Ouch! You don’t have to pull so hard…Oh no! Not my beautiful blossoms…You’re not just going to throw that away, are you? Roots and all? If only we could hear our weeds speaking to us, they might sway our opinion of their usefulness. What…? Useful weeds, you say? They are invasive, aggressive, ugly. They are a nuisance in my garden, the bane of my lawn. But take a closer look, and you may have a treasure chest of useful, nutritional, and even medicinal plants right under your feet, if you would kindly take your shoe off my tendrils, thank you.
I had a bit of an enlightening weed experience meeting a group of teenagers pulling weeds at the end of First Street. Teens Inc. gets local teens involved in maintaining the beauty and balance of the wild lands around Chipeta Park and Barker Reservoir. All summer long, teens will be pulling up Knapweed and Scentless Chamomile – non-native and very invasive species. Nothing goes to waste – while the plants are not yet in bloom, they are left to compost naturally where they were pulled, improving the soil. When they do begin to bloom, they will be composted elsewhere to control propagation.
Coloradans, especially in the nearest small-mountain town of Nederland, are weed-crazy these days. Everyone from Nedheads and Nedlist on facebook to Nedmamas and the Nederland town homepage are all chatting about weeds. Weed-pulls are being organized en masse: the CSU extension office in Gilpin County has weed pull and wildflower identification events planned all summer (directed by Irene Shonle, details on their website: http://www.extension.colostate.edu/gilpin). Diana Maggiore, one of our local weed-pull organizers helped me get hip to the noxious weed-craze. At the “Let’s Pull Together” a town-wide weeding event, volunteers learn about the state mandated noxious weeds, how they propagate and how they can be eradicated (viz. Diana Maggiore’s article in the Mountain Ear, “Thank you June noxious weed pull volunteers”, Thursday, July 3).
I had a chance to ask Diana if there were any beneficial weeds that are currently labeled as noxious. “Native weeds certainly provide benefits such as attracting pollinators or herbal medicines while not taking over into monocultures. There are even noxious weeds that are medicinal!” Now you’re speaking my language.
Attention weed-pullers! Before you dig up some of these weeds, consider harvesting some of these medicinal species for your totally natural, wildcrafted and wonderful herbal pharmacy!
Dandelion: Everyone knows dandelion – the deeply toothed leaves, bright yellow blossoms, milky white sap. While dandelion is NOT currently on Colorado State’s official list of noxious weeds (thank heavens!), it is certainly the most easily identifiable, and the most misunderstood. Did you know the entire plant is edible? Dandelion leaves are considered a bitter green and will boost any salad, stew or stir-fry with vitamins A and C, are high in fiber, potassium, iron and calcium, and aid digestion. The funny thing is you can find dandelion for sale at the store, powdered, freeze dried, dandelion juice, and fresh greens…when you could be getting it for free from your back yard!
Mullein: My first introduction to Mullein was in a Wilderness first aid course where we learned about “mother nature’s toilet paper”. While mullein is completely bio-degradable, readily available and oh-so soft, Mullein’s medicinal uses go far beyond a back-country pit stop. As with dandelion, and all wild things that you are inspired to harvest, it is important to avoid collecting by roadsides or along railroad tracks. While mullein especially thrives along the highway, these plants contain dangerous amounts of lead and other chemical runoff that has seeped into the soil. If you hike a little off the beaten path and find a well drained and sunny hillside with some soft green mullein plants popping up – go for it! Pick the leaves that look and feel the healthiest, and if you find a plant that is flowering (mullein flowers every other year) pick the flowers as well. Take the leaves home and dry them to make a tea or syrup for cough and cold season. Put the fresh flowers up in a jar filled with oil (I prefer safflower oil) and allow to sit in a cool, dark place for six weeks or more. Strain out the flowers and you have a traditional wise-woman remedy for earache, tinnitus and ear infection!
Thistles: Musk Thistle, Bull Thistle, Canada Thistle, Yellow Starthistle…although our wild thistles in Colorado are not the “Blessed” Thistle that you buy in the store, I like to think of all thistles as blessed sources of nutrition and medicine. Blessed, or Milk Thistle has been used medicinally for over 2000 years by every culture from the Mediterranean to Europe and North America. Milk thistle, with her characteristic white mottled and spiny leaves produces a bright purple blossom that contains the most medicinal properties. Milk thistle is scientifically proven to help with liver related ailments including fatty liver, cirrhosis, bile duct disease, and toxemia from acute poisoning (such as from eating poisonous mushrooms) and chronic poisoning (such as from alcohol abuse). The seeds contain the highest concentration of sylimarin, the most potent and medicinal part of the plant. Most allopathic liver prescriptions contain laboratory isolated sylimarin, sometimes derived directly from Milk Thistle or a chemical simulation thereof. You can find Milk Thistle dried in capsules or as a medicinal tea in any health food store. The recommended dose for liver protection is 420 mg of sylimarin daily.
While not all thistles contain “sylimarin” they do have liver protective properties. Thistles are prolific propagators and very difficult to weed out once established in your garden or field – not the least for her strong and proud stalk, and her tough, spiky defenses! But if you allow your thistles to seed and harvest the blossom with the seeds mid-summer, you will not only have a delicious bitter green to add to your stir-fry and stew; but you will have one of history’s most important liver remedies on hand. Dried and crushed for a strong tea or tinctured, Thistle is a blessing in disguise!
Every county in Colorado is mandated by the state to implement noxious weed control, and yes, I haven’t yet found anything really wonderful about scentless chamomile, think before you pull! Even “noxious” weeds have little voices, even “non-native” and “invasive” species are here for a reason…ask a weed and she just might tell you what that reason is.