University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Summer Article


By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor

Have you ever thought, as I have, that wouldn't it be great if there was a use for all those weeds you are pulling in the garden?  Well, there is, plus benefits for having weeds!  In her book, Weeds, Friend or Foe?, author Sally Roth describes uses for 70 common weeds and new ways to use, think about, and look at weeds.

Just like our garden plants, weeds have certain preferences for growing conditions.  Learn to "read your weeds."  Determining what weeds you have also may alert you to problems with your site that need correcting.  For instance, dock and beggarticks often indicate wet soil, while thistles and mullein indicate a dry soil.  Ground ivy and poison ivy grow in shade, while dead nettle, dandelions, and clover thrive in fertile soil.  Crabgrass and plantain are an indication of acidic soil, while wood asters and poppies prefer alkaline soil (not as common in our area as acidic soil).

So how do weeds help?  Dock and similar tap-rooted weeds (single deep root) push through tough soils, opening them up to allow water and air to penetrate deeply, thus improving drainage in heavy soils.  This in turn will help other nearby plants. Similar benefits come from pulling weeds, too.

On the opposite extreme, shallow-rooted groundcover weeds such as ground ivy and chickweed help prevent erosion and prevent soil crusting when dry.  Clover and other similar legume weeds actually will add nitrogen to the soil, boosting fertility.

Weeds often provide food and cover for wildlife and serve as homes for many predators or beneficial insects we usually don't see or even recognize.  Pigweed, chickweed, and lambsquarters provide seeds for songbirds.  Woodpeckers eat insects from the stalks of mullein.

Heal-all, knotweeds, fleabane, and buttercups attract butterflies.  Brambles provide food and shelter for animals and nest sites for birds.  Milkweed provides food for monarch butterfly larvae and stinging nettles host caterpillars of the red admiral butterfly.

Like birds and wildlife, we also can use weeds for food.  By wearing gloves you can collect fresh leaves of the stinging nettle.  Boil or cook them until tender, and they'll lose their sting and can be eaten as a vitamin-rich wild green.  Or simmer 10 to 15 minutes, then simmer another 10 minutes, strain, and use the liquid as a shampoo rinse to help hair shine.

Clover, another common "weed" or wildflower comes in various forms and colors.  You can make a tea from about two tablespoons of dried white flowers, steeped for 10 minutes, then strained.  This can be used to soothe coughs.  Red clover has even been used in folk medicines for treatment of cancers, and scientists are now investigating this.

As with plants for any herbal teas or other edible uses, always use CAUTION.  Make sure you know what plant you are using first.  Then use in moderation.  While small amounts are often good, larger doses can be dangerous or even deadly.  Large doses of clover or sweet clover, for instance, may cause drastic side effects such as hemorrhaging.  If in doubt about any uses, consult your doctor or pharmacist.  Health food stores that sell herbal remedies and have trained staff may be a useful source of information as well.

One of our more common weeds is the dandelion.  You may have heard of dandelion wine, which is made from fresh spring flowers.  But did you know that you can harvest young leaves, chop them up, and add to salads, stir into soups, or toss with boiled potatoes?  You can even boil the greens just as you would spinach and serve as a side dish with ham.  Steep older leaves and use for a bitter tea.  Traditionally, juice from the leaves or an infusion from the root, has been used as a diuretic, to help digestion, and even to combat insomnia!

Skin getting old or wrinkled from too much sun?  Then perhaps you should try some comfrey in your bath water as it allegedly keeps skin looking youthful.  Chop and mince root pieces into a fine pulp, and tie about a tablespoon in a cheesecloth bag and add to the bathwater.  Comfrey also is loaded with nutrients, making it good for the compost. Juice from its leaves (steep in a bucket of water) can be used as a garden fertilizer.

Chop chickweed into salads.  Mash a curly dock leaf in your hands and hold against bug bites to stop the itch.  Collect the rose hips from multiflora roses, mash with a rolling pin, and use a teaspoon in a cup of boiling water for a vitamin C-rich tea. Sweeten with clover honey for a nice herbal drink. Add ice and drink cold on a hot summer day.

If you have a toothache or mouth sore, you might try cinquefoil, a native plant.  Steep a tablespoon of fresh leaves in a cup of hot water for 10 minutes, strain, cool, and then use to rinse your mouth. Just don't swallow.  This was used as early as the seventeenth century.  In his famous book, Culpepper's Herbal, English physician Nicholas Culpepper (1616-1654) says of cinquefoil, "Let no man despise it because it is plain and easy."

Some of the other weeds safe for eating include chicory, burdock, purslane, Queen Anne's Lace, and sorrel. These and more are described in Roth’s book, as well as directions for preparing weeds for use.  In addition, uses for weeds (the friend part in the title) are provided, as well as control measures (if the weed is a foe).  The author also gives directions for gardening with weeds and various types of controls including using hoes and mulches.

Yes, weeds even can be used in gardens! Just be aware of how they spread, by seeds or roots.  If by seeds, cutting these off before they set will keep them from spreading, but then this won't help the birds if they like the seeds.  In this case, you may wish to have a separate patch for the birds away from your other gardens.  If the weeds spread by roots, edging in the ground may be all that's needed to contain these. Or hoe around the plants as I do with my spreading perennials.

If nothing else, I figure periodic weeding keeps me in touch with all my desirable perennials as well, and gives me the opportunity to observe them, their flowers, and any problems.  Another plus is that I'm getting exercise and keeping in shape.  So, the next time you're confronted with weeding, think about all these benefits! Weeds aren't always foes. Sometimes they are friends.

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