any plant, be sure you have identified it correctly! The internet, your local extension office and the resources below can help you in safely identifying the truly medicinal and edible weeds.
Click on any of these Amazon books to learn more about medicinal and edible weeds: