A weed by definition is a plant that is unwanted and is growing in competition with cultivated plants. However, many "weeds," when taken out of human judgement, are playing vital roles in their ecosystem, be it holding the soil onto a hillside or feeding the bees that pollinate our vegetables. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many plants that are considered weeds are actually very useful and beneficial to humans as well. Here are some special plants coming into season right now that might surprise you with their usefulness.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow is one of my favorite plants to discover while I’m working with children in the outdoors. The featherlike leaves of the plant almost always catch a child’s eye, and they can’t help but drag the leaves through their fingers, feeling the furriness. I love how the flower smells and I use it regularly in facial steams and tea. It turns out that over 40 different constituents have been isolated in yarrow, including an oil that contains azulene (also found in German Chamomile), which is a chemical known to be anti-inflammatory.
The tea of yarrow is bitter and astringent. It reduces inflammation and increases perspiration, which is why it was traditionally used to treat feverish illnesses. Take caution if you take it this way, however, because prolonged use could lead to sensitivity to sunlight. Limit your use to three cups of tea a day for five days.
- Ecosystem Services: Yarrow is a dynamic accumulator that helps build soils by pulling minerals from deep in the ground up into their leaves. It covers a lot of ground quickly so that it can reduce erosion. It can harbor beneficial insects and provides nectar for pollinators.
- Where to Find: Disturbed areas with lots of sun. Next to roads, in recent construction sites, or in a natural meadow.
- Human Use: The flowers will bloom starting in mid-summer but be at their hardiest in late summer. Harvest the flowers and leaves, tie them into a bunch, and hang them in a dark space to dry. These can then be used in a tea to treat feverish illnesses such as the flu and colds.
Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida)
I grew up with jewelweed in New Hampshire, knowing it only as the seed popping plant. It creates a little seed pod that, when squeezed, pops apart in a curl of excitement. Kids are endlessly entertained by this activity.
- Ecosystem Services: Populates shaded forest floors as well as disturbed fields, building biomass.
- Where to Find: Jewelweed grows along shaded stream banks, especially in previously disturbed soils. It gently spreads along forest edges and floors, coincidentally in similar areas that poison ivy likes to grow.
- Human Use: It is best known as an old remedy for the prevention of poison ivy rash. The juice from the plant is used on the rash. You can either actually juice the whole plant or do as I do and just take some stems and rub them on the skin to release the juices. If you have had contact with poison ivy, rub the stem on the area you think you got the poison ivy oil as quickly as possible and it will lower your chances of getting a rash.
Plantain (Plantago major)
Plantain is not a starchy relative of the banana but rather another common weed that most people have seen but have not yet identified. It likes to hide in the lawn. I used to pick the leaves and make “bunny salads” out of it when I was a kid.
- Ecosystem Services: Another dynamic accumulator that is highly adaptable to disturbed environments. I have found plantain hiding in my lawn in New Hampshire or growing on a hillside where a forest fire burned in Montana.
- Where to Find: Filling in the gaps where you would least expect it. Look out for its tell-tale broad leaves in places of loose, sandy soil.
- Human Use: Known as a healing herb effective against bacterial infection. I like to harvest the leaf, dry it, and infuse a carrier oil such as linseed or olive oil with the dried leaf. I will then use that oil as the base for a heal-all salve for scratches, cuts and bruises. You can replace the dandelions with plantain in this recipe to make a salve.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
I was introduced to elderberries during my first foray into herbalism, when I made an elderberry syrup in a basic herbalism workshop. Elderberry has a long history of European gypsy use and is known as the medicine of the people. It is most commonly used as an immune system support herb.
- Ecosystem Services: Acts as shelter and food for many beneficial birds and other vertebrates. It provides nectar for a small band of species and so is key to the functioning of the ecosystem.
- Where to Find: In areas where floods happen, especially forested riverbanks. It prefers rich, alkaline soils and partial shade, although it grows strongly in full sun.
- Human Use: While the flowers are more popular to use, the berries ripen in late summer and have many uses. They can be used to make jellies, cordials, wine, and medicinal syrups. Harvest a head of berries and then pick them off the stems. Alternatively, you can freeze the stems and then pick the berries if you are planning on boiling them for jams and jellies. The easiest way to prepare the berries is to dry them and store them to add to teas during cold season. Warning: do not eat the berries fresh. They need to be dried or cooked before consumed and never eat the leaves! These are toxic in the way plum tree leaves are toxic.
If you want to learn more about foraging wild plants, you may want to consider purchasing a wild foraging book. It can go a long way in helping you find the plants you are looking for as well as keeping you safe from potentially toxic plants. Late summer is a particularly rich time with many plants coming into fruit before autumn hits so get curious and see what else might be out there in your local ecosystem.
Please keep in mind the tenants of the Honorable Harvest: never take the first plant you see, take only what you need, and say thank you. In changing our perspectives from considering certain plants weeds to seeing those plants as helpful can allow us to see and feel the fullness of the natural world. Good luck and happy foraging!