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A garden full of weeds

Column by Hal Walter

Gardening – July 2005 – Colorado Central Magazine

THIS YEAR, for the first time in many, I’ve planted a garden. A good portion of the seeds I’ve planted here at 8,800 feet are actually near descendants of weeds.

My reasoning is threefold, involving a close look at the environment and what grows here, experience with what does not grow here, and recent revelations that weeds are not only what humans evolved eating (yes, I believe in evolution), but also are highly nutritious, perhaps even more so than their long-cultivated cousins. Consider that the common weed lamb’s quarter may have nearly three times the calcium and almost twice the vitamin C as domesticated spinach or lettuce.

Over the years I’ve had varied success gardening here in the Wet Mountains. The growing season is short at this altitude, and is punctuated by extremes of cool and warm weather. The soil has an interesting composition, based in igneous and metamorphic rock, and organic matter that is high in the acidic wastes of the largely ponderosa forest. Other gardening vagaries here include hail, deer, and rabbits.

The first year we lived here I planted some yellow squash and zucchini along with some salad greens and snow peas. The snow peas did great, the salad so-so. The squash had just set fruit when the first snowstorm of the year on Aug. 30 flattened the plants, along with much of my enthusiasm for gardening. Over the next 14 years I’ve dabbled in gardening with minimal success.

Last year I bought a pear tomato plant and set it up in the sunniest raised bed I have. The vine went wild and virtually took over the bed. It set fruit in August. Then we waited for the little green “pears” to ripen, a process which basically never happened over the next several weeks, probably because of the cool nights. The first frost came late last year and we picked a small bowl-full of nearly ripe little tomatoes that night. It hardly seemed worth the effort.

So in part my interest in weedy vegetables came about by process of learning what plants just don’t work here. Ironically, I noticed that many edible plants grow all over the countryside without any cultivation, planting, watering or care whatsoever. These include dandelion, lamb’s quarter, and in the small spring-fed creeks, watercress.

Then it occurred to me: Maybe Mother Nature knows more about gardening and nutrition than we do. Why not just grow edible weeds?

IN MY OTHER LIFE as a nutrition and food journalist, I had encountered the works of ethnobotanist Dr. Andrea Pieroni, a lecturer in Pharmacognosy at the University of Bradford, United Kingdom and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. I e-mailed him and was surprised at the quick reply.

Dr. Pieroni is one of many European scientists studying the health-promoting properties of “wild and weedy” vegetables. These scientists believe these plants may be an important but previously overlooked factor in the health attributes of the Mediterranean Diet indigenous to southern Italy and Spain.

The Mediterranean Diet is high in fruits, vegetables and olive oil, and generally follows a more-balanced consumption of unrefined carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Scientists already have identified monounsaturated fats and phytonutrients found in olive oil as important components to this healthy style of eating.

However, researchers now speculate that phytonutrients found in more than 100 species of uncultivated vegetables may also play a significant role in the diet. Residents of the Mediterranean region traditionally gather wild vegetables from the surrounding countryside, especially during the spring months.

“I will never forget the taste of the V. carinata (a type of wild green) gathered from the wild by my grandmother in Tuscany. The taste was far better than that of the species we can get now in the supermarket!” Dr. Pieroni says.

According to Dr. Pieroni, many weedy vegetables are known for their bitterness, a trait also associated with high levels of phytonutrients. While this bitter taste helps protect the plant from being eaten by insects and other animals, it also may be indicative of phytonutrient levels in plants. When consumed by humans, some of these phytonutrients may have powerful antioxidant effects that could help fight cardiovascular disease and cancer.

MANY CULTIVATED and domestic vegetables may be distant cousins to these wild plants. Some domestic relatives to wild plants include mustard greens, dandelion, mache, and arugula — all bitter greens.

In the case of arugula, now common in many U.S. groceries and known as “rocket” by the British, a domestic species has been cultivated since ancient Roman times, according to Dr. Pieroni. However, the wild rocket plants now being studied include the “perennial wall rocket” and other species found predominantly wild in the Mediterranean region.

Mache has long been gathered and used as salads and is known as “cornsalad” or “lambs tongue” by the British, says Dr. Pieroni. In recent decades it has been cultivated in Southern Europe, France and the United States. “The market of this salad weed has increased very much and it is known as one of the important vegetables in central Europe,” says Dr. Pieroni.

As for dandelions, which many people know as pesky lawn weeds, it’s important they not be consumed from lawns or gardens where chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides have been applied. A person should also be sure to correctly identify this or any other wild plant before consuming it. For those unwilling to learn to identify edible plants, a safer source of these greens is a health-food supermarket, or to plant your own from seeds.

While I’m pretty good at identifying plants, I wanted to experiment with the convenience of having my weedy vegetables in a garden where I could easily locate and pick them. I looked around at what grows naturally in the pasture, noting the prevalence of wild scallions, dandelions, and lamb’s quarter. Locoweeds, though poisonous to people and livestock, are members of the pea family, and may partly explain my previous success with snow peas.

My first crops included some relatives of the greens mentioned by Dr. Pieroni, including Italian dandelion, arugula and mache. I hedged my bets with tetragonia, also called New Zealand or “hot weather” spinach, which should do well if by some chance we had a hot spell in June or July. I also planted some green onions and snow peas to appease the gardening gods.

IN ADDITION I called up my own experience with eating wild, weedy vegetables as a youngster. We would go camping in the mountains of eastern Nevada. There we would pick dandelion greens and also something known as “miner’s lettuce” for salads to go along with fresh trout caught from the streams. I found seeds for miner’s lettuce, also known as claytonia, at Johnny’s Selected Seeds ( Aside from childhood memories, miner’s lettuce appealed to me because it is native to western North America and prefers cooler climates.

As spring turns to summer I’m watching and waiting on my little experimental garden of wild and weedy vegetables. They have begun to sprout and perhaps some day I’ll be able to pick a salad of these nutritious plants. And if not, Ma Nature’s growing some pretty nice dandelions and lamb’s quarter on the rest of the property.

In addition to weeds and dandelions, Hal Walter cultivates prose and tends burros on 35 acres in the Wet Mountains.