Several years ago during a lecture to a group of gardeners, I described how easy it is to use a table fork to remove chickweed by twisting the plants out like spaghetti. A woman's hand went up.
"You know you're destroying your food and medicine, don't you?" she said, eager for me to enumerate the renowned benefits of chickweed (Stellaria media). It was a legitimate challenge, because chickweed is quite nutritious and probably has other health benefits, too. Chickweed tea, taken before meals, may help slow the uptake of fats, and thus be of value in weight management.
But first and foremost, chickweed is a cool-season weed of cultivated soil, which forms thick carpets of green over garden beds in mild winter climates worldwide. For the record, chickens do eat the leaves and stems when they are in the mood, but not so hungrily that they keep chickweed under control. In my chicken-patrolled garden, there is still plenty of chickweed to pull up and compost, plus a few choice tips to pulverise in smoothies. Left undisturbed, a healthy chickweed plant can produce thousands of seeds.
I've accepted this reality and gradually made friends with chickweed and its close associates – bittercress and henbit – so much so that I am happy to see them after freezes turn summer weeds to mush. Winter weeds are wimps compared to crabgrass and other thugs of summer, and their shallow roots help prevent winter soil erosion.
Perhaps the best tasting of winter weeds, hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) features finely lobed leaves that grow in a symmetrical rosette. Many food foragers look for bittercress in spring, but it often can be found in gardens all winter long. Plants that grow in cool weather taste like a mild, wanna-be watercress, and I often use them as a parsley substitute when a dish needs a sprinkling of fresh, chopped greens. You also can use pureed bittercress as a pesto base. Bittercress waits until spring to produce white flowers, and the shallow-rooted plants are easy to pull up after they have elongated and begun to bloom.
In some areas bittercress serves as an off-season haven for at least two species of aphids, making it useful as an aphid trap crop. When you pull up and compost an infested plant, you eliminate thousands of current and future sap-sucking aphids.
I have never seen aphids on the bittercress in my garden, which I treat as a self-sown winter crop. Very cold weather will cause the new leaves to become small and crinkled, but bittercress will stay in good picking condition all winter when protected with a row cover tunnel. In late fall, I choose a spot with a good stand of bittercress, pull out other weeds, and cover the bed with a wire frame covered with horticultural fleece to keep these rustic greens productive all winter.
I have at least two species of weedy Lamiums in my garden – hen bit (Lamium amplexicaule) and the slightly prettier dead nettle (L. purpureum). The seeds sprout in the fall, and by the onset of winter the plants sit in the garden as fist-size rosettes. Blooming earlier in spring than other overwintered weeds, henbit and dead nettle serve as an important nectar source for bees that are starting up their annual reproductive cycles. Bumblebees in particular hunt out henbit, because they can use their long tongues to access the nectar inside the elongated flowers. In Japan, henbit is often allowed to bloom near fruit orchards since it attracts a diversity of pollinating insects at just the right time in spring.
Sometimes called "dead nettles" because they look like nettles but lack stinging hairs, these and other Lamium species do a good job of holding the soil safe through winter storms, and then put on a colourful show when they bloom all at once in spring. Large swathes of blooming henbit make beautiful spring wildflowers, which are easy to mow down or pull up before they produce ripe seeds that will germinate the following fall.
Am I being too weed friendly? Perhaps, and though I much prefer eating cultivated greens like spinach and kale, it's also important to recognise the usefulness of cold-hardy wild plants that happen to be weeds.
By Barbara Pleasant