This week, weeds have rocked my world. I don’t just mean that my garden is being overgrown with weeds already (which it is). Rather, I have been rethinking what my definition of a "weed" even is.
After all, it seems pretty audacious for us human beings, who have only been on this planet a handful of minutes in Earth-time, to decide that some plants are totally undesirable and should be removed physically or even chemically. It seems like the idea of a weed — a plant growing where it "shouldn’t" — could only have come about in the last century or so as industrial agriculture and everyone-wants-a-front-lawn trends took off. But I’d like to challenge the idea of weeds.
In fact, I’d say there’s no such thing as a weed.
I was first introduced to that idea by a coworker in Red Lake. In the garden we operated last summer, he introduced me to plants that my Southwest-grown eyes had never seen. In between our tomatoes and cucumbers grew stinging nettle, yarrow, dandelions, plantains and pineapple weed.
Of course, for the health and growth of our beloved vegetables, we did pull these plants out of our garden. I understand that there are places we don’t want certain plants to grow, such as in competition with our vegetable gardens. But before that day amongst the tomatoes, I weeded with a certain close-minded mentality, where everything that was categorized in my mind as not-tomato was simply a weed and had to be removed.
My coworker taught me the names of the plants I was uprooting. More than just their names, he started to tell me what their uses were. As we cared for the edible plants of tomatoes and cucumbers, we were removing just as many edible plants in piles of vitamin- and mineral-dense weeds.
In just that high tunnel, we had a pharmacy. Stinging nettle can be used for arthritis, boiled and blended into pesto, or turned into a salve for aches and pains. Yarrow is good for stopping bleeding -- you simply chew it up and cover your wound. Dandelions may be stubborn, but they are edible from the root to the flower. Plantains can be used as salad greens, and the seeds, if collected, can be dried and crushed into flour for bread baking. And if you’ve never tried pineapple weed, you’re missing out on the most tropical munch in the midwest; it tastes just like a burst of pineapple on your tongue. The craziest part about all of these plants? They’re completely free.
Knowing the names of the plants was a huge step toward unlearning the concept of weeds and beginning to have a sense of place. While living in Panama, I was always impressed, and even a little jealous, at my counterparts' ability to name just about every tree and vine we passed in the rainforest. Learning the names and uses of a few simple plants in my backyard and garden began to open the door to a new, deeper relationship with northern Minnesota, as well as a newfound love of foraging.
Once you get past the idea that only food sold in neat plastic packaging in the grocery store is fit for human consumption, the world begins to open up before you. Dandelions were only the hook.
I recently had the privilege to go on a small foraging expedition with regional foraging and plant expert Linda Black Elk of Bismarck, N.D. I haven’t had to buy groceries all week; lo and behold, the woods in our backyard are brimming with delicious, coveted nutrients. The highly desired morel mushrooms abound in our swamp, as do ostrich and bracken fern fiddleheads, wild ginger, cattails and Solomon’s seal.
I have crunched these wild, delicious plants underfoot for years without having any idea what I was stepping on. Our Native brothers and sisters have known for centuries what I am only just discovering: the Earth nourishes us and provides us everything we need, if we are willing to know and learn. It is so rewarding to stumble upon a plant, know its name and uses and how to harvest it, and bring it home to eat or share with our family.
I know that not everyone has time to forage, and I certainly do not think even the most practiced forager could feed herself three times a day on dandelion greens and berries alone, so I am not suggesting you leave your grocery cart in its tracks and start mushroom hunting.
Besides, foraging takes patience and knowledge, and I encourage anyone to take serious precautions and do your research before eating anything from the woods. But I do think it’s worth downloading a phone app or purchasing a foraging guide and taking it on your next camping trip this summer.
Seeing the plants around us — even the pesky "weeds" we love to hate — for more than just greenery is a great way to instill in ourselves, and our children, a sense of place and a love of nature. It’s free, it’s fun, and it’s a great way to bring nutrient-dense food into our diets as studies show that our grocery store produce is lower in vitamins and minerals than ever before.
Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast.