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Weeds — if you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em

You dig them, spray them, curse at them, but what about putting them on your dinner table? An SDSU professor says many wild plants can be put to practical use.

August 4, 2011
By Elaine Zarzana , Marshall Independent

Weeds. They're ugly. They're everywhere. And they're relentless.

Anyone who farms or gardens likely has strong feelings about them.

We've pulled, hoed and sprayed, spending sweaty hours and hard-earned dollars trying to stay in control, yet the weeds always seem to have the last laugh.

But could there be another way to look at these leafy, prickly and ever-present nuisances?

Neil Reese, professor of biology at South Dakota State University, has had a wide range of experience with harvesting and using wild plants. He is also a specialist in ethnobotany, the study of how plants are used within various cultures.

Reese said American Indians in the region harvested native plants, including the common lambs quarters and pigweeds plaguing our gardens today, long before they developed and cultivated corn.

Pigweed is actually a type of amaranth, said Reese.

"Amaranth has been found in lots of (archeological sites). They clearly were being harvested and utilized,"?he said.

Reese said once tribes began growing corn, "the effort was put there instead of toward hunting up (wild plants), but they were never abandoned."

Today there is a growing international interest in wild foods as healthy and creative additions to the table. You might think first of rare wild mushrooms or berries, but for tasty, nutritious and free fare, we can look no further than our own fields and gardens.

"If you're a little adventurous, there are lots of things that can be utilized," said Reese.

"Milkweeds, wild buckwheat and stinging nettles are eaten in lots of places still,"?he added. "Wild bergamot is a very good tea. That's in every ditch. Lambs quarters are very commonly harvested and eaten."

Lambs quarters can be used in almost any dish or salad that calls for spinach, and packs a richer nutritional punch.

Non-native species introduced to our region can be the most unstoppable of weeds, but some, such as purslane, dandelions and thistles can also be useful, said Reese.

"You can add greens to your salads. I don't like a salad that's all dandelions, but I think they can make a nice addition,"?he said.

There's a very practical aspect to making use of plants that grow abundantly with no help from human hands.

"It's a way of varying your diet,"?said Reese. "And as expensive as produce is these days, it's also a supplement to your budget."

As a hunter and an outdoorsman, Reese said, "out in the woods, I'd always have things to eat with whatever I hunted. Some of them are tastier than others. Your choice of what to eat just depends on your palate."

Utilizing wild plants successfully does take a certain amount of knowledge and commitment, and it's unlikely that we gardeners and farmers will be able to "eat" our way through our weed problems any time soon.

Still, it's nice to know that weeds have something more to offer us than headaches and pricked fingers.

To learn more about collecting and using wild plants, check out



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