In a permaculture garden there are many plants providing myriad functions. Have you ever wondered how we maintain such abundant gardens without the use of pesticides that seem to flourish in all seasons? One of the ways that we do this is to utilize nature to support itself. For example, many “weeds” or things that people consider to be weeds actually blossom and bring in beneficial insects and pollinators, or mine for minerals deep in the soil, bringing nutrients to the surface. This is an important concept in permaculture for healthy thriving ecologically diverse gardens, so we brought the lesson to the classroom while working recently.
In Lower-Elementary we had A LOT of spring weeds we needed to catch up with. We noticed while weeding that the most prolific of these was Purple Hen Bit (Lamium amplexicaule.) This purple flower is among the earliest bloomers and therefore one of the first food sources for honey bees. We explained that we leave these valuable weeds in the garden until after other nectar and pollen sources begin to flow. We also looked at the square stems and learned that this identifies this plant as within the mint family.
Next we tasted and enjoyed some Chickweed (Stellaria media) which is high in vitamins and minerals, with lots of added medicinal qualities. Many people harvest chickweed in the spring to add a slightly tart and juicy flavor to salads and i’ve even made chickweed pesto on occasion! We discussed the name, and that as one might imagine, it’s folk name, chickweed, is inspired by the fact that chickens love to graze on this early green.
Violets are also of course a favorite native spring plant. The Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) has edible leaves and flowers and whenever I see them in the spring I think of the candied violets that my mom used to make for me as a child (dip the leaves in egg whites and then frost with sugar.) We recently featured these in a “pollinator salad” along with pansies and spring lettuce.
Dandelions are a very special “weed” and the whole plant is edible, though beware, the flowers pack a spicy punch! We nibbled on the leaves while weeding and discussed that dandelions are the ancestors of lettuce! Below is an excerpt from Robert Fulghum‘s fabulous ‘Weeds Story’ from his collection of essays, All I Ever Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten. He praises the many benefits of dandelions.
Mr. Washington was a hard core lawn freak. His yard and my yard blended together in an ambiguous fashion. Every year he was seized by a kind of herbicidal mania. He started fondling his weed-eater and mixing up vile potions in vats in his garage. It usually added up to trouble.
Sure enough, one morning I caught him over in my yard spraying dandelions. “Didn’t really think you’d mind,” says he, righteously.
“Mind, mind!–you just killed my flowers,” says I, with guarded contempt.
“Flowers?” he ripostes. “Those are weeds!” He points at my dandelions with utter disdain.
“Weeds,” says I, “are plants growing where people don’t want them. In other words,” says I, “weeds are in the eye of the beholder. And as far as I am concerned, dandelions are not weeds–they are flowers!”
“Horse manure,” says he, and stomps off home to void any taint of lunacy.
Now I happen to like dandelions a lot. They cover my yard each spring with fine yellow flowers, with no help from me at all. They mind their business and I mind mine. The young leaves make a spicy salad. The flowers add fine flavor and elegant color to a classic light wine. Toast the roots, grind and brew, and you have a palatable coffee. The tenderest shoots make a tonic tea. The dried mature leaves are high in iron, vitamins A and C, and make a good laxative. Bees favor dandelions, and the cooperative result is high-class honey.
Dandelions have been around for about thirty million years; they are fossils. The nearest relatives are lettuce and chicory. Formally classed as perennial herbs of the genus Taraxacum of the family asteraceae. The name comes from the French for lion’s tooth, dent de lion. Distributed all over Europe, Asia, and North America, they got there on their own. Resistant to disease, bugs, heat, cold, wind, rain, and human beings.
If dandelions were rare and fragile, people would knock themselves out to pay $14.95 a plant, raise them by hand in greenhouses, and form dandelion societies and all that. But they are everywhere and don’t need us and kind of do what they please. So we call them “weeds,” and murder them at every opportunity.
Well, I say they are flowers, by God, and pretty fine flowers at that. And I am honored to have them in my yard, where I want them. Besides, in addition to every other good thing about them, they are magic. When the flower turns to seed, you can blow them off the stem, and if you blow just right and all those little helicopters fly away, you get your wish. Magic. Or if you are a lover, they twine nicely into a wreath for your friend’s hair.
I defy my neighbor to show me anything in his yard that compares with dandelions.
And if all that isn’t enough, consider this: Dandelions are free. Nobody ever complains about your picking them. You can have all you can carry away. Some weed!