By Kerry Maegan Hughes-Rico, M.Sc. – Herbalist and Ethnobotanist with the Herbal Academy of New England.
What is a weed? There was a time in my life when weeds were simply generic plants, unnamed and unknown. I used to drive down the street and hardly notice the “green carpet” that would buzz by me. The world consisted of people, animals, objects, and a sort of blur of green—plant life. They say that before we have the language or ability to name things, our eyes do not see them the same—or maybe we don’t even see them at all! For example, have you ever learned something new, like what a new make/model of a car looks like, and then all of the sudden you see it everywhere you go?!
That was what happened to me when I learned about plants. First the world consisted of this “green carpet”, and then all of the sudden I had discovered that, in fact, that green carpet consisted of individuals—ones that I slowly got to know and love as my curiosity spurred me on to learn more of their names, their uses, and their stories. Life was suddenly less lonely, as everywhere I went I was surrounded by individuals new and familiar. Individuals that often times had rich histories and stories attached to them, along with uses for my life. So, life was less lonely, but it was also like I was suddenly aware of this world of free treasure available for my picking—plants that could be used for food, medicine, bodycare, decorations, games, beauty… but how come nobody else seemed aware of this amazing treasure that surrounded them? Why isn’t “what is a weed” asked by more people, more often? These are questions I am still trying to understand.
We have modernized. Our lives have become so much more convenient—I no longer, as a mother and homemaker, have to spend my entire days doing laundry by hand and making food for the household as my ancestors did—I can just go to the store to buy food, prepare it with my modern kitchen, and throw my laundry in the washer and drier. However, with these conveniences, has come disconnect. Most other people I know have NO IDEA what plants around them could be used for, let alone which are edible vs. poisonous. I wonder if they even see them at all.
When we think of useful plants, I think the first that come to people’s minds are the few they may know because they have some use in their life. For example, a tomato plant produces tomatoes, and some people can recognize those plants if they see them without the tomatoes. Daisies are pretty familiar to most people, and it is because we have appreciated their beauty (or someone we know appreciated their beauty) and this taught us the form to look for, which we now recognize when we see daisies in gardens. But fewer and fewer people know even the plants that give us the largest contributions to our livelihoods, such as those that provide the basic foods we eat.
It isn’t surprising, then to think that most people don’t recognize the wild and often wonderful weeds that grow around them—be they the plantains that sprout on the side of the road which can be used for many things such as in calming salves and lotions for the skin or as a quick poultice to stop the flow of blood from a minor cut, or the dandelions that are sprouting in their lawns that make excellent salad greens and can be prepared as an herbal medicine to promote liver health.
What is a weed? To me, these plants are keys to what makes life worth living. I hope that others will open themselves up to the possibility or challenge of just learning a few plants and then see if the world becomes a different place. Attend an herbal school or simply go on an herb walk with someone who knows. We may not all turn into tree-hugging hippies, but at least maybe we can all learn to become a little more self-sufficient and appreciative. In these modern times, connection to nature is a truly healing experience in itself, and the added self-sufficiency can help us to become more self-reliant in case we ever want or have to get by without a grocery store at our fingertips.
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