Plant Matters: "Weeds" & Invasive Plants

I'm a plant lover, pure and simple.

I spent my childhood with my face buried in the perfume of white clover, and Queen Anne's Lace was the first wildflower I learned to identify. My sisters and I always helped with the family garden, and the year we planted asparagus, we surprised my father. He had grown it from seed, and I guess we shouldn't have had any yield that first year. But we did. He wanted to know what we did to make those plants flourish like that. I didn't have an answer, but just recall planting with the intention that all the plants would grow large and healthy. I knew nothing about asparagus and how it was supposed to grow.

As a Naturalist and Herbalist, I've come to learn a lot about more about plants, especially about their relationships to humans, wildlife, and the world as a whole. And oh, how we have come to dread "weeds" and "invasive" plants! I've seen the look of distaste and heard the tone of disgust that are used when talking about these wily, wild plants that just don't stay where we put them and have the nerve to take over our lovely lawns, polluting the mono-crop of neatly mowed grass with bright flowers of yellow and purple. Brazen botanicals!

While I agree that it serves us well to plant natives in our yards, I would like to offer up another perspective about weeds and invasive plants.

First, these plants were brought here from other continents by humans. It's not their fault they're here - they're just doing what plants do. But now that they're here by our hands, perhaps we can look deeper into our relationship with them, and it doesn't have to be one of hate.

Dandelion (Taraxcum officinale)
Most of the "weeds" in our yards came from Europe and are medicinal and/or edible, like dandelion, violet, chickweed, and plantain. 

Every part of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is useful! The flowers and leaves can be eaten, chock-full of vitamins and minerals we need. The root contains inulin, a good source of fiber, and the leaves and root act as a bitter on our digestive system, promoting good digestion, proper absorption of nutrients, and elimination of waste. The stem produces a milky latex that can be used on warts to help clear them up. Free salad and free medicine, right from our yards!

Violet flowers (Viola sororia)
Violet flowers (Viola sororia) are delicious with their delicate perfumed sweetness, and the leaves are edible raw. The leaves are also medicinal, acting on the lymph system. They help to clear swollen glands and are often part of a cancer protocol or used with cystic conditions like cystic breast disease. The flowers can be made into a cough syrup that provides relief for sticky, hard-to-expel mucus. And a poultice of the leaves can be used to treat styes and boils.

Chickweed (Stellaria media) nestles in yards where the soil is rich and in partial shade, springing forth with tiny white flowers that look like stars. The greens can be added to salads, and a poultice of this plant is a superb healer for itchy, dry skin, eczema, boils, cuts, scrapes, burns, and hemmorhoids. Last year, my daughter got a really bad sunburn while we were at a picnic. I made a poultice of chickweed, jewelweed, plantain, and a few drops of lavender essential oil. Within minutes, the redness and swelling were visibly reduced and the pain minimal. Chickweed can also be used internally for inflammation in the gastrointenstinal and urinary tracts.

Plantain (Plantago major)
Plantain (Plantago major, P. lanceolata, P. asiaiatica, or P. media), also called "Ribwort", is my favorite first-aid plant. Is it the BEST thing I've ever known for insect stings and bites. It is cooling and moistening and counteracts the sting. I've heard numerous reports of people avoiding anaphylactic shock because they used plantain as a poultice on their bee sting when they didn't have their Epi-pen with them. (Please carry your Epi-pen, but learn what this plant looks like too!) Plantain likes to grow where people walk and was known as "white man's foot" by the Native Americans, for it seemed to sprout up wherever white folk walked. The leaves can also be eaten in a salad. Recently, I treated a severe stinging nettle rash with a poultice of plantain and jewelweed. The child's exposed limbs went from hot, red, and bumpy to almost back-to-normal coloring with small bumps and reduced pain. 

The way of weeds is wise, I say! It would behoove us to listen and employ that wisdom. :)

"Invasive" plants have also gotten a bad rap. I'm not saying they're harmless, because they have caused problems for our native flora and fauna. I'm just asking that we re-think how we handle their presence and removal, as they are living beings after all, and not here of their own accord. 

Some of the exotic plants (many from Asia) that we've added as beautiful ornamentals to our landscapes have escaped cultivation, harming our local ecosystems because they choke out native plants and don't provide much in the way of habitat or food for local wildlife. They overgrow because they don't have the predators from their own homeland to keep that growth in check, so they spread easily.

But before we completely villainize them, I ask you...

Have you ever stopped to smell the exquisite, heavenly scent of multi-flora rose, and did you know that all Rosa species provide soothing medicine to body and spirit? 

Have you not fallen victim to the delicious nectar of blooming honeysuckle as it lingers on the humid air, beckoning you in with her sweet scent, and did you know that this beauty provided effective medicine for the SARS epidemic? 

Don't the willow-y branches and perfumed flowers of Butterfly bush entice you as much as the butterflies, and would it surprise you to learn that the flowers are used for eye disorders in Traditional Chinese Medicine?

These invasives do provide us with gifts. At the very least, they bring us beauty, invigorate our senses, fixate nitrogen, and clean the air. These are not gifts to be overlooked. They protect and heal areas of the earth that need healing, and offer us healing as well. 

Many of our invasive plants can be used as medicine: Japanese barberry, Japanese honeysuckle, Butterfly bush, purple loosestrife, and stinging nettle. Many more on the invasive watchlist here in Delaware are medicinal as well: silk tree mimosa, grindelia, dandelion, and St. Johns wort, among others. (For more info on medicinal use of wild plants in Delaware, please visit the Flora of Delaware database. Scroll all the way down to click "Has Medicinal Properties" and the search will pull up all the medicinal plants in the database).  

If we're going to support healthy local ecosystems and try to bring things back into balance by removing invasives a little at a time, can we re-purpose them into something more meaningful than compost? Can we acknowledge their presence with respect rather than disdain and recognize their potential as something more than simply being misplaced? 

All life has value. It is simply our perspective that chooses where to place that value. 

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