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  • Writer's pictureMichael Simms

The Apothecary in the Back Yard

Updated: Sep 5, 2021

In our garden of blueberry, elderberry, rose, zinnia, sage, oregano, and tomato, Eva and I have decided to reserve a corner that will be left untended. This plot will be left to whatever plants appear without our interference. This is our tribute to nature’s wild will, a sacrifice to the Goddess of Weeds. We’ll let her do what she wants with this six foot square…

Of course, we can’t know at this early stage what plants will grow in this wild space, but among the weeds we regularly pull from the cultivated portion are certain herbs that have wonderful nutritional and medicinal qualities. Here’s a brief analysis of the health benefits of half a dozen of the more common weeds that grow in our backyard:

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): the leaves are commonly eaten as a salad green, and the flowers brewed as a tea. Both leaves and flowers are full of vitamins A, B, C, and D, as well as minerals, such as iron, potassium, and zinc. It is the best known source of Vitamin K, essential for healthy bones. Traditionally, dandelion is used to treat bladder infections and to strengthen the liver. Select young small leaves, which are less bitter than mature ones.

A photograph of Dandelion.

Lambs quarter, also known as white goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri) is one of the most common weeds in gardens and backyards, especially if you’ve added manure to the soil. These mild-tasting wild greens are easy to recognize with their triangle- or diamond-shaped leaves coated on the underside with a white or gray powder. Lambs quarter is closely related to quinoa, beets, spinach and chard (the Chenopodiaceae). Members of this plant family are nutritional powerhouses: good sources of niacin, folate, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, fiber, protein, vitamins A, C, B6, thiamin, riboflavin, calcium, potassium, copper and manganese. Traditionally, lambs quarter is used to treat stomach aches and diarrhea, and as a poultice to treat burns.

A photograph of Lambs Quarter
Lambs Quarter

Lemon balm, also known as citronella and lemonella (Melissa officials). Lemon balm is a perennial herb from the mint family. The leaves, which have a mild lemon aroma, have been known since ancient times to have a calming effect, and recent scientific research has strongly supported this belief. Traditionally, the herb is used for digestive problems, including upset stomach, bloating, flatulence, vomiting, and colic; for pain, including menstrual cramps, headache and toothache; and for mental disorders, including hysteria and melancholia. Many people make a tea from the leaves and drink it for anxiety, sleep problems, and restlessness. Lemon balm is also used for Alzheimer’s disease, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Graves’ disease, swollen airways, rapid heartbeat due to nervousness, high blood pressure, sores, tumors, and insect bites. I add the slightly acerbic leaves to my salad to balance acidic foods such as tomato.

A photograph of Lemon Balm
Lemon Balm

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolate). A member of the Brassicaceae family, garlic mustard is one of the oldest spices to be used in cooking in Europe. Evidence of its use has been found from archeological remains found in the Baltic, dating back 8,000 years. The chopped leaves are used for flavoring in salads and sauces such as pesto, providing a mild flavor of both garlic and mustard. This herb has long been used as a disinfectant to cleanse wounds, as well as a diuretic. Like its relatives kale and cabbage, garlic mustard is loaded with beneficial phytochemicals, including glucosinolate which helps to prevent cancer. Despised by gardeners and foresters, garlic mustard is classified as an invasive species in North America. Since being brought to the United States by settlers, it has naturalized and expanded its range to include most of the Northeast and Midwest, as well as southeastern Canada. It is one of the few invasive herbaceous species able to dominate the understory of North American forests and has thus reduced the biodiversity of many areas. So if you want to help the environment, eat as much of this weed as you can.

A photograph of Garlic Mustard
Garlic Mustard

Wild chives (Allium sibiricum and Allium schoenoprasum). Unlike onions and garlic, chives do not produce a large bulbous root — rather the leaves and flowers are eaten. They are prized by cooks for their deep color and mild flavor. They can be used fresh or dried. Like other alliums, chives produce sulfur compounds (including methyl sulfides and disulfides) which have proven health benefits — anti-fungal, anti-microbial, anti-tumor. Both the wild and cultivated varieties are valued by organic gardeners because most insects are repelled by the odor. My brother Jack, a skilled gardener, puts a line of chive and scallions on the edge of his vegetable garden as sentinels to protect the perimeter.

A photograph of Wild Chives.
Wild Chives

Purslane (portulaca olerace). Although considered a weed in North America, purslane has been widely used as a food and medicine in India and the Middle East since ancient times. Traces of purslane are often found in prehistoric sites. Eaten raw or cooked, it is a highly nutritious comestible high in Vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6, B9, C, E, as well as calcium, potassium, and iron. It is also an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids which are essential for brain function. With a slightly sour taste, the stems, leaves and flowers are all edible. Traditionally, it is harvested in the early morning when the flavor is tangy, and recent scientific research shows that the nutritional content is highest at this time as well. As part of its impressive nutritional profile, purslane contains two types of betalain, potent anti-oxidants that have been found to help prevent cancer.

A photograph of Purslane

If you are interested in learning to identify the edible weeds in your yard or garden, you might want to invest in a handy field guide, such as Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and Central North America. For medicinal herbs, consult the companion volume Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America. Also helpful is the video series Eat the Weeds.

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