My son stopped in the other day after using the brush hog to do battle with a large patch of burdock in the pasture field. He remarked about how big it had already grown and how fast it was growing. It looks like we are going to have another great crop of weeds this year. Until doing some research on plants, I didn't realize that burdock could be used as both a vegetable and an herb. Burdock root can be cooked and enjoyed with butter and salt, or can be combined with carrots, onions, parsnips, mushrooms, etc. The root is used in a variety of Japanese cooking as a side dish, a soup or appetizer. Burdock chips made like potato chips are a favorite snack.
One cannot help but wonder what weeds meant to our ancestors after their first hard winter spent in new, untilled lands. Families had very little to eat except wild game and whatever they could make using a few supplies they had brought with them. As spring approached, plans would be made to plant gardens and crops with the seeds and plants brought with them; however, the weather would predict how soon planting could be done and time would be needed for the things planted to grow.
As soon as the weeds and wild flowers started growing that first spring, our ancestors found ways to put them to use. They used them for food, medicine and in the home. The early settlers knew where to look for them and which plant to use for a cough, stomachache or to polish a pot. They were taught how to find and how to use many of the plants by the Indians, known as the First Nations.
The pioneers didn't know that the vitamins in green plants were often what they lacked, especially in the winter months, and many illnesses were due to lack of those vitamins. Many types of tea made from green herbs were given to people sick with fever. Aside from any truly medicinal value each herb may have had, the herb tea reduced fever, the sugar or honey in them gave the patient some energy and the mild flavor helped soothe a queasy stomach. Some of those herbs were horehound, catnip, horse balm, sage and thyme. Peppermint, spearmint, and hyssop were some of the mints the early settlers used to make tea. Many of the herbs used for medicine are still being grown in herb gardens.
There were so many plants used in so many different ways. Some of the plants used for food were chicory, which is closely related to endive. The roots were roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute. The seed pod or hip of the rose flower was used to make jelly. Wild strawberries and raspberries are members of the rose family. Wild onion and wild garlic were used to flavor food. Sunflower seeds were used for food before the pioneers came. Dandelion greens were some of the first greens used for food in the spring. Cattail was one of the best known food plants. Shoots were gathered and eaten like asparagus, flower buds like corn on the cob and the roots ground into flour. Cranberries were used to make pemmican, a combination of the berries and fat meat, dried and carried on long journeys. Bayberries were used to make candles. Horsetail was used to scrub pots and pans. There were so many plants that were useful and important to the first settlers, and now they are simply referred to as "weeds."
Lady's Bedstraw is a wildflower that grows anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. The leaves were used to curdle milk to make cheese. A red dye was made from the root. An astringent was made from the leaves. The whole plant when dried and gathered in a pile made a soft, sweet smelling bed. There is an old legend that Lady's Bedstraw made the first bed for the infant Jesus in the manger.
Can you imagine the joy and excitement the early settlers must have felt when they saw the first green plants emerging from the ground after a hard winter? Too bad more research hasn't gone into finding the good uses for the plants we call "weeds" today instead of all the research to make more dangerous and toxic chemicals to pour on our fields and lawns.