Foraging while gardening
|Lady's Thumb in bloom|
The other day, while engaging in my hobby of pulling weeds, I started thinking about categories: weeds, weeds, and weeds. There are the bullies, the thugs, the thieves, the ones that, unable to fit comfortably into a given plant community, will enter your garden or a natural area and through various mechanisms—high reproduction rate, extreme adaptability, quick genetic adaptation, allellopathic chemicals released in the soil, resistance to insects and pathogens, or simply shading out other plants—can and will rapidly disrupt a functioning ecosystem or garden. They are the reason I go on bindweed patrol nearly every day during the growing season and forest preserve volunteers spend too much of their free time getting after buckthorn, Asian honeysuckle and teasel.
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.
|Bumblebees like the nectar|
Unless you want to use violets as a groundcover (effective in the right
|Lady's Thumb in an alley|
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.
Flowering Plants that Native Bees Love
Creeping Charlie Love