I am in love with common wild plants, or weeds, partly because they can help us out in so many different ways; here are some of my favorites. Further details, with recipes, specific techniques, examples, and stories, can be found in Weedy Wisdom for the Curious Forager, along with the kind of natural philosophy that comes up when people spend time in nature, observing, and wondering.
These explorations were inspired by a series of classes with a summer camp for people with varied abilities, many of whom are in wheelchairs. Because of the way these campers approached foraging, our discussions were suitable for complete beginners while at the same time going unusually deeply into the meanings of life, without shyness, and without avoiding difficult subjects. This combination of fun-loving but clear-eyed fearlessness with the flexibility and open mindedness of beginners allowed the plants plenty of room to communicate, and the specifics of plant communication is one focus of the book.
Another is the emphasis on why to forage, as well as how. Since long before we were human, we have depended on the plants around us, and appreciation for our intricate relationships often seems to come naturally when we are reminded. Once people feel inspired to forage, specifics of what, how, when, and where become far more interesting and easier to remember. Safety and health and risk are considered, and a few friendly "gateway" plants are introduced. Non-native common plants, including invasives, are featured because these are the ones that most need to be picked—harvesting them moves us and our surroundings towards greater diversity and balance, not less. It's important and satisfying to find our way to being useful and valuable members of our ecosystems, rather than arrogant agents of extinction. Eating invasive plants is one way, and here are some further ideas.
13 Reasons Why I Need Weeds:
- Pot Stuffers and Hunger Chasers: Anytime you want to feed people, it's nice to know there is delicious free food around you. A root stew or a mess of greens is an easily accessed and very nourishing source of food for much of the year, and is especially useful in a crisis.
- Seasonal and Local Delicacies: Watching treats ripen around you is a very enjoyable way to connect to the environment. Experienced foragers know when to check "their" spots for treasure based on former harvests. Every season brings its delights, with connections to time and place that deepen and enrich further with every passing year.
- Flavor: Unique herbs, spices, and condiments expand the gourmet palate to include what is growing around us, and to adapt recipes to include foraged ingredients. Foragers can hand-select extremely fresh, ripe, clean foods, with vitality and taste that are better than anything that can be purchased, and which are especially compatible with other local products, sharing what the French call terroir.
- Tradition: All of our ancestors foraged wild plants, and we've been doing it since before we were human, so serving these foods is a great way to connect with the survival strategies of the past. They can also connect us to the ancestors of place. It's important to be respectful, and the plants can give us insights into how behave so as not to be invasive. When you pass such knowledge to the next generation, you are participating in a very ancient ritual.
- First Aid: Knowing a few plants that can help prevent infection from setting in can be very helpful when there is no access to antibiotics, and you don't need to be a full-on herbalist. For a beginner, two or three are enough. I recommend plantain and yarrow. Both are common and non-toxic. When used to prevent infection they are generally mashed and applied externally as a poultice. Yarrow helps stop bleeding, too.
- Nutrition: Sometimes broths and teas are easier for some to absorb than solids, and the nutrients in wild plants, because of our long history together, tend to be more bioavailable than vitamin pills. Many physical imbalances respond well to complex, concentrated foods like cooked greens, so it's a good idea to know the common prolific food plants of your region. Nettles, for example, are so nutritious they can cause hair to regrow and hens to start laying.
- Microbiome Repair: The microbiome, or personal ecosystem, includes all the invisible life on, in, and around us. It's essential to a healthy immune response, but it can be damaged by antibiotics and other drugs, stress, grief, dietary intolerances, and more. Both grazing while picking and traditional preparations using lacto-fermentation can help repopulate a depleted microbiome. The combination of classic ferments with fresh, unprocessed, and diverse foraged foods doesn't just strengthen the immune system—new research indicates that mood and problem-solving abilities also improve.
- Scent: The strong scents and flavors of many wild plants have healing and restorative power in themselves, and are traditionally used in teas, smokes, steams, baths, and healing balms. Flowers are a special gift, with beauty that goes far beyond the practical requirements of pollination. Maybe that's why they have been used as sacred offerings in so many places. Freshly picked, they bring unique colors, flavors, and perfumes to the table.
- Inspiration: Inspiration literally means, "to breath in;" we recall that the oxygen we breath in, and the carbon dioxide we breath out, are part of a constant exchange of gifts with the plant world, to our mutual benefit. This forms the foundation of all further exchanges. The ideas that come while breathing with plants can inspire us like the stories of the elders.
- Cycles of Life and Death: Plants provide constant examples and role models for the adaptations needed for changing forms, whether through death and rebirth, the spreading of seeds, or resting in the root. One being's rot is another being's food, and that can be comforting. Finding our balance in these ongoing cycles is easier with the demonstrative guidance of common plants.
- Honesty, Gratitude, and Generosity: These traits are not optional in nature, and foraging for edible wild foods reminds us of such inherent requirements for good living. Nature is always a reality check, and everything is either being received or being returned. Recognizing our place in the larger picture tends to increase people's ability to survive as well as their vim and vigor.
- Relatedness: The mistaken idea that we are conscious beings moving through an inanimate universe has proved both false and dangerous—plants that feed and heal us are one set of relatives that can remind us of the ridiculousness of that concept. They are some of the friendlier and more helpful ones, and can help guide us into more realistic and healthy perspectives and practices. A foraging experience, no matter how small, can be an enjoyable setting for exploring our most intimate ties with our surroundings.
- Inspiration: Wild plants have been known to heal people in dreams, pass messages between worlds, hold space for the transfer of ancestral knowledge, and many other miraculous accomplishments. They are far more than bundles of green chemicals—talk to them, honor them, include them in your endeavors, and you may be surprised at the generosity of their responses. As our elders, they know far more about us than we do about them, and when we feel stuck, we can turn to them for new courage and fresh ideas.
I hope this list gives you some ideas about the ways we are all already connected to common wild plants. There is always more to learn, and something new to taste and discover. They make excellent friends and co-workers, and they're already close by. I invite you to take another look at the local weeds where you are, and see what they have to say. You may just end up, as I have, bringing them into your home, your sustenance, your imagination, and your attitude to life.