Weeds: They Mean Things
Weeds, they come in all shapes and sizes. There are small weeds, tall weeds, prolific weeds, lonesome weeds, gnarly weeds, and even beautiful weeds. Unfortunately, over the past couple hundred years these important plants got a bad rap. With the development of big-agriculture and the focused production of only a few cash crops over vast tracts of land the hate for weeds began. Weeds got in the way of harvesting crops in the unnaturally developed mono landscapes and were considered a threat
to the mono-cash crop being grown. The farmers were incorrectly told that the plants had no use and needed to be extinguished to have higher yields. The farmers were sold on harmful fertilizers and 'cides along with huge machines that put them into massive debt. I find it interesting how weeds are sometimes called alien species and are thought of as attacking of the mono species which are strangely considered to be of higher value and used to feed the world with mass mono foods. An unfortunate ideology that seems to leak into other aspects of human life. But not too long ago weeds were regarded as important members of society, regularly used, and looked after with much respect and admiration.
In the not too distant past, what we now call weeds were actually the saviors of society. Weeds helped people recover from bad coughs and colds, they assisted in healing burns and wounds on the skin, and gave us elixirs to help us sleep better or remedy a bad internal issue. We knew how to read the plants, how to appropriately harvest them, and how to safely transform something in our very own backyard into something that was a benefit to our health. Along with being medicinal a lot of weeds are also edible and very healthy for us in many way aside from nutrition. On a walk though my property, the neighborhood, and even a parking lot I can spot some important greens to snack on or appropriately collect for a tincture. Unfortunately, outside of my own property and others I know for a fact do not participate in the spraying of pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides I pass on the munching or collecting of the inconspicuous little guys. I do, however, point them out every chance I get to my friends, family, and strangers to make sure they know that that little plant sprouting from the concrete can in fact help relive a burn or encourage brain health. I hope that this little bit of information generates a spark of intrigue in my friends, family, or stranger and they decide to research the benefits of the “weeds” that surround them.
As a permaculture designer, one of my favorite things to do on a property consultation is to tell my clients, after they have told me how much they loath the weeds growing in their yard, that I love them. The look on their face is usually priceless especially after I explain to them how to use the plants. Their whole life they have thought that one of the most valuable plants growing in their yard was a nuisance and useless, but so did I. I grew up helping my dad weed the yard in the merciless Florida heat when I was a kid and hated every minute of it, having no idea that I was mass murdering some of the most important plants we had. My dad would ask me to spend hours on my hands and knees pulling dollar weed, flea bane, plantain, and all kinds of plants that I now consider lucky to know about. Many years later after I bought my own home and started to get interested in transforming my property into something other than grass and I luckily stumbled into permaculture and it changed my perception of what is possible on my little lot and ultimately my life. I quickly changed career paths and never looked back. I know help people see the amazing opportunities lying right under their nose. I design possibilities that will create abundance in an area they thought nothing could be done.
One of the most important things l learned at the first permaculture design course I attended was that weeds are very important indicators of a landscape. When the instructor said this I immediately asked how, why, what!? The teacher humbly chuckled and explained to me the important knowledge of the pants that so many people despised. She told me certain weeds mean certain things. The plants will tell you about the moisture level, compaction, pH level, what nutrient deficiencies currently exist, and the overall health of the soil. Reading the weeds is a great skill to acquire to be able to understand what your soil health is and how you can work to regenerate it, if necessary. Weeds are not only beneficial soil indicators, the vast majority of them are edible, medicinal, or both, adding another dimension of importance to the plants that so many people despise. The weeds growing in your backyard are telling you what type of soil you have. For example, if you have thistles growing in your back yard they are telling you that your soil has a copper and iron deficiency and the thistles, as they grow, are accumulating those minerals in the soil. They are also fixing the problem! If you have lamb’s quarters or chicory growing in an area you are being told that you have pretty fertile soil, lucky you, and lambs quarters is not too bad sautéed up with some garlic and lemon. In acidic soils, pH below 7.0, you’ll see stinging nettles, dandelions, and purslane. In alkaline soils, pH above 7.0, you’ll see chickweed, wild carrot, and goosefoot. These plant indicators will help you understand what type of soil you have without having to do a pH test and in fact would be a lot more accurate than the majority of pH tests available.
Geoff Lawton, one of the leading permaculturists in the world, says “weeds are not the problem but rather symptoms of glitches within the soil”. What he is trying to convey is that weeds are pointing out the problem and by knowing how to read what the weeds are telling you you’ll be able to properly manage your property. Soil regeneration is on the rise and it all starts with weeds. Learning how to properly identify what’s growing will guide you on how to transform dirt into soil. Soil is directly related to health, so the healthier we can get our soil the healthier we will be on Earth. My advice for you to start your weed education is to go on a guided local plant walk. When you learn what is growing around you, the uses of the plants around you, and where they grow, you'll start to understand how to read the weeds. You'll slowly identify new plants that you'd usually never notice. You'll see them all over the place and wonder how we can be so naive towards what was once something passed down from generation to generation. We've lost that knowledge and it is up to us to regain it and share it with our children so that they know how to respect and love nature. It is also very important to make sure you are one hundred percent sure what you're eating is the correct plant. They're many look a like and poisonous plants around us as well so before you eat any plant identify it in a book and ask a local expert. This will keep you alive so you can share your knowledge and live another beautiful day.