Our lawns and gardens are invaded every year by pesky weeds, and local watering holes and fishing spots can have their shores completely blocked by pervasive plant growth. We’ve developed endless varieties of chemicals, lawn treatment plans, and special weed removal tools to combat these ever-present menaces. But in many ways, we’ve actually been fighting a grand battle against some of the best readily available food and medicine sources! Far from being pests, these weeds were once considered valuable by our ancestors and were harvested for food, medicine, and even bandages. Let’s relearn the “herb lore” of the common weeds, so that you’ll have those resources close at hand.
5. The Dandelion
Stubborn, annoying…and more useful than you may think!
I cannot imagine a more hated weed in any suburban yard. Clover and other plants at least have the decency to blend in with that soft carpet of green but the dandelion stands tall with its bright yellow flour and then spreads its seeds everywhere later in the season. They’re stubborn too, with deep taproots and a tendency to just grow back after being chopped down by your lawn mower.
However, if you take the time to harness the utility of the dandelion it will have a place of honor in your yard and gardens. The leaves, flour, and that long stubborn taproot are all edible and extremely nutritious. A single cup of boiled dandelion greens can give you 535% of the vitamin K you need per day, as well as many other vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. The leaves are best in salads, while the root can be boiled as a substitute for coffee. The flowers are often added into recipes, including juice mixes.
Not only is the dandelion good for you, it’s also great as a companion plant for your emergency garden. The deep root breaks up compacted soil and draws up nitrogen and other nutrients so that the smaller roots of other vegetables can get to them. The flowers are also great for attracting pollinating insects, as they’re both fragrant and extremely bright which helps bees find your other plants. Once the growing season ends, they’re good composting material owing to the high nutritional content in the inedible stalk.
4. The Broadleaf Plantain
The broadleaf plantain is a very useful plant, particularly if you’ve been suffering from diarrhea.
No, this isn’t the banana-like plantain but they do share a similar name. You’ve probably seen the broadleaf growing in your yard, or at least mowed it down from time to time. It’s not prominent like the dandelion and so not as hated, but it’s still a common reason for you to break out a can of weed killer.
As food, the plantain is high in nutrients, and the younger oval leaves can be boiled to improve tenderness then added to many meals as a side of greens.
As medicine, the plantain really shines in a disaster situation. Most importantly, it has been shown to help with diarrhea which is a common killer during disasters owing to the sudden shift in diet and the high probability of drinking contaminated water. In outside wounds, a poultice of plantain leaves can be used as an antiseptic, to treat burns, hemorrhoids, and insect bites. Plantain extract in the mouth can treat mouth ulcers and a variety of other mouth-related pains and aches.
Knotgrass is devilishly difficult to remove, but that is helpful when you need to harvest it frequently.
You may not know the name of this weed, but you’ve definitely seen it before. Even in a city without much greenery, knotgrass can be seen growing up in cracks of asphalt and concrete. Almost every driveway has some knotgrass that sprouts in the cracks every year, widening the damage and making the drive look unkempt. However, as you might have guessed by now, it also has a helpful side.
Knotgrass is another salad addition, and you can eat any part of the plant above the ground. Like many of these weeds, it is surprisingly high in nutrients but also very hard to kill making it great for repeated harvestings.
As a medical aid, knotgrass is also a strong anti-diarrheal and helps in the healing process when the body is trying to overcome the dehydrating effects. It is also an internal coagulant, helpful in treating stomach ulcers and swelling. It can also serve as an anti-inflammatory, as it helps the body purge toxins more readily.
Great food, insulation, and a perfect natural firestarter. What more could you want?
This isn’t as common as some of the others, but for anyone who’s to their local pond or lake these things are ubiquitous. For those of you near industrial parks and the like, many retention ponds can have clusters of cattails as well provided the water isn’t overly polluted. It has a wide variety of uses including food, and as a harvestable survival tool.
The cattail plant can be eaten in a variety of ways. The root was commonly used by Native Americans as a source of flour for bread, and even the yellow pollen that appears on the stalks during the summer can be added to wheat batters to improve nutrition. The cigar-shaped “cat tails” that give the plant its name can be roasted and eaten and are quite tasty. Young leaves and stems and be taken and eaten in salads, for even more greenery at your table.
Probably the most loved use of a cattail for modern preppers is as perfect rainproof firestarting tinder. The tails are very dense and the inner core stays dry and fluffy even in the middle of a downpour and will catch fire rapidly. In addition, spare firestarters can be taken apart and the fluffy innards can be used as an insulating packing material, great for adding an extra layer to coats, jackets, or to fluff up a lumpy pillow.
1. Stinging Nettles
Not my first choice for a meal, but with a little preparation these are actually very helpful plants.
If you’ve ever had the misfortune to stumble into one of these with bare skin, you know why these are horrible weeds. The leaves and stalk are coated in fine hairs ready to pierce the skin and deliver a stinging jolt of formic acid that can irritate the skin for hours. They are also prolific, appearing in areas of disturbed earth like construction sites, abandoned trails, and shorelines near rivers and streams.
However, if you carefully collect, dry, and then cook young nettle leaves, they are excellent replacements for spinach in many dishes. Furthermore, boiling the leaves for tea gives you a delicious drink that is very rich in iron.
Medicinally, the root is great for treating stings from other nettles! Tea from the root is also excellent for various problems with the urinary tract, including an enlarged prostate.
There are many plants that we ignore and dismiss as pointless and destructive nuisances. However, they are actually valuable in a survival situation, and so you would do well to give them space in your yard, garden, or even local pond so that they can be harvested when necessary.