Sunday, April 28, 2013

Weeds are Wealth (Or, Why I Eat Like a Cow)

By Myrabella via Wikimedia Commons
For those of us who strive for healthy living, grocery shopping can take a sizable notch out of our pocketbooks. Even store-bought herbs and tinctures can be cost-prohibitive for many of us—especially those pursuing dreams outside of the status quo. Folks who are interested in caring for the Earth and her people find still more expense in sustainable and ethical purchases like fair-trade herbs, spices, and foods.

While we are busy earning money and balancing our checkbooks, Mother Nature is also busy. And what does she do all day? Nature creates an abundance of wild foods and medicines that are just waiting to nourish us. We walk on these plants in our yards, we weed them from our gardens, and we generally ignore their existence. As a result, we miss out on so much wealth which is literally at our feet.

I have found one sure-fire way to feel abundant under any circumstance, and that is by connecting with Mother Nature. As a gardener, I appreciate how honest work can turn into sustenance without the need of a middle man. But even more joyful is receiving the plentiful gifts that spring up from the ground unassisted—the wild and wooly world of weeds.

On a practical level, the more you can eat from nature, the less money you have to spend at the grocery store. But wild edibles are also valuable in another way. Regularly consuming a variety of wild plants gives our bodies optimal nutrition, as they are full of vitamins and minerals in a form that we can easily assimilate.

Other general actions of wild edibles include promoting health of the digestive system, aiding the function of the liver and gall bladder, and allowing for the efficient removal of waste products from the body. Many so-called “weeds” have also been used to prevent or even cure major diseases like cancer. In short, wild plants give us the gift of health, which is absolutely priceless. I often wonder how much illness and suffering could be avoided simply by making use of common weeds.

The Meaning of Life

Why do weeds get me so excited? For one, grazing on wild edibles just feels good. I think my love for this has something to do with being a Taurus—the sign of the bull. As an earth sign known for a persistent love of food, this happy little bull once proclaimed at the dinner table (at perhaps age six or seven), “The meaning of life is food.”

Although my existential horizons have expanded a bit since then, I still believe that the essence of food is rich with meaning. The phrase “you are what you eat” is true in a literal sense—what you consume becomes the very molecules of your existence. Science tells us that matter is energy condensed into a tangible form. So, in essence, everything in our world is made up of vibrating energy. On an intuitive level, it is clear that wild plants carry good vibes, indeed.

A professional gardener friend once told me that she could sense a difference in energy amongst plants. Those that have been cultivated since antiquity have a kind of browbeaten acceptance of being transplanted, pruned, and harvested. On the other hand, wild plants have a spunky nature and a zealous desire to live. If you are what you eat, which would you rather be? I’m not suggesting that we do away with cultivated foods and grocery stores—that would be silly. But, I have the distinct feeling that incorporating wild plants into our lives can make us a little more wild, spunky, and passionate ourselves.

Eating wild plants is not only nourishing to our bodies, but also to our untamed human spirit. Harvesting food and medicine from the wild gets us in touch with our most primal selves. Long before people constructed sterile, florescent buildings to host plastic bags of food, our ancestors knew what it was to be truly wild--to forage through the forest in the sacred search for sustenance.

It is known in the herbal world that wild plants have powerful medicine, oftentimes more effective than pampered garden plants. The message is clear: nature is what truly nourishes the human spirit. A connection to nature is the essence of freedom, and this spiritual knowledge still flows through our veins as a deep urge to reconnect with our primal nature.

Three Favorite Spring Weeds

Now, let’s get to the practical part of weed-munching. Here, we’ll discuss three weeds that are currently available in the Midwestern U.S. I might add that these are common plants also found around the globe, so international readers might be lucky enough to find these in their backyards, as well.

 Chickweed (Stellaria media)

This humble weed grows all over the world, but is quite easy to overlook. With eyes to see, we can spy the green goody that Paracelsus called "the elixir of life." Chickweed is a healthful addition to spring salads, providing optimal nutrition while helping us get rid of excess fat.

The herb likes to grow in gardens and lawns, and can even be found in many cities. Its genus name Stellaria means “little star.” According to Susun Weed, who devotes a chapter to Chickweed in her book Healing Wise, Chickweed connects us to the cosmic forces of the sun, moon, and stars. I find that since eating Chickweed, my perspective has become more broad and malleable. Just as the plant can be used as a cooling and healing poultice for the eyes, Chickweed helps us to see more clearly in general. In particular, I believe it aligns the microcosm with the macrocosm, so that you can glimpse the bigger picture in the most humble of circumstances. “To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour,” to borrow the words of William Blake. This perspective provides a sense of connection with all of life, which is essential for healing.

The small, white flowers resemble tiny stars. Though they technically have five petals, these are deeply notched, giving the appearance of ten petals. I’m including various photos of Chickweed to give you an idea of the different forms it can take, depending on the soil and location. In poorer soil, the leaves tend to be much smaller and the plant stays close to the ground. In garden beds or compost piles, the leaves can grow quite large and the plants get much taller.

Chickweed & Lettuce
This tasty little herb makes for a delicious and nutritious salad, or a handy wild snack while working in the garden. The taste reminds me of kale, except milder and with no hint of bitterness. It was the dominant weed of the winter lettuce patch in my greenhouse this year, which made it rather convenient to put into salads. Chock full of protein, vitamins A and C, calcium, magnesium, silica, and many other vitamins and minerals, Chickweed also promotes the absorption of nutrients by thinning cell membranes. This makes for good medicine when treating those with anemia or malnourishment, or anyone who is recovering from illness or surgery.

Opposite Leaves

As a medicinal, Chickweed has a great many uses. Its cooling effects help clear away fever, infection, and inflammation. It can be used for rheumatism, gout, and stiff joints. A poultice of the fresh plant is useful for all kinds of injuries, from insect stings to blisters. The fact that this plant grows everywhere makes it a convenient remedy.

According to Susun Weed, Chickweed can heal reproductive cysts and improve thyroid function when eaten regularly. It also is thought to promote weight loss. Did you hear me? This plant is an old-time remedy for weight loss. The plant contains saponins, soap-like components that are responsible for dissolving excess fat from our system. It’s also been discussed as a means of reducing cellulite and cholesterol. And as Weed says, Chickweed also helps remove emotional baggage, which is “weight loss where it counts!”

It is important to note that Chickweed is the most potent when eaten fresh. My advice is to eat as much as you can before the plant goes out of season in the hot weather. Even now, local folks are more likely to find good specimens in shady and moist places. You can also make a tincture of the fresh plant for year-round use. I even came across a lovely Chickweed Pesto recipe, which could be frozen for future use.

Violet (Viola spp.)

Hundreds of Violet species are found across the globe, with a concentration in temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere. Of the genus Viola, two species are most commonly used in Western Medicine: Sweet Violet (Viola odorata) and Wild Pansy (Viola tricolor), also known as Heartsease. Sweet Violet syrup is an age-old preparation for coughs and colds. A cooling remedy, Violet lowers fever and also cools a burning mind or heart.

Universally, Violet is understood as a humble and even shy plant spirit. She grows very low to the ground and produces small, edible flowers and heart-shaped leaves. And yet, her sweet and unassuming nature does not mean that she lacks potency or power. Here is what Nicholas Culpeper, a 17th century herbalist, has to say about Violet:

“It is a fine pleasing plant of Venus, of a mild nature and no way hurtful. All the Violets are cold and moist, while they are fresh and green, and are used to cool any heat or distemperature of the body, either inwardly or outwardly, as the inflammation in the eyes, to drink the decoction of the leaves and flowers made with water or wine, or to apply them poultice wise to the grieved places; it likewise easeth pains in the head caused through want of sleep…”

The leaves and flowers are used for skin problems such as eczema, seborrhea, hives, or cradle cap in babies. It is worthwhile to try this plant externally in the form of a poultice, salve, hair rinse, or bath tea. But to be clear, a holistic approach to healing recognizes that skin problems are symptoms of an internal imbalance. While making a poultice or an infusion for external use may help, be sure to consume the plant at the same time for the best results. The flowers and leaves are edible and mild, and can be added to salads or munched on whenever you happen upon them.

The PDR for Herbal Medicines lists Violet as a remedy for constipation, which I must say does not surprise me. The plant is very mucilaginous—which in plain English means slimy. I recently made a tincture of this plant, and noticed that before I was even ready to cap it, the water/alcohol mixture was already turning thick and slippery. No doubt it will help restore slipperiness to the digestive system as well!

The plant can also heal cysts and tumors of the female reproductive system. According to Susun Weed, Violet has a special affinity for the breasts: “She likes to smooth things out when there are fibrous cysts, lumps, infections, or growths, including cancers, in the breasts.”

A flower essence of Violet can be used to alleviate shyness and help us open up to others. After all, homeopathy states that like treats like, so it makes sense that the shy personality of Violet would help others overcome the same issue. The Flower Essence Repertory recommends Violet for those who “long to share themselves with others, but usually hold back due to a feeling of fragility in group situations.”

I find that while Violet certainly helps with shyness, she also provides another valuable service, helping us discern when and with whom to share ourselves. A curious quality of the plant gives us a clue: Violet creates two kinds of flowers—the colorful ones we know and love, and camouflaged flowers for self-pollinated seed production. This ensures the plant’s survival, even when we humans collect the purple flowers for salads and medicine. Plus, Violet flowers can be prepared as a litmus test for the soil, helping to determine its alkalinity. Taken together, the message is one of discernment, reminding us to use our hearts as a kind of litmus test to know to when and where it is safe to open up.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

 Although Dandelion is a well-known plant, it is not always a popular one. Many folks spend quite a bit of energy eradicating these plants from their lawns and gardens. In fact, Dandelion seems to be the poster child for weed-killing sprays and chemicals. Ironically, this herb is of great benefit to the liver, which helps us to detoxify our bodies from the myriad chemicals we encounter in today’s world. Every part of the plant—root, leaves, blossoms and sap—can be used as food and medicine. With the widespread use of toxic substances in our society, it is no wonder that Dandelion appears abundantly under our feet as a healing gift from the Earth.

It is best to harvest Dandelion roots in the fall—springtime is for eating the leaves. They can be quite bitter, so it is best to gather the leaves from a plant before it blooms. You can also cook the greens in a couple changes of water to dispel the bitter taste. But Dandelion’s bitterness is part of its healing action as a tonic for the digestive system. According to Susun Weed, Dandelion leaves increase hydrochloric acid in the stomach, making our digestion strong and ensuring good calcium absorption. As a diuretic, Dandelion is also good for the urinary tract, treating kidney and bladder issues.

Dandelion works to improve liver function, and can be used to treat stagnant conditions like gallstones and jaundice. So many different symptoms and conditions can be traced back to the liver—everything from skin problems to fatigue. With all of the environmental pollutants and chemicals sprayed on food these days, it’s a good idea to take Dandelion from time to time to help our livers process the high volume of toxins. While the leaves do help the liver, Dandelion root is really the main liver ally—so, remember to dig some up this fall!

Let’s not forget Dandelion flowers, which certainly are abundant this time of year. Susun Weed uses the blooms as a natural beautifier for clear skin. She recommends steeping them in hot water for an hour and then placing the blossoms right on your face as you lie down for ten minutes. Then, rinse with the infusion and do not rinse. For a quicker application, you can also boil them in pot of water for a healing facial steam. This is a remedy for all kinds of imperfections, from chapped skin and age spots to freckles and sunburn. Dandelion flowers can also be made into wine or drunk as a nice tea.

Dandelion’s ability to grow just about anywhere, even in the crack of a sidewalk, is a testament to this plant’s tenacious personality. Its taproot gathers nutrients from deep within the soil and holds on to life even when the entire upper portion of the plant is destroyed. The yellow blooms carry the energy of the solar plexus, the center of our will-power.

According to the Flower Essence Repertory, Dandelion flower essence helps to ease muscle tension in over-striving “doers” to promote “dynamic, effortless energy.” I find it interesting that we blow away the fluffy seeds of Dandelion to make wishes. Though we live in a very action-oriented society, intention alone can have powerful effects on manifesting our reality. To me, the plant is a reminder to balance action with intention in order to manifest our goals.

Eat Like a Cow

Why do I eat like a cow? I graze on wild medicinals for health, wealth, and happiness. By using the plants that already grow around us, we take advantage of Nature’s inherent abundance. We have talked about only three common edible plants—but just imagine how much your health might improve if you began using them regularly. In order to derive the maximum benefit, medicinal plants that are mild enough to be eaten should be consumed over a long period of time. I suggest really getting to know these plants deeply—you won’t be disappointed. Along with health benefits, you might find yourself feeling a bit wild.

By JKT-c via Wikimedia Commons
Eating weeds is also a pleasantly humbling practice. Many wild edibles grow close to the ground, requiring you to stoop down and collect the leaves and flowers under your feet. But don’t think of it as a chore—it’s more like an Easter egg hunt. I like to tune into my inner cow, to move slowly with my eyes trained on the ground, munching on all the yummy things in my path. Or, if you prefer, you could be the strong and sturdy horse who gallops from the pasture with a green grin. In any case, grazing on the goodness of wild plants is a healthy practice for soothing your beastly burdens. Happy Grazing!