They have been living alongside humanity as far back as there is memory, written or oral. But what is a weed, even? Why is it that some plants naturally acquire this most dreaded of all titles, whereas others grow happily under the radar, as it were? Do they even know they are hated and despised for their natural habits?
Any discussion of weeds naturally must deal with the fact that they are a human psychological category of plants. There are certain types of plants that people innately dislike due to their ability to propagate themselves in places where the humans do not want them to grow, especially in commercially-farmed agricultural fields and private gardens. A whole billion-dollar industry is based on this premise: the solution to these pesky interlopers is prejudiced chemical extermination, including going to such insane extremes as genetic experimentation to make desired crops (like GMO 'glyphosate-resistant' soy, canola, corn and wheat) immune to the chemicals that are sprayed haphazardly on the farmer's bitter enemy, weeds.
These articles hope to explore a more ancient approach to 'weeds'. For thousands of years prior to the modern age, many plants now designated 'weeds' were sought out for their medicinal and culinary contributions to human existence. While it may be a laborious suggestion for the commercial agricultural farmer, the avid home gardener, whose interest may lie in the production of wholesome, organic, chemical-free produce, should take an active appreciation in the edible properties of many common weeds plaguing their plots. By considering weeds by their potential endless harvests and culinary usefulness, rather than as targets of brutal chemical regimes, an ideal solution to this perpetual human problem emerges. Can I eat that weed?!
Nowadays there is another movement, cover cropping, whereby entire fields of 'weeds' are sown, grown and plowed under for the purposes of soil conditioning. And what better candidate is there for this purpose than your humble, everyday, pavement crack-occupying weed? There is no plant more successful in the world. They grow quickly, occupy barren, disturbed ground first and foremost before larger plants take over their hard-won real estate, drawing up helpful micro-nutrients like manganese, boron, molybdenum and calcium, which can then be returned to the soil for the real crop.
That is not to say there are some truly devastating feral weeds introduced to places they ought not be. Lantana (Lantana camara) is an Australian example; kudzu (Pueraria spp.) in the USA. Both have thrived due to their propagation habits and general lack of competition from the natives species, and are rightly exterminated with extreme prejudice wherever they are found. There would be a thousand others. But even the latter of these, kudzu, has edible tubers and flowers, being long in use in their native Japan, Korea and China, and the leaves have been used as stock feed. The fully ripe, black berries of the much-hated lantana are also perfectly edible (but their seeds or green fruits are not, take care!), which leaves the question hanging: what is a weed, even, when we can utilise even these if we wanted to?
I will proceed in the articles to follow on an entirely arbitrary basis, preferring those edible weeds which are most common or delectable. This article shall also not be specific to Australia, as most, if not all, of the edible weeds to be covered here will be available in some form or another on every continent save Antarctica. I will only deal cautiously with medicinal preparations, if any, preferring to refer the interested reader to more expert literature on that subject. Each article will be organised into my previous Aussie Bush Food organisational scheme: Names, Habitat and Range, Identification, including must-tick Key Identifying Features, and Uses, both Culinary and Medicinal, with special Cautions regarding toxins or Lookalikes as necessary. Finally, each article concludes with Further Reading suggestions for the voracious student.
For those wishing to get a head start, I cannot recommend enough the following literature, to which I will be referencing extensively throughout this article series.
Adam Grubb and Annie Raser-Rowland (2012). The Weed Forager's Handbook: A Guide to Edible and Medicinal Weeds in Australia. Melbourne: Hyland House.
This is a very handy pocket-sized guide specific for Australia. It contains about 30 of the most common edible weeds and a few poisonous look-alikes. Colourfully illustrated and helpfully organised, it is perfect for beginners. Includes a few edible weed recipes at the back. Their website is here [LINK].
Diego Bonetto (2022). Eat Weeds: A Field Guide to Foraging. Melbourne: Thames & Hudson.
An excellent, beautifully illustrated, quality field guide by this Italian weed-eater. Contains detailed treatment of 33 common backyard weeds, 6 mushrooms and 4 seaweeds, and includes many excellent weedy recipes. Diego's website has many free articles, blogs and foraging tour bookings as well [LINK].
Tim Low (1991). Wild Herbs of Australia and New Zealand. Revised Edition. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
I first bought this book thinking it was dedicated to Australian and Kiwi native herbs, but was surprised to discover it is mostly introduced weedy species. Low has detailed weed entries, more than 70 in all, has hand-drawn pictures of each plant and a photographic section in the centre of the book to assist easy identification. He includes a lengthy section on common plant toxins and their mechanisms of action in the human body: alkaloids, cyanide, oxalates, nitrates & nitrites, tannins, mustard oils and essential oils. Low also includes 18 pages of weed recipes and an appendix of another 120+ edible or medicinal weeds (some toxic) he could not detail in the main text. The book is now my go-to field guide for weed identification. It is sadly now out-of-print and difficult (and expensive) to buy.
Nicole Apelian (2021). The Forager's Guide to Wild Foods: Edible Plants, Lichens, Mushrooms and Seaweeds. Global Brother SRL, 2021.
A masterpiece by Apelian, this book contains hundreds of edible herbs & greens, shrubs & berries, trees, lichens, mushrooms and seaweeds. Contains an extensive section on poisonous look-alikes. This book is not exclusively dealing with 'weeds', but many common weeds, to be covered in this series, appear in it. Tailored for the North American continent but applicable wherever each food is found. Beautifully illustrated in colour with excellent, easy-to-navigate formatting and indexing. Includes at least one recipe and short comments on medicinal properties for each edible species. But no bibliography! Apelian's website is here [LINK].
James A. Duke (2001). The Handbook of Edible Weeds. Herbal Reference Library; Boca Raton: CRC Press.
This work is the single most extensive book on the topic of edible weeds, with more than 100 species described in detail, including the active phytochemical constituents of each plant. It is organised alphabetically based on Latin names, with common names also included in each heading. The major drawback is only a single, black-and-white, hand-drawn illustration (albeit excellent quality) of each plant included. Tailored for the North American continent, but applicable wherever each weed is found. Extensive index and bibliography, the latter making deep dives into a particular plant of interest even easier.
Duke collected much of his works into what is now the Duke Phytochemical Database, available to the world here [LINK]. Other websites carry on his legacy since his passing in 2017 (and his wife in 2021): James & Peggy Duke's Green Farmacy Garden [LINK] or [Facebook]; and the American Botanical Council [LINK].
Green Deane, author of the Eat the Weeds website [LINK] and Youtube [LINK], also has more than a thousand pages of information regarding edible weeds, fruits and seeds that the novice forager should definitely profit from exploring.
For the medicinal uses of the weeds to follow, I refer the interested reader to the following thorough and detailed works which shall likewise be cited throughout. Not every plant has known or worthwhile medicinal applications (e.g. sow thistle is missing from all of these works).
Nicole Apelian & Claude Davis (2020), The Lost Book of Herbal Remedies. Self-Published.
A superb beginners book to herbal medicine. Beautifully illustrated with detailed entries, methods of preparation, dosages and a helpful introduction describing different medicinal preparations, e.g. infusions, decoctions, extracts, tinctures, salves, syrups etc. If there was a single, introductory book to buy on herbal medicine, it would be this one. Tailored for the North American continent. Lacks a bibliography.
Andrew Chevallier (1996). The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. New York: DK Publishing. [LINK]
A beautiful reference book filled with his top 100 herbal medicine plants, with an additional 450 plants given shorter treatment near the back. While not specific to weeds, many of the weeds to follow in this series appear in this book. Includes sections on active medicinal constituents, preparations, dosages and photographs of the plant parts, fresh and prepared, and a very detailed section on methods of preparation, e.g. infusions, decoctions, extracts, tinctures, tonics, syrups, oils, ointments, poultices, salves etc. Organised alphabetically by Latin botanical names. Lacks a bibliography.
Joerg Gruenwald et al. (2000). PDR for Herbal Medicine. 2nd edition; Montvale: Medical Economics Company. [2004 ed. LINK]
A physician's desk reference (PDR), this 858 page tome details clinical indications, pharmacology, preparations, dosages, contraindications, adverse effects and overdose symptoms of 700+ herbal medicine plants. It is much easier to use than Duke's due to the fact that each entry is accompanied by copious unabbreviated citations of scientific and medical literature to take the avid student further.
James A. Duke (2002). Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. 2nd edition; Boca Raton: CRC Press. [LINK]
A technical reference, Duke's handbook is an annotated and coded guide to herbal medicine with 365 herbs listed. Includes important material on dosages, contraindications, interactions and side-effects, but is difficult to use for novices and requires frequent cross-checking of his abbreviation appendix to make sense of his main text. It includes a monster bibliography to take the interested student further.
T. K. Lim (2012-2016). Edible Medicinal and Non-Medicinal Plants, Vols. I-XII. New York: Springer.
An exhaustive, twelve-volume work on many (but not all) of the world's edible plants. It has detailed treatment of plant phytochemicals, mechanisms of action, but lacking in preparation methods and dosages. Organised by plant families, which may make it unfamiliar to use for the non-botanist, however each plant entry is according to its Latin scientific name nestled under its respective plant family. Each entry contains extensive references. Lim's work is entirely unaffordable ($250 per book) for the casual weed/herb food forager and best utilised in a State or University library or online.
I hope this series serves an important purpose in our modern, ignorant world. Free food grows literally everywhere around us, for where there are weeds, there is food. It may not have massive carb loads like farmed potatoes or corn, or sugar loads like commercial fruit, but the sooner modern humanity realises this ancient lesson, that free food is all around us all the time, the less we will be tempted to rely on Big Ag, Big Chem and their emerging fake factory food industries which are really prisons in disguise.
"Control the food and you control the people," a Washington fat-cat is once reputed to have said. Well, you cannot control the weeds, therefore you cannot control the food. Ha!