BENEFICIAL WEEDS (August 2/96)

There is no doubt that many plants designated as “weeds” are harmful and must be controlled. A recent alert on milkweed spelled out, for example, the devastation this plant can wreak on agricultural land and livestock if allowed to spread.

Another recent news release on the adverse affects of ragweed pollen made it clear that weeds are no friends of man. A booklet published in 1986 by the department of agriculture and marketing – Weeds of Nova Scotia – designates at least 100 plants as weeds that must be controlled or eradicated. Over five times this number of plants are designated as weeds by the federal government. The publication Weeds of Canada lists over 500 plants that make our lives miserable in one way or another.

Weeds are our enemy; living in an areas with an economy largely based on agriculture, most of us realize this.

However, some weeds have a beneficial side. A number of plants designated as weeds have been used for centuries as foods and to treat various ailments. A simple example is the homeowner’s curse, the dandelion. The roots, leaves and flowers of the dandelion can be used in various ways – the greens in salads (you can buy them in some supermarket produce sections) and as a spring tonic; the roots dried, ground up and used as a coffee substitute; the crown as a vegetable; the flowers as a potent wine.

With apologies to those who, due to their livelihood, wage an on-going battle with unwanted plants, following from various sources are some of the alleged uses for the most common weeds.

Milkweed: This scourge of farm land is said to be a versatile wild vegetable. The young shoots of the plant, the newly opened leaves, unopened flower buds and the young pods are shown in wild food guides as vegetables. One wild food guide mentions that in the 18th century, French Canadians made brown sugar from the nectar secreted by milkweed blossoms but the exact process has been lost.

St. John’s Wort: A deadly weed that, when eaten by livestock, has disastrous consequences. While it has no known food value, this plant is being seriously studied for its medicinal properties. AIDS researchers believe St. John’s Wort may contain a chemical that will combat AIDS. The juice extracted from flowers of St. John’s Wort may be used to treat wounds, burns, sunburn and the pain of neuralgia and sciatica according to the Canadian Journal of Health and Nutrition.

Red-Root Pigweed or Green Amaranth: A nasty weed that is rightfully lambasted in government publications on weeds. The wild food guides list several uses for this plant – as a green, using the young leaves and tips of the plant, and in bread and gruel, using the seeds. The plant is being investigated for medicinal uses. One of my reference books notes that this plant was once cultivated by Indians as a grain crop, the seeds being used to make meal.

Chamomile: Listed in Weeds of Nova Scotia and Weeds of Canada and sold as an herbal tea at coffee shops. Used as a mild tranquilizer. Several recent studies indicate that an extract of chamomile may be useful in preventing stomach cancer and to treat skin infection. In Europe chamomile is used in throat sprays and in various ointments and lotions.

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