The Good About Garden Weeds


The weeds are starting to pop up in our gardens: no surprise there! As we tend our gardens and fields we generally have little good to say about weeds, but occasionally we need to stop and consider that perhaps with those two exceptions, weeds may actually serve important ecological functions. Some of our weeds of course are introduced species, which may displace more desirable native species. That is a different matter.

Our native weedy species are often annual plants that produce lots of small seeds that can be widely dispersed to disturbed habitats where more desirable perennial species cannot or are not growing. The plants then become established on these sites, and the roots may reduce soil erosion by holding on to the soil. Their leaves may also help reduce soil erosion from hard rains, and the plants may also modify the microclimate near the soil surface in beneficial ways. Then of course when they die, some of their remains add to the all important organic matter in the soil. As all good gardeners and farmers know, soil organic matter adds to the water holding capacity of the soil, holds onto plant nutrients, and generally helps form a better plant growing medium. Eventually the more desirable plants may become established on the site.

It might surprise you, but a goodly portion of our garden weeds are edible, and can provide a little extra flavor to a salad. Many of our common garden weeds belong to the mustard family, and the tender young leaves of several, perhaps all, of these species can provide a little zing a toss salad. The leaves are high in vitamins and of course have a variety of phytochemicals.

Common mustard weeds in the garden include black mustard (Brassica niger), shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), peppergrass (Lepidium densiflorum) and field pennycress (Thlaspi arvense). There are other edible weeds, of course, such as dandelion (Taraxicum officinale), wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta), lambs quarters (Chenopodium spp.), and purslane (Portulaca oleracea).

If you would like more information on eating some garden weeds, there are several websites on the topic. Books such as Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus and the Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants by Elias and Dykeman may also be helpful.

So if you are tending a garden this summer, pulling up those pestiferous weeds, consider spicing up a salad with the greens of some of those weeds. As those old commercials used to say; “Try it, you’ll like it!”

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.

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