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Putting Your Weeds To Work

Out of curiosity and in a baby step toward frugality and self-sufficiency, I have started a weed garden composed of the varieties of “weeds” that occur most prominently and persistently in my yard. I have uprooted them and transplanted them into containers of a variety of sizes to observe them only slightly removed from their natural habitat. I want to identify/classify them, learn about them, and figure out how to make them earn their keep. It’s not a renter’s market, and real estate in Brooklyn is not cheap. On top of that, with all of us being told we can become backyard farmers by trading in our $300 skinny jeans (which I personally never have owned but whose presence is nonetheless ubiquitous) for an equally priced pair of torn, ripped, and patched and otherwise used and abused vintage workerman’s dungarees, my little plot of land is screaming for the showiest and most table worthy vegetation gentrification.

With that in mind, I am cleaning house on my weeds, trying to identify the ones taking up the most space and putting them all to work. Of course, many are already paying their dues, serving as decoys for the unwanted pests and attracting other, beneficial, ones. I don’t want to disturb the equilibrium and natural state of things too much – just want to be trying to get the most out of my yard’s inhabitants.

That said, I’m starting by looking at a very common to this area plant, by the name of plantain, though it’s not the banana variety.

Wildman Steve Brill recommends against eating it, simply because it’s not that tasty, but it’s widely hailed as a cure all for skin intrusions from mosquitoes to minor scrapes and burns. It’s best if used within 10-15 minutes of a bite; within that time, a quick treatment can fully cure a bite by removing the poison. Take a leaf, crinkle or smash it up between your fingers, and place it directly on the bite for a minute or so. The relief should be felt almost immediately. One thing I’m unsure of — anyone? anyone? — is if it is still effective when not immediately plucked from the plant. In other words, if you’re hiking and spot some, and want to take it along as an impromptu first aid kit, how long will it maintain its healing properties? This may be a question for the Wildman himself.

Plantain is also a worker weed because it is deep-rooted and can help open up and break up soil to help water find paths to more fragile rooted plants. This is especially helpful in areas such as ours (NYC) where the soil is so heavily clay-like.

Plantains? They’re keepers. Leave some in your yard close to more delicate plants (or try transplanting them), and keep some in a pot on your deck or near your front or back door for emergency aid when the mosquitoes get hungry. I found mine are thriving in planters (while other weeds are not do keen on such domestication).

QUESTION: how are you putting your plantains to work for you? Go ahead … Gimme the dirt!



One response to “Putting Your Weeds To Work

  1. Ralph ⋅

    I just recently came across something on plantains, and as you mentioned I immediately think of it’s banana like cousin. Last year I was using some dandelion leaves in salads, and after looking through Wildman’s book for an ID, I occasionally add wild violet leaves. I seem to get quite a few violets and wood sorrel. I’ve never transplanted weeds, when I pull some I usually just fling them toward the back. There are a number of weeds that are getting chewed up so maybe I should try to identify them for starters.

    I copied the following from an old out of copyright public domain book (which has no pictures). Based on suspicion alone, I am guessing the rapid application of the plantain has more to do with catching whatever it is before it has a chance to spread or get irritated more so than the plant being picked too soon before use. What I do remember Wildman saying was that Jewel Weed is good for the skin. You cut it into pieces and put them in a jar filled with Witch Hazel- which just reminded me that I have a small jar of it soaking since the tour.

    Description: Natural Order, Alismaceae. Genus ALISMA: Acaulescent marsh-herbs, with
    expanded leaves and panicled flowers. Flowers perfect, three-petaled and three-sepaled; stamens
    six; styles and ovaries numerous, and arranged in a circle. A. PLANTAGO: Leaves radical,
    ovate, sub-cordate, abruptly acuminate, five-veined, four to six inches long, long-petioled. Scape
    one to two feet high, panicled. Flowers verticillate, numerous, small, rose-white, appearing in
    July and August. Carpels fifteen to twenty. This smooth little plant is common in our ditches and
    Properties and Uses: The leaves, when fresh, are highly stimulating, and even vesicant. When
    dry, a strong infusion of them proves relaxing and stimulating, acting on the skin and kidneys.
    Used warm, this will secure gentle moisture on the surface, and quiet nervous agitation. Used
    cold, it procures a free discharge of urine; and has been considered of service in lithic acid
    gravel, and torpor of the kidneys connected with common colds, dysentery, and typhoid. A
    fomentation of the dried leaves is good in bruises; and the coetaneous outward and inward use of
    the plant has a popular reputation for the treatment of hydrophobia. It is not likely that it can be
    relied upon in such a connection; but no doubt it will prove deserving of confidence as a mild
    nervine depurator. The insignificant appearance of the plant has led to its being slighted.
    The Physiomedical Dispensatory by William Cook, M.D., 1869
    Medical Herbalism

    Description: Natural Order, Plantaginaceae. This is the common plantain so abundant in
    grassy yards near dwellings, and is to be distinguished from other articles bearing the same
    common name. Root perennial. Leaves large, broad oval, spring from the root, five to seven
    strong-nerved ribs, abruptly narrowed into a channeled petiole. Flowers on a spike rising from
    the midst of the leaves, densely crowded, four-parted, very small; stamens with long capillary
    filaments. Pod with seven to sixteen seeds. The size of the leaves and length of the spike vary
    much according to soil, the spike being from four to twenty inches long, elastic and tough.
    Properties and Uses: The roots and leaves are diffusively relaxant and stimulant, leaving
    behind a gentle tonic impression. They are not of strong power, and a concentrated decoction (or
    fluid extract) is required for internal use. The kidneys and mucous membranes receive their
    principal influence, and other glandular organs are moderately acted on. The principal use made
    of them is in scrofula and light cases of secondary syphilis, for which maladies, when of the
    irritable form, they answer a good purpose; but they may be also used to advantage in subacute
    and chronic difficulties of the kidneys and bladder, such as aching back, cystic catarrh, and
    scanty and scalding urine. Generally their use in this direction is overlooked, but they serve an
    excellent purpose, and possess a power which deserves investigation, especially as they are
    rather toning than forcing to the kidneys. In bloody urine arising from chronic renal
    congestion, they are good; and their toning influence on mucous membranes is of some service
    in leucorrhea and diarrhea of the sub-acute character. A strong decoction, associated with a free
    outward use of the wilted or bruised leaves, has a wide popular reputation for the bites of snakes,
    spiders, and other poisoned wounds. R. H. Homer, M. D., of Indiana, tells me the green leaves,
    applied to the surface and changed often, give great relief in the burning of acute or chronic
    erysipelas; and a wash of them has been much commended in the same malady, salt rheum, and
    PLANTAGO CORDATE, called water plantain and rib-grass, grows by the sides of rivulets,
    with large, early heart-shaped and very smooth leaves, and the stems with scattering flowers
    toward the top. The root is reputed a valuable nervine and antispasmodic of the soothing and
    gently toning class; and has been spoken of warmly in hysteria, sympathetic vomiting, cholera
    morbus, and even in cholera. Outwardly, it is commended for indolent and congested swellings
    and low scrofulous ulcers. It should not be confounded with alisma plantago.
    PLANTAGO VIRGINICA, with oblong and obscurely-veined leaves, dioeciously polygamous
    flowers, and hoary scapes four to nine inches high, is common on sandy soils. The leaves are
    reputed of superior efficacy on poisoned wounds and boils, and give promise of being a valuable
    nervine. All of these plants are too much overlooked by the profession; and though I have used
    only the first one, and that in a limited way, there is abundant reason to believe that these humble
    articles, literally growing at our doors, are of valuable remedial powers.
    The Physiomedical Dispensatory by William Cook, M.D., 1869
    Medical Herbalism journal and

    This is from 1869, so you should probably do more research in more modern references to confirm or deny what was said above.

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