On Befriending Your Nearest Sidewalk Crack and How to Eat Weeds
As a wide-eyed, gap-toothed ten-year-old, I lived for running through the tall grasses in the field behind my elementary school. I’d scoop up marigold yellow dandelions by the fistful and rub them on my forearms and knees to stain my skin. To me, they were the most enchanting flower that blanketed hills and lawns in my favorite color. To the adults in my life, they were weeds. I’d carefully arrange a bright and bushy bouquet to present to my teacher or my mother or whoever fetched me from the field that day. They’d share a faked grin and tastefully toss the wilting plants when my attention wandered to something else.
As a teenager, I bemoaned my parent’s distaste for an unkempt lawn. Not only did I resist mowing the grass with every trick in my book, I’d collaborate with windy summer afternoons to scatter the neighbor’s dandelion seeds all across our uniform monocrop of buzzed green grass. A healthy dose of spiteful sass and teenage rebellion, I think now.
I’ve always held a space for weeds in my life, for the scraggly wildflowers growing along the highway berms, for the crabgrass pushing impossibly through the slightest crack in a sea of pavement. They felt like warriors to me, growing where other life couldn’t, growing in spite of it all.
In fact, a weed is a subjective classification and maybe a social construct. Any unwanted plant that inhibits the growth of a wanted plant can be a weed. A dandelion in a monoculture of grass in a suburban American lawn is a weed as much as a hearty, self-seeding annual kale is a weed in a garden of perennial strawberries. We tend to idealize certain plants over others for their beauty or usefulness. And we grumble over those that grow deep tubers in packed soil, resisting our efforts to yank them out by growing back again and again. Yet, what if we saw weeds as first-responders to damaged earth? As growth and new life in nutrient-deprived dirt? As diversity in a sea of sameness?
Beyond these subtle shifts in perspective, many plants we think of as a nuisance are useful, medicinal, and food. When you get to know the weeds in your backyard and in your sidewalk cracks, you might find opportunity in the unlikeliest of places. Here are some of my favorite weeds with information about how to identify them, how and when to harvest them, and how to enjoy them.
Nettles are often the first edible green to spring up after winter. They have long been celebrated as a rejuvenating fresh green to cleanse and detoxify the body after a seasonal winter diet of meats, fats, and preserved foods. You may be familiar with nettles’ sting, as the leaves and stems of the plant are coated with tiny hairs that give a temporary burning or stinging sensation when brushed against the skin. However, I like to think of that sting as a lesson in careful and gracious harvesting. Harvest with gloves and scissors, or pinch the top of the leaf between your forefinger and thumb and you won’t get stung. Nettles have opposite heart-shaped and serrated leaves and can grow to be anywhere from 3-7 feet tall.
They grow in coastal, woodland and mountainous regions and in disturbed soils. Avoid harvesting near conventional farms or industrial areas as nettle is known for its ability to take up toxins and purify the soil—which means you can ingest those toxins if you eat contaminated nettle. But harvested from a clean and known location, nettle is nourishing food and medicine. Blanch leaves in boiling water for a few minutes and add to any dish as you would cooked spinach. Puree into a pesto. Dry the leaves and make a tea. There are so many delicious ways to gain the nutritious iron, calcium, potassium, and vitamins A and D of nettles.
Often found growing among fields of tall grasses, Sheep Sorrel paints hillsides with its tiny maroon red flowers. Find it dancing with wind gusts across temperate North America in disturbed areas, gardens and along roadsides. Small, sour, arrow-shaped leaves make this plant easy to identify. Collect a handful of these leaves and add to a chopped salad for a little zing—or just munch as you roll around in the grass, my personal preferred eating style. You can also cook up a mound of the leaves with butter, garlic and cream for an incredibly savory sauce to pair with egg or pasta dishes. Medicinally, sheep sorrel stimulates the liver, and cleanses the blood. It has even been used to treat cancer.
Miner’s lettuce is on my plate for every meal during spring and early summer. It’s tender leaves have a texture similar to spinach. The plant’s first leaves poke out of the ground like small paddles. Then, a thicker stem rises to bring a heart-shaped leaf to the light. In the center of this leaf grows the tiniest cluster of white flowers. Find Miner’s lettuce growing in shady, moist areas. My favorite patch grows right by my garden hose. I toss these early greens in salads, on top of eggs, or on a sandwich for a fresh grassy bite.
A ground-hugger and a shade lover, chickweed is a succulent, cooling creature. She crawls through dew, loves rich soil, and grows on stems up to 15 inches long. Her latin name is Stellaria Media for a small, white, star-shaped flower at the tip of each stem. Add these vining greens to your salads or make a fresh herbal tea from the leaves. Eat chickweed and your body will be better able to absorb other nutrients, as a compound in the plant increases the permeability of cell membranes in the body.
A powerful, detoxifying plant with those familiar sunny petals and soft, fluffy seeds. Often overlooked, dandelion is full of vitamins and minerals. All parts of this plant can be eaten raw, cooked or dried. Experiment to find how you like it best. The roots are a digestive aid and can detoxify the liver. They also contain inulin, a compound that balances blood sugar, increases mineral absorption and improves the immune system. Or maybe you just need to pluck a whole bouquet of dandelion and stain your skin yellow, that’s okay too. Dandelion is a friend you can find just about anywhere.