Herbalist Cleo Chappell and Permaculture Landscape Designer Jerrilee Geist explore the role of common weeds within an ecological framework and offer suggestions about how to work with them in the garden and in the kitchen.
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Deep into the lushness of Spring,
Green life pushes up through every crack and corner.
With seemingly infinite rain and the scent of warming weather, here in Portland, we are navigating abundance.
There are more weeds than time to use them! As we make decisions about what we want to grow, we often pull out our tenaciously-abundant green friends. As we clear space, there emerges an opportunity to stack functions. In addition to altering the bed to nurture certain plants, we can practice gratitude by using the herbs for food, art or medicine, and we can tend to the overall ecosystem of our yard by observing and learning about the role these early green weeds play. Let’s begin by looking into the ecological concept of succession.
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Succession is what we call the process in which combinations of plants evolve as conditions change over time. Each plant, insect, and animal (including humans!) that inhabits a space will bring something of its own to it, and in so doing, change the dynamics of the system. Those that are attracted to a space benefit from the unique conditions that it has to offer.
Dandelions are in the group designated ‘early-successional’ species. After a disturbance (such as a volcano, road, or hoe), these early-successional plants find the habitat that suits them very well - lots of sun, low competition for resources, and the ability to thrive in relatively nutrient-poor soils. These are generally plants that live fast and make lots of babies. They tend to be annuals (or short-lived perennials in the case of the dandelion), meaning that their entire lifespan occurs in only one season.
These plants have evolved a wide range of ingenious techniques for getting their seeds around. Some, like the dandelion, give each seed a floaty feather parachute that, as children quickly discover, will fly away easily on a gust of wind. Others create hooks on their seeds to attach to passing animals or fuzzy sweaters. Some fling their seeds with surprising velocity. If you have spent any time trying to weed a garden, I expect you will have come across some of these techniques.
Every year, these annual plants die and return the nutrients they absorbed from the earth and air on top of the soil where insects and microbes can break them down into accessible nutrients. Over time, more early-successional species crowd into that ideal environment. The more they crowd, the less ideal it becomes for them, and the more ideal it becomes for other species. You will begin to see more plants that like sun, but prefer more nutrients in the soil, and don’t mind a little shade to start - often more perennial shrubs come next, and then trees and shade-loving creatures. The bigger the plants that decide to grow in a system, the more shade they cast, still further altering who is going to thrive there. As it turns out, existence on Earth is a constant and evolving dance.
We have a unique role as humans, with our incredible ability to plan, to learn from the past and take observation and experience into account.
If we can become aware of things as they are, noticing the natural cycles occurring all the time, then we can make informed decisions about how we alter our ecosystem. One of the core issues I see in our culture today is that most people no longer think of themselves as in an ecosystem. But we are, and no less than our ancestors were millions of years ago.
Let’s take our garden for an example - an excellent place to observe and reconnect with beings who may at first seem so foreign to ourselves. When I step into my garden, the first thing I do is look around. I like to watch plants grow. I like to see what changes. When you begin to look closely at things over an extended period of time, you will start to notice many things. You will begin to see the delicate curl of the first new leaves, and the way some new starts are more sturdy on first coming up while others seem too fragile to touch. You will notice how some lean toward the sun, while others whirl around to find the nearest place to hang on. And you will undoubtedly notice that no matter how hard you try to deter them, other plants that you did not ask to grow are growing nonetheless!
The garden, which has been so carefully disturbed through weeding and mulching and planting, is made ideal for all your annual veggies, but it also happens to be ideal for all those other early-successional species too. Just as surely as they find their way to a cleared woodlot and every crack in a sidewalk, they will discover that perfect ground in your garden. You may wish they would just leave your garden beds alone, but I thank goodness they do what they do, because these are exactly the plants that pave the way for all the rest.
And what’s more, many of these annoying annuals are excellent food and medicine. It takes only a different lens to see these weeds as a gift! Below are few culinary and medicinal uses for Dandelion, offering the first bitter bite to whet the mind.
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Dandelion, lion’s tooth, piss-in-bed, clockflower,
Your thick taproot breaks up compacted soil. Opening up a channel into the soil when you rot, you bring water and oxygen down and minerals and nutrients up. As an early succession plant, you thrive in wayside spaces and ample sunshine, which you give back to us in yellow-gold flowering light. Your medicines are many, learned from the ancient slopes and steppes exposed by the retreating glaciers of Eurasia and brought to SE Portland by Dr. Perry Prettyman for his botanical medicine garden (Black, Michael). Thank you for feeding us and the early spring buzzing insects and bees.
How to use dandelion: The simplest way is to take one fresh bite off of a leaf before a meal. Quite bitter, the taste alone will stimulate digestive juices, preparing the mouth, stomach, and intestines for the next meal. The fresh leaves can also be added to salads or sauted. The younger leaves which look smaller and lighter in color will be fresher on the palette. Due to the bitterness, I recommend mixing the leaves with other greens or adding small, thinly sliced amounts to meals. The leaves, fresh or dried, can be added to teas and vinegar infusions for medicinal value. They are full of nutrients including potassium, vitamins A, C, E, and K, and calcium. The leaves support the vascular system, the immune system, and digestive system. The leaves act as a mild diuretic, the source of the French name pissinlit, recommended highly due to their high content of Potassium which is excreted in higher quantities with increased urine output (Engels and Brinckmann).
The actions of the root go deep into the liver and gallbladder, helping us, like most spring wonders, to slug off the congestion of winter. They are best medicinally dried and simmered for 15 minutes and sweetened with a little honey. The roots can be roasted and powdered to create a deep, rich taste for a stimulating morning brew. I have also dried and powdered the roots for a flour to add to pancake batter. Roots harvested in the fall will be larger and less bitter. I tend to focus on harvesting greens and flowers during the spring and roots in the fall. However, a freshly sliced spring root can be simmered for about 10 minutes and strained for a bitter liver decoction anytime (Grieve, Mrs. Maude).
The flowers themselves make a treat when dipped into batter, fried and frittered or added to brews such as dandelion wine, or home-made vinegars. Insects love them too, delighting in their early spring sweets.
How do I know it's you? Look for a thick tap root, surrounded by jagged leaves like arrows pointing out, all arising from a central point. The leaves are grooved, shiny, and without hairs so that water drains back to center and waters the taproot (some look-alikes have fuzzy leaves). Yellow flower heads with many tiny flowers that appear to be one flower at the tip of a stalk (again, some lookalikes may have two or three yellow flower heads per stalk). When learning how to ID a plant, please use a plant guide or ask a trusted friend.
Latin name: Taraxicum officinale
Note: Though there are many look-alikes for dandelion, none are dangerously poisonous (Brill, Steve). In general, it is best to pass up on dandelions growing by roadsides and leave them to do their work of repurposing runoff and breaking up soil. Instead, find a good spot in your garden to leave some for harvesting, or if you are not so fortunate to have any volunteers there, find a nearby (unsprayed) area to harvest from.
How might I tend you? Let grow throughout the winter and early spring to provide nectar for early pollinators. Harvest and eat greens when the season begins to warm and it's time to wake up the digestive system. Harvest again in the fall for the juicy root. Plant herbs and vegetables that like the mineral- rich, and loose soil left by dandelion. Compost the abundance, Dandelion seed will always return on the wind.
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2 Tbsp thinly sliced tender dandelion greens
2 cups chopped lettuce greens (butter lettuce is great)
1 tbsp thinly sliced shallot
1/2 tsp lemon juice
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste
Squeeze quarter lemon into a cup and add shallot and salt. Wait 15 minutes and add olive oil. Mix with dandelion and lettuce leaves. Season to taste.
Sauteed flowers with butter and spinach
3-5 dandelion fresh flowers
½ clove garlic, minced
1 bunch spinach or kale, sliced
Dollop of butter and olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Harvest yellow flower heads in garden. Warm pan and add fat. Then add minced garlic and dandelion flowers. Once flowers soften after a few minutes, add kale. If using spinach, wait until flowers are almost done. Season to taste.
Black, Michael. “Thanks for the dandelions, Dr. Prettyman”. Blackened Roots.com, blackenedroots.com/blog/thanks-for-the-dandelions-dr-prettyman/
Brill, Steve. “Wild Man: A Meddlesome But Toothsome Weed, Dandelion.” HGTV,
Codekas, Colleen. “Dandelion Mead Recipe (Dandelion Wine Made With Honey).” Grow Cook Forage Ferment. www.growforagecookferment.com/dandelion-mead/
Engels, Gayle and Josef Brinckmann. “Dandelion.” HerbalGram Is. 109, pg=p 8-15. www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/109/table-of-contents/hg109-herbpro-dandelion/
Grieve, Mrs. Maude. “Dandelion”. A Modern Herbal. www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/mgmh.html
Kershaw, Linda and Patsy Cotterill, Sarah Wilkinson. “Getting to Know the Common Dandelion.” Alberta Native Plant Council, anpc.ab.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/dandelion.pdf
*Photos by Cleo Chappell