Five Useful Weeds: Beautiful and Edible
Weeds In My Yard
When I moved to western North Carolina from Colorado, I couldn’t believe how different it was. Compared to Colorado, I may as well have moved to a rainforest! It’s not really a rainforest where I live, but it’s moist and lush, and a lot of biodiversity exists because of the rain and warmth, especially in the summer.
I moved to an area with about five acres and that first summer, I noticed lots of blooming plants that I usually didn't see in Colorado. Having an interest in biology, my inner scientist went to work and began investigating. I found that in and around my yard, I have so many useful “weeds” and plants growing.
The following is a list of five weeds that are growing almost right under my feet! Though I do a lot of gardening, I never wanted to eradicate the wild plants growing in my yard. I always thought they were beautiful.
Once I found out how beneficial they were, I began experimenting and making teas, cooking them in meals, and making fragrant oils, vinegars and even sachets from them.
I will caution you, however. It’s extremely important to identify these plants with 100% certainty. Lots of look-alikes exist. Those look-alikes can be harmful or even fatal if you’re not careful.
If you ever use them for medicinal purposes, it’s always best to check with a qualified professional (herbalist, doctor, homeopathic doctor) to be sure that you are not causing harm to your body.
Everyone reacts differently to herbs (and weeds) and they can have drug interactions – use utmost caution.
1. Chicory: Cichorium intybusClick thumbnail to view full-size
Get Some Chicory Wildflower Seed
This weed caught my attention because it has showy little blue flowers on tall stalks in the spring and summer. It likes to grow in full sun and it decorates the roadsides with a beautiful display of color.
It likes zones 3-7. It thrives in average or even poor soil. That’s good because I never really think the soil is that good near a highway.
Chicory flowers begin to bloom in early spring and continue to do so into fall. The flowers don’t stay open all day; they open in the morning and close up. If you ever take cuttings of this plant, the flowers will still do this.
If you are feeling adventurous, you can use young, fresh leaves from this plant in salads. They also cook like spinach.
You can also take the roots, dry and then grind them into “coffee grounds.” In fact, the French used to add chicory to their coffees to allow for a more robust flavor.
If you harvest chicory, it doesn’t dry or freeze very well, though. It’s best to use it fresh.
I personally love the flowers so much that I’ll use the cut stems as decoration.
2. Black-eyed Susan: Rudbeckia fulgida
A Field-full of Black Eyed Susans!
You might be familiar with this plant. Indeed, black-eyed Susan is the state flower of Maryland.
The golden flowers with their dark centers bring a floral ray of sunshine to my day. My husband wonders what “Susan” did to get a “black eye.”
Sometimes this flower is called brown-eyed Susan.
In the past, Native Americans useD the root of this plant to treat earaches, snakebites, intestinal worms, skin lesions, and even venereal disease.
The flowers themselves make a 3” wide disc with a dark center. They can grow 2-3’ tall. They like moist soil and will grow in partial shade to full sun. If they’re growing in the woods, they like to find a spot that gets a little bit of sun.
Their brown disks turn into seeds, but they also can spread through rhizomes, which is why you’ll see them frequently growing in patches.
They are a fun treat for butterflies and other similar types of insects.
3. Jewelweed: Impatiens capensisClick thumbnail to view full-size
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Get Those Hummingbirds to Visit Like Crazy!
This is a fun plant! I had no idea what I had growing until I went to the farmer’s market last summer. A good friend of mine was selling a salve for poison ivy. I asked her about it because my husband is particularly sensitive to poison ivy. Luckily, I’m not.
She said she made it from jewelweed and beeswax. She had a bunch of jewelweed that someone had brought her sitting in a bucket. When I saw it, my eyes grew wide. I have that stuff growing all over the place where I live.
My house is surrounded on three sides by little streams. Since jewelweed loves to grow where it’s moist, it made sense that it followed the stream paths – I am also surrounded by jewelweed on all three sides.
It has showy little fire-orange flowers that bloom from May all the way to the first frost. The flowers are only 1” long. It can grow 2-5’ tall. I’m only 5’4” tall, so it’s like a forest of jewelweed at my house starting in mid-summer! It grows in partial shade to full sun.
The little flowers are a nectar haven for hummingbirds. They love them! Ruby-throated hummingbirds especially like them.
If you mash up the leaves and stems, you can rub them onto skin exposed to poison ivy. It’s a great remedy to know about if you’re hiking and you think you touched poison ivy. Jewelweed often grows alongside it; how neat that the cure grows alongside the cause of the problem.
Silverleaf is another name for jewelweed. When the leaves have moisture on them, a little film on the leaf makes it look silver.
You can cook young leaves up just like spinach. I haven’t tried them, but I hear they’re delicious!
When the seed pods are ready, they’re like other impatiens plants: if you touch them, they’ll explode. I’ve had lots of fun popping them open and watching the seeds go flying.
Native Americans had also discovered medicinal uses for this plant. They knew that a poultice of jewelweed would help alleviate a number of skin problems, including burns, rashes, sores, bites and even eczema.
4. Nettle: Urtica dioicaClick thumbnail to view full-size
Nettle Seeds - Just Don't Get Stung!
I first encountered this plant on hiking trails when I moved to North Carolina. I later discovered it growing on the mountain behind my house.
First impressions aren’t always right. I detested nettle because touching it made my skin swell like I had a cat scratch and then it stung for hours.
I had no idea of the powers of nettle. My impression of it has completely changed.
This plant has lots of vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, manganese, iron, potassium, zinc and other nutrients and minerals.
People have even used the fibers from the plant to make different types of cloth.
It’s a perennial and has pointy, jagged leaves. The plant itself can grow anywhere from 2’-6’ high and has flowers from summer to fall. The greenish flowers you see are the males; the females tend to grow more closely together.
Tiny stinging hairs grow all over the plant, so be careful as you harvest it. If you are familiar with dock leaves, they will help the stinging from nettle.
You need to wear gloves that will protect your hands and arms when dealing with nettle. It’s best to cut the plant above its root and use before it starts blooming. If you get it after it flowers, that’s fine, but it won’t be quite as good.
You can use all parts of the plant, but you need to cook or boil it. You don’t want to sting yourself! Cook the leaves like spinach. You can also make a tea from it – use boiling water and steep for 20 minutes.
The benefits of nettle are astounding. You can use it as a tonic for the hair and scalp. It does wonders for the genitourinary system, helps your metabolism, helps alleviate symptoms of PMS and menopause, and helps strengthen the liver. It’s also known to help increase your energy.
5. Mullein: Verbascum chaixiiClick thumbnail to view full-size
Mullein For Medicinal Use
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I’ve heard that this plant came over with the Europeans and wherever they went, this plant went, too. It’s also a fun plant, though.
It grows in Zones 3-9, in full sun.
It grows quite tall – up to 6’! It can really spread out – you’ll sometimes see it 2’ across.
Its hallmark characteristic is its big stalk that shoots up. It has yellow flowers that are quite fragrant.
At one time, it was called the torch plant because people would dry it, dip it into slow-burning oil, light it and use it as a torch.
You can use all parts of the plant except the seeds – they are toxic. The leaves, however, are great for respiratory ailments, bronchitis, and asthma sufferers.
Make a tea from the leaves and then breathe in the vapors. After the tea cools, drink it.
If you take the flowers and put them into oil with equal parts of garlic you can make an infused oil that will treat ear infections. Add just enough oil to cover the mullein flowers and garlic in a pan, then warm them over low heat for about 20 minutes. Remove from heat, let cool, strain and store in refrigerator.
For ear infections, heat the oil to body temperature by leaving it on the counter or heat very briefly in a pan. Using a medicine dropper, deposit 3-4 drops into affected ear. Repeat frequently until the ear feels better.
The oil can also treat cuts and scrapes.
Indeed, these five weeds have special value to us as humans. They are beautiful, too!
© 2012 Cynthia Calhoun
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