Nov. 11, 2011
Foraging ‘weeds’ provides ancient Anglo Saxon fare today
Anyone who reads this column regularly knows that I’m not an enemy of weeds.
Not only do we welcome weeds in our plots at ShooFly Farm because they shade plants, keep roots cool, soil moist, and provide habitat for beneficial insects, but because it’s a lot easier on the back.
Weeds can tell you a lot about what’s going on with your soil. (Read Charles Walters’ Weeds: Control Without Poisons, Acres USA.) But they also provide a look back at history.
You probably didn’t know that many of what we consider some of the most pernicious weeds in our gardens were once considered sacred among the ancients.
Richard Mabey explains all this in a wonderful book: Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants (HarperCollins, 2010, $25.99). While it focuses on the English countryside, most of the plants he talks about are “invasives” in the Americas.
For example, when you’re mowing your lawn, you may be shredding some of the Anglo Saxons’ nine sacred herbs: mugwort, plantain, chamomile, betony, stinging nettle, chervil, fennel and crab apple.
The pernicious plantain was called “the mother of worts” and was revered as far back as the earliest Celtic fire ceremonies. St. John’s Wort is still used to calm nerves.
Tramping back through the Middle Ages, our pathways are lined by what Mabey calls Anglo-Saxon salad.
Foraging today may be seen as chic in America, but it’s an age old tradition in Europe, with seasonal forays in France to gather wild greens such as leeks and dandelions and local fungi.
But lest we feel second best, it should be noted that foraged fare once was as American as Henry David Thoreau, who opined: “The bitter-sweet of a white oak acorn which you nibble in a bleak November walk over the tawny earth is more to me than a slice of imported pineapple.”
Even closer to home, the Choctaw say that migrating geese gave the people corn.
How short-sighted we are that we view the apple, a hybrid from Asia, as American. More indigenous is the corn, the tomato, the squash, the bean.
Our “weeds” are imported from the Mediterranean mostly via Britain from the Neolithic Age 4500 BCE.
Organic gardeners revere their cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, collards, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts. Most probably don’t know they once were “weeds,” and not recognizable to what they have become. That’s something to munch on this November day!