Wild herbs have many uses including adding medicinal value, fertilizing soil, and attracting beneficial insects. Here are some important wild herbs and why you should keep them around.
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Manicured Lawn vs. Wild Herbs (“Weeds”)
In modern times, it’s become a rite of passage to have some measure of manicured lawn. Alas, having this manicured appearance requires a certain amount of weed-killing.
It’s a stark reminder of just how far removed we are from a generation of people who knew that everything had a purpose,” says Amy Fewell, author of The Homesteader’s Herbal Companion.
I tend to like a tidy look, whether in my yard or garden. Still, as a permaculture practitioner I always aim to work with nature by asking what role a “weed” is playing in a specific situation.
Even if my decision is to remove it, spraying chemicals is not my go-to method.
A Disturbance in the Force
A year ago we buried the downspouts on our house and redirected the water through underground pipes toward food-producing areas. This keeps rainwater from harming the foundation or flooding the basement, while passively irrigating my gardens.
After the work was done, we regraded the lawn that was impacted by the work and reseeded it with grass. A year later, the disturbed area isn’t a restored, lush bed of grass like I had expected. Rather, it is a full-on dandelion takeover.
Now, I’m certainly no lawn connoisseur. I love to see dandelions, violets, chickweed, clover, wild strawberry, and the like peppering the yard with beautiful flowers and adding biodiversity. But this solid dandelion wall had me considering my options.
We know that nature uses “weeds” to rescue and heal disturbed land. So rather than spraying the lawn with herbicides, we can ask what healing properties the weed brings. When I thought about it, this disturbed area that had once been spongy, rich soil was now solid, compacted clay.
The regrading had turned the layers of the soil. The rich soil was now buried, while the heavy clay had formed a sort of impenetrable crust on the surface.
Nature’s ‘Decompaction Team’ responded to the distress call. In this case: Dandelions. The taproot reaches deep down to break up the clay. As the plant dies back, it becomes a ‘compost corridor’, enriching the clay with organic matter.
Spraying them would simply knock the soil back to the beginning of the healing process. The soil, without its lifeline, will deaden as continual sprayings are the only thing that keeps the weeds at bay.
Would you like to learn more about choosing plants that improve the biodiversity of your garden, reduce maintenance, and increase yield?
You’ll find loads of permaculture information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
Wild Herbs for Healing Soil
Rather than curse the dandelions or — God forbid — spray them, we can speed up the healing process by mimicking their decompaction strategy. To do this, cut the dandelion leaf matter at ground level and leave the root in place. This creates faster die-back at the root level and a speedier creation of those compost corridors.
We can also use a digging fork to poke holes that loosen the clay, as the dandelion taproots do, allowing water and air to penetrate. Adding a layer of manure or spraying with a fish fertilizer can increase microbial activity to speed up the plants’ healing work even more.
When we have the right relationship with wild herbs, they help us read a landscape and create a low-maintenance garden. Wild herbs are nutrient-rich, and serve many purposes in the ecosystem that we don’t typically acknowledge.
The dandelion is just one of many wild herbs that aids in ecosystem repair. Of course, it’s also a valuable medicinal herb for humans.
Grow Your Own Free Pharmacy
So now we know that herbs are potent sources of nutrition and repair for ailing soil. Have you considered that, like the soil, your nutrient deficiencies, imbalances, or injuries might benefit from the same herbs?
We intuitively know that herbs are potent sources of nutrition and healing. When used in the kitchen or in herbal preparations, for example, a little bit goes a long way.
That’s why I’m comforted by knowing that wild herbs, growing voluntarily, can be my own free pharmacy right outside my door.
In The Homesteader’s Herbal Companion, Amy tells us that “…if we let more wild herbs grow and learned how to use them correctly, we could have our own free pharmacy right in our own backyard.”
This excites me immensely. But when I think about growing my own pharmacy, I get a little overwhelmed by all the wild and cultivated herbs to choose from.
For example, if there are 50 different herbs that can cure an infected cut on my foot, how do I choose which to grow?
In her book, Amy helped me wade through the possibility and gain clarity on which herbs to grow and which wild herbs to forage for.
Wild Herbs In Your Backyard
I was delighted (and relieved) to find Amy’s chapter on wild herbs in the backyard.
She mentions some of my favorites, like chickweed, dandelion, and plantain, which I talk about in my article 5 Weeds You Want in Your Garden.
Another herb that she mentions, yarrow, is at the top of my “favorites” list, which I discuss in my article 5 Reasons to Grow Yarrow.
But I was also pleased to learn more about the following wild herbs.
Getting Stung by Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Many people curse stinging nettle who don’t like to experience the “sting” caused by touching the tiny hairs on the stem. For some, the word “sting” is an understated description of the effects of coming in contact with nettle.
Those who curse it often spend much time trying to eradicate it.
Ironically, nettle is one of the most nutrient dense plants that we know of. Its presence indicates that it is voluntarily healing soil. The “sting” tells us to “keep out” to let the healing process run its course.
The best we can do is learn to identify nettle so that we aren’t “stung”. Then we can simply appreciate the reparative job it is doing for the ecosystem from a distance.
Having a bit of gratitude can help us create a deeper relationship with the nature that surrounds us. After all, nature has been at this a lot longer than we have.
As we saw earlier with the dandelion incident, we can eradicate nettles if we don’t like where they are. But in doing so we knock back nature’s healing process, and we should be prepared to do the work they would have done for us. (Personally, I don’t need more work on my to-do list!)
Stinging Nettle in our Free Pharmacy
According to The Homesteader’s Herbal Companion, nettle is super-rich in vitamin C and can be used to make your own tonics, teas, and tinctures for healing various ailments. It has also been known to relieve joint pain when added to a salve. (See my article How to Make Herbal Salve).
With the proper gloves, stinging nettle can be harvested without the “sting”. Nettle leaves can also be eaten like spinach (no sting!) when steamed first.
Chicory: The Purple-Flowered Wild Herb (Cichorium intybus)
You’ll often see chicory’s purple flowers lining the roadsides. They’re usually among the first wild herbs to spring up in those disturbed, neglected corridors. I wouldn’t recommend harvesting from the roadside, but if you happen to have chicory popping up in a wild area of your yard, take heart. This herb is nutrient dense for healing soil; just chop and drop it regularly to allow its green matter to enrich the soil.
As an herb for healing human ailments, it has a long list of benefits, according to Amy. Chicory can aid in digestion and detoxification when the root is made into a tea. (Using the root rather than the leaf technically makes this medicinal preparation a spice rather than an herb.)
Chicory can also be used as a coffee substitute with its hazelnut-like taste.
Purslane: The Garden Weed with a Surprise (Portulaca oleracea)
Purslane is often seen as a nuisance in the garden. That’s because it can pop up without warning and systematically take over an area pretty fast. The good news is that it’s easy to pull up in areas where you don’t want it.
But before you give it the old heave-ho, consider whether it’s wise to do so. Voluntarily growing without any work on your part, The Homesteader’s Herbal Companion tells me that purslane has an equal amount of nutrition as watercress or spinach. Eat the stems and leaves raw in a salad, cook it down like you would spinach, or make a pesto out of it.
A bit of crushed purslane can even help to sooth insect bites or stings.
I was delighted to receive Amy’s beautiful book in the mail and check out all of the chapters on growing, preserving, and using herbs, whether in medicinal preparations, beauty products, or in cooking.
Although I don’t keep livestock, I enjoyed parsing through her chapters on using herbs for poultry as well as four-legged friends. The Homesteader’s Herbal Companion is definitely a book to check out! It will be a trusted resource for your homesteading library.
What wild herbs have you been delighted to find growing in your yard?