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In July we took out granddaughter to New York City. Day one we went to the Medieval art museum, the Cloisters, on the northern tip of Manhattan. I’ve traveled the NYC subway system before, but this trip was unusual. Our train stopped, everyone was told to get off, and we were left to find our own way. A friendly New Yorker led us one level down to 1 Train. (Definitely not your Times Square station type of stop; kind of scary.) Anyhow, after a taxi ride and a walk through the park surrounding the museum we arrived.
The Cloisters, besides housing some wonderful sculpture, tapestry, and painted art, plus The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, a handmade and painted prayer book (heaven for a calligrapher to view), has an herb garden typical to the times (13-15th centuries AD). I’m wandering through the beds seeing how many of the plants I grow, when I come across… a weed! Plantain! Growing in the immaculate beds of the Cloisters.
I stopped. What?
So the plantain growing in my driveway is another useful weed brought by colonists? Seems so — Plantago major, a common, pervasive weed.
On returning home I checked out my copy of Pamela Jones Just Weeds (you’d think I’d have known this information already from perusing this book) and there it was listed, a plant that literally followed the footsteps of the Roman army, although she admits the boundaries between fact and fiction about this plant are blurred. According to Jones’ entry: ‘Leaves, roots, and seeds of plantain, fresh or dried, have been used for centuries in the treatment of such varied ailments as poison wounds, asthma, dysentery, earache, and kidney disorders. Rich in potassium salts, plantain is regarded as one of the finest remedies for cuts, abrasions, infections, ulcerations and chronic problems of the skin.’ According to her it can even heal other plants — she tried it on a fruit tree with blight and it worked!
Plantain is also edible. The new leaves can be used like spinach. Older ones are tough. Plantain contains healthy amounts of Vitamin A, C, calcium, and iron. I’m trying out a recipe for a skin salve, too, since claims make it sound like a panacea for skin injuries and disorders. Food and medical recipes can be found all over the internet. Guess I just wasn’t looking!
After some looking, I found it is an invasive plant coming from Eurasia with the common name hoary alyssum, and the botanical moniker of Berteroa incana L. Alyssum? Yep. It is from the Brassicaceae or mustard family, and so is the garden plant alyssum! News to me; I’d much rather have the garden plant. It is also known as hoary madwort, hoary berteroa, and hoary Alison. I’ve never heard of any of these names before, but I’ve recognized the weed for decades — thought is was a wild flower as a child. The ‘hoary’ comes in because it has small hairs covering the stems and leaves that you can see under a magnifying glass. You can feel this from the rough, slightly tacky texture of the stem and leaves.
Anyhow, I am pulling this out all the time, but more plants grow as fast as I pull them. They are a pain to pull because they have a taproot and to get it all out you have to gather up all the long stems and pull. It is interesting how many persistent weeds have taproots. I pulled my back out reaching down and pulling out a black medic one time. Ouch! Limped around for weeks. Was that revenge of the weeds?
Hoary alyssum thrives in cold winters, hot summers, dry conditions, and poor soils. Guess what I have? It starts out as a rosette of leaves, and then the flowering stems emerge. Because it sets seed quickly and several generations can be produced in one season, it is considered an annual. Plants that have bloomed will not survive the winter, but the rosette form will, setting seed the next spring, making it a biannual. Small flies, bees, and wasps fertilize the flowers.
I discovered hoary alyssum sets thousands of seeds and thrives in disturbed and poor soils. The dropped seeds can remain in the soil for many years, so whenever the soil is disturbed, the seeds, which need light and moisture to grow, will emerge as plants. I figure my soil is well seeded for the future.
If you own horses, beware. Hoary alyssum is considered toxic and can cause problems if found in pastures or feed.
Much of this information was taken from a Montana State University sheet.
My summer morning ritual requires that I walk around my gardens to see what’s blooming, inspect plants, dead head, pull up small weeds, and water the containers. So most of my flower gardens stay in good condition. On the other side of the garage, though, is a strawberry and herb bed that I don’t often visit. When I do look at it, I shrug and walk away thinking ‘maybe tomorrow.’ Walk away, that is, until the bed gets unbearably overgrown, which equates to about three weeding sessions a year. Today was one of those days.
The horsetail fleabane was covering sections of the gravel driveway next to the strawberry bed. This area was where the old boat sat, so there was a reason for its neglect. This early in the morning the temperature was pleasant and it seemed a good time to do the chore. Besides I was painting today and wanted to put that chore off. “I’ll just pull up the tall weeds so it doesn’t look so shabby,” I told myself. I started pulling the tall, unwanted stalks. This type of weeding takes little thought. A half hour later I had most of the unwanted stuff pulled out and told myself I’d Roundup the low growers later.
Then, because it was only inches away, I started on the strawberry bed. Sheep sorrel, carpetweed, veronica, purslane, spurge, and grasses grew thick between the strawberry leaves. It meant carefully selecting the plants needing pulled and grabbing them right at the base of the stems before ripping them from the soil. It takes time and concentration. Focusing on the project emptied my mind of all other concerns. Soon my eyes began to recognize the plants to pull, and my fingers followed my eyes command. Minutes pass in silence and completely calm weeding meditation. It was relaxing.
Then, because everything was so automatic, my mind began to wander. Thoughts about my investigation of plant intelligence surfaced. Are these plants screaming to others in the area by emitting distress volatile chemicals into the air? I can hear them: Beware! Plant killer at large! But I rationalize, we need to eat. Then, the cliché only the strong survive springs to mind. But the weeds are the fittest, and I’m pulling them out, except wild strawberries are hardy, too, if I wanted 1/4″ sized berries. And then, oh my, this soil is quite dry. I really need to water. These stray thoughts flitter in an out followed by other flights of fantasy, like how many thousands of years have men and women performed this chore? This leads to other related and non-related subjects, which goes so far as to touch on slavery and even the Holocaust. Don’t ask.
By now the mindless work has become drudgery. I’m bending, knelling, pulling, crawling, standing, and throwing weeds into piles on the strawberry bed’s edges. Sweat drips down my face. I notice I’m nearing the end with relief. My back and shoulders will feel this tomorrow, but in this minute I have a great sense of contentment. This is the third time this summer I’ve weeded this bed. Three’s the charm.
Looking around I realize the bed needs reorganizing. I should replant it with easily accessible aisles and mulch it, and I really have to remember to water more if I want a good spring crop of berries. Should I move the bed over to the larger vegetable garden, and turn this one into an herbs only area? Oh dear, I’m thinking up more work already.
It’s August and the weeds are growing like there’s no tomorrow. Generally I pull weeds as I go, but at some point they always out maneuver my efforts. Suddenly I look around and weed colonies have established themselves everywhere.
Weeds are any plant in the wrong place. This means all the plants considered weeds like sorrel, dandelion and shepherd’s purse, and all of those overzealous plants that are prolific seed producers or determined spreaders. Right now I have an annual Cleome growing everywhere. It’s pretty and I don’t want to pull it out.
There is relief from weeds, but no cure. Products like Roundup™ (generically called glyphosate) and other herbicides make killing weeds easier. Weed mats and mulch make suppressing them more efficient. However, you can’t use glyphosate everywhere, especially around water gardens, and it doesn’t work well on woody plants like vines, shrubs, and perennials with tuberous roots like iris and daylilies. Sometimes you have to use two or more applications to get rid of the weed, while any of the chemical landing on a nearby, desired plant is killed immediately. Gardeners have learned, much to our misfortune, that some herbicides while effective are dangerous. Manufactures removed them from the market. Herbicides can also be expensive. Weed mats work great for a few years, but removing them can be a hassle, as can putting down new ones in an established garden. And mulch needs replacing every year or two.
I hate hoeing and find heavy mulch is more efficient, but some weeds can thrive in deep mulch. So my weeding is usually done on my knees. This also allows me to get close enough to make sure I’m not pulling out an un-established plant put in this year or last year that isn’t keeping pace with the surrounding plants. Yes, it’s come to that. When I get up close and personal, I recognize the bad seedlings and ruthlessly pluck them out. Like all alien armies, reinforcements will soon arrive, so unrelenting patrol is required to defend the garden’s ground.
Some gardeners give up by this time of summer, tired of gardening. I have often done this, too, but now I’ve changed my perspective. Weeding isn’t a chore, it’s exercise; and I need to get as much of that as possible.
Ray Bradbury, famed science fiction writer, wrote a semi-autobiographical story Dandelion Wine in 1957. While I bought the book I was a teenager, and I never finished it; it wasn’t scifi. However the title has always stayed with me. So this year, after many years of gardening, even writing a newspaper article on dandelions (You can read Dandelions, Weeds with History on my garden blog), the abundance of dandelions about seemed like an omen, so I’m game, or crazy, or something. I convinced Bill to pick dandelions with me. I’m going to make what has been called the ambrosia of wine.
The first step was to find a recipe. The Internet abounds with them, take your pick. The next step was to pick the flowers. I needed two quarts of dandelion flowers to mix with one gallon of water. Tuesday was a great day to pick flowers, sunny, steady breeze, not too cold or hot; or at least, not until we started picking. Two hours picking proved how little those flowers actually are. It seemed to take much longer.
Warning one: if you go picking, don’t pick in fields that have been sprayed in any way, or pick flowers too close to the road where exhaust could collect on them.
Warning two: Insects love the flowers, too. You will find ants, honeybees, ticks, spiders, and assorted unknown fauna inside those lemon yellow petals; be wary.
While picking, which involves much bending over, I found it easiest to pull the flower heads off between my index and second finger so I could easily gather a handful. This picking business is good exercise, but not as good as the long walk I gave up. However, picking is a simple procedure, do it anyway you want.
First mistake: letting the flowers sit in plastic bags for any length of time, even as long as re-reading the recipe and heating up the gallon of water necessary. Anyone who has picked fresh dandelions knows the flowers close up really quick. The part you want is the yellow petals with as little green as possible and no stems. Pluck those flowers as soon as possible. Otherwise like me, you will be sitting another hour or so, trying to get the stems and base of the flower off. You need at least two quarts of petals (I saw some sepals (green petals under the yellow ones), even a lot of sepals in the brews made by others in online photos—don’t be too picky.)
Warning three: Fingers working on dandelions turn an interesting shade of yuk brown. Most of it washes away unless your nails get stained.
Okay; hopefully the worst is over. I dutifully began to boil the water when Bill walked in and asked if he could make dinner around me. I said, “Just bring this water to a boil, move it off the heat, turn off the burner and stir these dandelions in.” Job done, I left the kitchen (whoopee!).
Next the blossoms must be allowed to steep for twenty-four to forty-eight hours, stirring, oh, twice a day. This is the easiest part of the process. Once done steeping the blossoms, pour the liquid off through a strainer lined with a coffee filter or cheese cloth. Heat the clarified liquid to boil, add three pounds of sugar, six tablespoons of lemon juice, and six tablespoons of orange juice.(Or two lemons and two oranges; or the peel of two lemons and two oranges – see how adaptable this is?) Five or so whole clove can also be added. Once the mixture cools, add a tablespoon of yeast. Pour into a large glass, or stainless container, or ceramic crock. Cover and let this set for a week, stirring and skimming the contents daily until bubbles no longer form. Let the mixture settle for another day and then siphon (or strain) liquid and pour into bottles filling to 3/4″ below the cork. Cork and let mature for at least six months. So maybe for Thanksgiving dinner, I can present my homemade wine.
More Mistakes: Don’t know yet, anything is possible in a new endeavor, I’ll let you know.
Isn’t it lucky someone gave Bill a bunch of wine bottles a couple weeks ago? I think I’ll get two or three bottles cleaned and sterilized.
I have to tell you, this better work or I’ll be doing a lot of whining, or is this Bradbury’s joke on me? Anyone have a good alternative recipes using dandelions? More later…
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Update: Friday night mixed all ingredients. This morning went down and stirred the mixture. It doesn’t bubble… it fizzes with thousands of tiny bubbles and has the most amazingly citrusy-green fragrance.
Reprint of my post in Seven Night Writers.
Their yellow blossoms give dramatic proof of the dandelion’s presence in a well-manicured lawn. This plant inspires both appreciation and abomination. Four-year-olds pick the crayon-box colored disks to make sunny bouquets. Older children blow the silvery spherical seed heads to watch them shatter and send seeds floating through the air. Lawn purists spread herbicides to kill the hated weed. Gardeners dig them out, knowing how quickly they spread and how hard they are to eradicate. The trick is making sure to get the long taproot. Missing any segment will guarantee regrowth. I must admit I dig them out somewhat reverently, though, for I’ve come to see Dandelions as historical artifacts.
Dandelions settled in North America with European immigrants. Many of our common weeds arrived the same way. By 1748 observers already claimed they saw French Canadians digging dandelion roots, so they’ve been here a long time. Dandelions were a plant the colonist felt too valuable to be without. They remain an important food crop in Europe and other parts of the world. Originally they came from the Mediterranean regions and were mentioned by Theophrastus hundreds of years before Christ.
The name dandelion always rouses my curiosity. A Medieval German botanist for some unknown reason identified the plant as dens leonis or lion’s tooth. Through the ages it has been corrupted into its common English name, dandelion. Other common names include fairy clock, diente de leon, blowball, and Pee-the-Bed (probably due to it diuretic qualities). Its botanical name is Taraxacum offinale. The ‘offinale’ means the plant was an apothecary herb, important in health care. There are two accepted derivations for Taraxacum. Some believe it comes from the Greek taraxos for ‘disorder,’ and akos for ‘remedy.’ Others belief it is Persian in orgin, coming from tark hashgun meaning ‘wild endive.’
The colonists were right, dandelions are valuable plants. They contain high quantities of vitamins A, B, C and D and every part is edible. The tangy young leaves can be added to salads, or blanched and served like spinach (old leaves are bitter). Year-old roots can be cooked like parsnips or dried and brewed as a tea or added like chicory to coffee.
Historically, the plant was believed to heal health problems with everything from indigestion and constipation to blood disorders. My grandmother encouraged Dandelions greens as a spring tonic to cleanse winter blood. If you check the internet you will find many claims still made for herbal products featuring Taraxacum.
Dandelion was also used as a dye. The flowers provided a yellow color and the whole plant added magenta to the weavers’ craft.
Last, but not least, of its virtues, is dandelion wine. I’ve never had it, but it is claimed to taste somewhere between sherry and champagne. Feeling adventurous, I’ve decided I’m going to try making it. (Check out my blog at Night Writers. Pamela Jones, author of Just Weeds), claims the wine has “the most elusive, delicately fragrant flavors imaginable, the color pure liquid gold.” That makes me feel like picking Dandelion flowers.
Jones, Pamela. Just Weeds, History, Myths, and Uses. Prentice Hall Press, New York, NY. 1991. Print. Page 217.
Last week a new garden tool arrived in the mail that I’d purchased on line. I decided to try it out in the garden and started weeding the wild sorrel on the edges of my garden. It is a low growing weed with small lanceolate leaves with red touches on some of the leave’s edges.
A European transplant, Wild sorrel (Rumex acetoseela) (aka Sheep sorrel, Red sorrel, Field sorrel, Sour weed, Cow sorrel, Horse sorrel, Gentlemen’s sorrel, or Toad sorrel) is a cruising demon. It prefers soils like mine that are poor often sour, or acidic, types of soil.
These very prolific plants produce red stems that rise above the basal growth of leaves to produce reddish-green flowers that turn into tiny capsules holding hundreds of seeds. The real menace is the roots which travel great distances from the plant. I’ve carefully followed three foot long yellow roots from plants no larger than three inches in diameter. The roots not only spread out, but down. I’ll have to keep vigil, too, because each broken root will produce a new plant. However, Roundup wasn’t very effective, so I decided to dig them out.
According to Edwin Rollin Spencer in his book All About Weeds, Rumex is Latin for sorrel, and the acetosella means ‘the little vinegar plant.’ For centuries sour plants have generically been called sorrel (83). I think they have a lemony flavor. Yes, they are edible, and have been used in culinary arts since the Iron Age, the most famous use is in sorrel soup. You can find many recipes on line. The leaves are full of vitamin C, but need to be blanched to get rid of the oxalic acid. If you make the soup and fall in love with the taste, there is a another species, Rumex scutatus, that is better behaved garden plant. It’s leaves are larger and used like spinach.
For more information check out Wikipedia
Spencer, Edwin Rollin. All About Weeds. 1974. New York. Dover Publications.