We all love to garden usefully. We love to eat fresh food from our gardens that we have grown from seedling or seed. We care about what we put in our bodies, and how it came to be. We spend so much time making room for our edibles. We water and compost our gardens. We weed… WAIT! Stop right there. We what!?!
Maybe its time to take a closer look at the so-called weeds growing in our gardens. Can they really be all that bad? Do we even know what species they are… or what their edible and medicinal qualities are? If you are like most gardeners… you probably don’t know much about the plants that are so specially adapted to your garden that they grow well without any extra care from you.
Maybe it is time to take another look at those so-called weeds… indeed!
These plants we call “weeds” are worth learning about. In culinary terms, they may not be the yummiest plants in the world, but from a nutritional perspective they may be among the healthiest… and it doesn’t take much to make them tasty enough to eat… such as in a burrito!
In the video, I eat a plant that I did not identify to species. Eee… gads! Isn’t that dangerous!?! Aren’t you scared it is poisonous? No, I am not scared because as a botanist, I have studied plants enough to know that it is much easier to firstly identify them to family before identifying them to species. It is a simple matter of identifying a plant to its family and knowing whether or not that particular plant family has any poisonous species and learn to recognize and identify those first.
In the example in the video, the Asteraceae (the Aster family) is the family the plant belongs to… as does Taraxacum officinale… a plant we all know by its common name, the dandelion. I know there are not any poisonous plants in the Aster family… at least not in my area except for Wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) which is not native, and maybe some other nasty looking ones… and so it generally doesn’t matter what species it is, if it’s at all tasty… and even if it’s not at all tasty, I know it is nutritious… and thus it is lunch! But this attitude depends on knowing what members are poisonous if any, and then also knowing degrees of toxicity, and choosing for yourself whether or not you will try it!
I have three books that I have owned for many years and that I personally use as reference in this regard… I highly recommend the first two:
I have the 4th edition of Botany in a Day, the illustrations of which are black and white. The new 6th edition has color! I’m going to upgrade soon. Take a look at these beautiful pages.
The beautiful simplicity… or logic… behind learning to identify by family, in the context of wilderness survival anyway, is that there are many widespread “safe” families that do not have very many, if any, poisonous species, which you should reliably learn to identify before learning any other particular species of any family.
I also own Guide to Flowering Plant Families, by Wendy B. Zomlefer. I grew up in a homeowner’s association managed upper class suburbia, and most people in these areas that I have talked to about plants tend to learn the common names of their favorite plants and never the species names or what families they are in, even they who consider themselves to have green thumbs. They usually don’t know whether or not their favorite plants… and they only seem to favor plants they hold to have aesthetic value and nothing more… are edible or otherwise. Believe me or not, but most people who live in upper class suburbia buy ALL the food they eat from the grocery stores! The danger involved in these aesthetic landscapes is that species are grown together from all over the world and there is no real indication of ecology or region, so it is likely that a plant you identify to a “safe” family is actually one of the toxic species that doesn’t grow naturally in your area and yet is prolific in your neighborhood for its aesthetic value only.
Vascular Plant Families, by Jr. James Payne Smith, is a book written by one of my university professors and was required reading for two of my botany classes at Humboldt State University, where I earned my Interdisciplinary Studies: Bachelor of Science degree in Ethnobotany, and my Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology. Professor James Smith was in semi-retirement when I was enrolled and he taught Ethnobotany, one of my favorite classes.