Foraging for Wild Plants in a Domestic Garden

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

Patty bike profle picWhat is a weed? A witty gardener will tell you it is any plant growing in the wrong place at the wrong time. What makes a time and place wrong is when multiple plants are competing for the same small patch of soil nutrients, water and sunlight. If you are trying to grow a row of beans, and an ambitious brigade of sow thistle decides that bean patch is just what it has in its botanical mind for putting down thistly roots, well – you’ve got a plant conflict. A sow thistle is just another green product of nature, but in this context, the gardener sees a weed and yanks it out. Poor sow thistle.

But a gardener who is not only witty, but also savvy, will tell you to prepare the kitchen when you are pulling out some of those weeds. If you’ve been a good steward of the soil and have not used chemical herbicides anywhere in your garden, then you can explore the potential edibility of everything in it. You can go foraging in your garden.

Right now in the Robb Garden is a particularly good time for reaping a windfall harvest of weeds you didn’t plan. The word “windfall” applies quite literally here, since Nature uses the wind to sow her serendipitous crops, sending seeds aloft to seek a cozy patch of soil. Of all the wrong-place-wrong-time plants we have in the Robb Garden, we are lucky to have one that is wonderfully nutritious: purslane.

2018-05-22 16.10.13Purslane (Portulaca olereacea) is a low-growing plant with small, rounded green leaves and thick, reddish stems. The leaves are slightly succulent, and taste a bit tart, similar to sorrel, with a tang like lettuce. Both the leaves and the stems are perfectly edible, a crisp little snack you can pop in your mouth right in the garden. If you collect a handful of purslane, you can chop it up into any sort of salad; it’s especially good in mustardy potato salad. If you have enough of it, you can fry it up with onions as a side vegetable. It is a common ingredient in cuisines of the Mediterranean region.

Not only is purslane tasty; its nutritional benefits are remarkable. Purslane is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids: 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of purslane contains 300-400 mg of alpha-Linolenic acid, which is one of the two essential fatty acids (essential because our bodies cannot manufacture it, so we need to obtain it from nature through the foods we eat). Purslane also contains higher amounts of melatonin than other fruits and vegetables. Melatonin is a hormone manufactured in the pineal gland in your brain, and it plays an important role in regulating sleeping and waking cycles. Melatonin also scavenges the free radicals in our bodies that can otherwise cause damage to our cells, which may play a role in the development of cancer. And melatonin  has anti-inflammatory properties. So ingesting some extra melatonin in a mouthful of purslane is not a bad idea.

Is there a cultivated garden in your life? Take a closer look at the weedy companions in the garden beds and see if you can identify a friendly purslane plant, waiting to offer you its juicy crunch.

Sources used for this post:

Artemis P. Simopoulos, Dun‐Xian Tan, Lucien C. Manchester, Russel J. Reiter. 2005. Purslane: a plant source of omega‐3 fatty acids and melatonin. Journal of Pineal Research Vol. 39, pp. 331-332.

Gift, Nancy. 2011. Good Weed Bad Weed: Who’s Who, What To Do, and Why Some Deserve a Second Chance. Pittsburgh: St. Lynn’s Press.

Madison, Deborah. 2002. Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets. New York: Broadway Books.

Comfort with Complexity

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

PattyGrayThere is a fascinating body of cancer research that, oddly enough, has relevance for the health of the garden (see Siddhartha Mukherjee’s article “Cancer’s Invasion Equation” in the Sept. 11, 2017 issue of The New Yorker).

Research increasingly demonstrates that cancer cells are always present in our bodies to some degree; they are never completely eradicated. But they also may never manifest in harmful ways if the proper environmental conditions to suppress them are maintained – the health of the body’s immune system. One way to treat malignant cancer is to use chemotherapy, which knocks back cancer cells – but it is also toxic to the whole body, damaging the very immune system that fights the cancer cells.

As I was reading about this, I was reminded of weeds in the garden (not that it takes much to remind me of the weeds in the Robb Garden – I have a much more intimate relationship with them than I would care to admit). Weeds and their reproductive parts – seeds, rhizomes, etc. – are always present in the garden. We pull and pull and pull weeds, but there are always more popping up behind the ones we got rid of. Of course, we could treat the weeds with a systemic herbicide, but that would be like treating a cancer with chemotherapy: it would knock back the offending weeds, but it would also damage, even kill, the plants that we want in the garden (I won’t even go into the damage that the herbicide residues could do to the bodies of the humans who ingest them).

Both approaches – chemotherapy on humans, herbicides on plants – address an invading organism by making the entire environment toxic. And yet, neither method will ever completely eradicate the presence of the invaders. Every Gardener knows that weed seeds are always present, perhaps unseen, but nevertheless lying dormant beneath the soil surface.

The agricultural methods we’ve come to take for granted involve mechanically tilling the soil – which brings those weed seeds to the surface where they delight in the sunshine, water, and ideal growing conditions created for them – and then spraying chemicals to kill the weeds. When the chemicals threaten to damage the desired crops, the crops are genetically modified to resist that damage. Rather than working with the natural conditions of soil and plants, we’ve worked against them.

There is another way, of course, and that is to accept the perpetual presence of weeds, but to encourage the environmental conditions that create balance and prevent weeds from taking over. Minimal tilling of the soil (which not only keeps weed seeds way down under but also preserves the structure of the soil), keeping the soil covered at all times with green plants (crops or ground covers), and pulling weeds to weaken their photosynthesis mechanism – these are examples of techniques that work. But it requires one to feel comfortable with complexity – to be willing to figure out how all the parts of the intricate environmental system work together, and to work with that system and not against it.