A weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place – a plant which, in many cases, could be used ease indigestion, fight the flu, treat poison ivy rashes and even make a tasty meal. They may mar otherwise perfect mats of green grass, but many weeds are chock full of vitamins, minerals and surprising healing abilities. So why throw away the medicine cabinet and free food in your yard? Check out the benefits of these 10 weeds including yarrow, purslane and kudzu.
(Of course, don’t consume any wild plants if you’re not 100% positive you’ve identified them correctly. This article is not a substitute for a good plant identification book.)
With its long, strong taproot, the humble dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is no favorite of those seeking a weed-free lawn. But not only does it have rather pretty little yellow flowers, it’s a nutritional and medicinal powerhouse. When young, its trademark saw-toothed leaves are a delicious addition to spring salads and can also be sauteed as a vegetable. They’re rich in vitamin A, vitamin C, folate and calcium. The flowers are also edible.
If you let your dandelions grow strong and proud, you’ll end up with large roots that can be harvested and dried as a medicinal supplement. Used commercially in many detox formulas, dandelion root acts as a powerful diuretic and kidney and liver cleanser.
Starry white flowers with cleft petals, dainty pairs of fuzzy green leaves and purple stems identify the star chickweed plant, which – along with its relatives common chickweed and mouse chickweed – is a great source of vitamins A, D, B complex and C. It’s also packed with minerals like iron, calcium, potassium and zinc. Chickweed (Stellaria media) has a delicate cornsilk-like flavor when eaten raw, and tastes like spinach when cooked.
Chickweed can also be finely chopped and applied externally to soothe irritated skin. An infusion made by steeping ¼ cup in a cup of boiling water for 15 minutes has benefits similar to dandelion root.
Tall and stately, yarrow (Achillea millefolium) bears fuzzy fern-like foliage and bouquets of tiny white or yellow flowers. Some of its other names, including Nose Bleed, Staunchweed and Bloodwort hint at one of its most prized abilities – slowing down bleeding. Found in meadows, pastures and roadsides across America, yarrow has long been used in herbal medicine not just for wound care but to increase appetite, ease indigestion and fight colds and flu.
The fresh leaves can be used as a compress with a little warm water, or even chewed up and applied to wounds if you’re out hiking or camping. A teaspoon of the dried leaves, added to a cup of boiling water and allowed to steep for 10 minutes, is said to reduce fever and help clear the sinuses.
It looks harmless enough, but once you make the mistake of touching stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) with your bare hand, you’ll never do it again (unless you have arthritis – but more on that in a minute). This plant – often found growing near water – has a piercing sting with tiny needle-like hairs infused with several painful chemicals. But once it’s cooked, soaked in water or dried, the fibers are disarmed and the plant can be used both medicinally and as food.
Anemia, internal bleeding, eczema, bladder infections, prostate enlargement and bronchitis are just a few of the conditions that are often treated with nettle in dried leaf, tincture or tea form. But believe it or not, some people intentionally apply raw nettle leaves to arthritic joints to relieve pain. Scientists believe that it reduces levels of inflammatory chemicals in the body, interfering with pain signals.
And even if you don’t want to eat it, nettle can be a big help in a surprising way: as an extremely effective liquid fertilizer for the garden. Get an easy tutorial on its preparation from SeasonalGardener.com.
If you make the unlucky mistake of brushing up against some poison ivy, don’t wander off – your savior is likely just a few yards away. Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) often grows in the same areas as poison ivy and can be used as its antidote. A substance called lawsone in jewelweed actually binds to urushiol oil, the component in poison ivy that’s so irritating, preventing it from binding with the proteins in your skin.
Jewelweed is typically the main ingredient in poison ivy soaps and creams, but you can simply chop up some of the stems and leaves, boil them until the liquid is orange and then freeze the strained liquid in an ice cube tray for quick, soothing relief.
It’s not exactly pretty, but for the plantain (plantago) growing out of the crack in your sidewalk or the edge of your garden bed, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. This perennial weed (different from the banana-like plant of the same name) has a low-lying rosette of dark green oval leaves and cylindrical flower spikes, which produce seeds and seed husks used as the main ingredient in psyllium laxatives.
Mucilage is the magic word when it comes to plantain’s effectiveness. This slippery substance – contained within the entire plant – relieves sore throats and inflammation in the digestive tract. Plantain also has antibacterial properties, healing as it soothes. For colds and flu, add a tablespoon of fresh or dry plantain seed heads and leaves to a cup of boiling water, steep for 10 minutes, strain and drink several times daily.
Want to add some more of those all-important Omega-3 fatty acids to your diet? Go out in your yard, snip some purslane (Portulaca oleracea) and add it to a salad. This succulent plant is commonly found in warm, temperate regions of the U.S. and around the world, and has been used historically as a remedy for arthritis and inflammation in Chinese medicine.
Purslane has more beta-carotene than spinach and can be used in much the same way in salads, pasta dishes, burritos, stews – just about any savory dish. It has a juicy, chewy texture and a mild sweet-and-sour flavor.
Found in fields and roadsides in virtually every state of the union and much of Canada, “peppergrass” (Lepidium virginicum) is in the mustard family and has a flavor similar to that of arugula. Sometimes called “poor man’s pepper”, peppergrass leaves can be eaten raw in salads or used to season soups and stews. The peppery flavor diminishes with cooking, so add it at the last minute.
Got bronchitis? One of the best things you can reach for isn’t in your medicine cabinet, but growing outside your window. Mullein resembles the ornamental plant known as lamb’s ear, with soft fuzzy leaves that grow in a rosette pattern and tall stalks of flowers that can be yellow or white.
Mullein leaves are an expectorant, stimulating coughing to clear congested lungs. The dried leaves can be taken as tea or in capsules to treat a number of respiratory ills including athsma, and oil made with the flowers is a natural remedy for ear infections.
Anyone who has ever taken a drive through the South has seen the tenacious beast that is kudzu (Pueraria lobata). This vine was introduced to the U.S. from its native Japan to help control soil erosion, but quickly overtook everything in its path from trees to entire buildings. It’s a menace that can grow up to a foot a day during the summer, but at least it has a few good uses.
Kudzu, “the vine that ate the South”, is related to peas and the tender shoots take on the flavor of whatever they’re cooked with. The root, dried and pulverized, is used in place of cornstarch to thicken soups and gravies. Some people even fry the leaves and eat them like potato chips.
It has also been used in Chinese medicine for centuries to treat a host of ills including dysentery, allergies, migraines and diarrhea and it’s currently being researched for use in Western medicine as a treatment for alcoholism.