Scientist says: Eat your weedies
Chatham University weed scientist Nancy Gift and daughters Emily, left, and Hazel with Joe Pye weed, a volunteer that thrives in the front yard of their O'Hara home.
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From a distance, Nancy Gift and Milton Traw's lawn in O'Hara looks like all the others on their suburban street: green and manicured. But stand over it and it's clear this grassy carpet is no monoculture. The couple is allowing all sorts of renegade plants to thrive there, including dandelions, wood sorrel and plantain.
"I tolerate a lot of wood sorrel in my yard because it's one of the greens my kids will eat," said Ms. Gift, a weed scientist and director of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University, where she is also an assistant professor of environmental studies. Wood sorrel's clover-like leaves add a tart, lemony twist to her salads.
Ms. Gift bends down and picks up a leaf of plantain, one of the most stubborn and ubiquitous of what many regard as plants-in-the-wrong-place. She, however, tosses the broad, ovate leaves into salads and tucks them into sandwiches as a flavorful substitute for leaf lettuce.
"It goes on my BLT," she said. "I stopped buying lettuce. It rots in my fridge before I use it as thoroughly as I'd like." The plantain is free and "it's here all winter."
As a child growing up in Lexington, Ky., she would roll the plantain flower and stem between the palms of her hands and recite the morbid chant of children, "Momma had a baby and its head popped off," until the flowerhead came off.
"It sends the seeds to new places, so it's not really tragic at all," she said.
She wasn't thinking about seed dissemination as a child. "But I really believe that I learned something playing with plants, and I think most kids today don't have that opportunity, for whatever good or bad reasons," she writes in "A Weed by Any Other Name," published this year by Beacon Press. "And children who lack access to weeds because they live with 'perfect' lawns are missing out."
On neighborhood and woodland walks and in their yard, Ms. Gift is teaching her two daughters to identify wild plants and know which ones can be eaten safely.
"It's all bound up with getting out of doors, exercising, walking. You're getting your exercise and your food all at once." Plus, "I always tell my kids they should be able to eat something wild outdoors" for survival purposes.
Ms. Gift's book, subtitled "The Virtues of a Messy Lawn, or Learning to Love the Plants We Don't Plant," is part memoir and part field guide. Its 192 pages are sparsely illustrated, so it's best read with an actual field guide to wildflowers or edible wild plants at hand.
It's also highly selective, focusing on five plants in each of the four seasons but touching briefly on many more she has encountered.
"I think the culinary interest in weeds is increasing because the economy has gone south," she said.
The book isn't exclusively about edible wild plants, but she includes several recipes for using them, including rose hip tea (using the hips -- seedpods -- gathered from the wild multiflora rose) and "camping pesto" made from wild garlic or garlic mustard or a combination of the two.
She's not a big fan of one of the most commonly eaten wild greens. "I find dandelions really bitter unless I mix them with a lot of other greens."
Almost a decade ago, as a doctoral student at Cornell, she made dandelion wine from a gallon of dandelion flowers using Euell Gibbons' recipe from his influential 1962 book, "Stalking the Wild Asparagus."
"The recipe contains so much sugar and so many oranges that I wonder what part of the flavor actually comes from dandelions," she writes. "No matter, it is the principle that I love: using something free and unwanted to make something of value, in this case something I can enjoy with friends months later."
Three months later, to be exact, "and I was completely happy with it," even though one friend thought it tasted "like cheap sherry."
She drank most of it herself and was disappointed it ran out before the winter solstice, because she'd read that one of the great pleasures of dandelion wine was "the taste of summer in late winter."
Garlic mustard she eats, sometimes in a pesto with parmesan, "because I know I have to get rid of it anyway" -- it's too invasive to let run wild. It's at the edge of the small wood at the bottom of her sloping back yard.
"It likes light and shade," she said.
Of course, nothing in the Gift-Traw yard has been sprayed with pesticides. Don't try this at home if chemicals are used on your lawn.
Ms. Gift's book is written with warmth and good humor, but she has her pet peeves, including the use of herbicides on lawns, athletic fields and roadsides. Just as one would expect from a woman who carries the mantle of Miss Carson, a frequent touchstone in the book.
"I'd love for our yard to look rich, soft and green all summer instead of crunching a bit in August," she writes. "But really, I mostly just want to be outside on a nice day, knowing that our yard has healthy bees, bugs, and earthworms for the birds, flowers the kids can pick, and turf where they can play barefoot without me having to check the pesticide label first."
Standing at the edge of her front yard, she said, "I dream of turning the whole thing into a meadow." Last year, she scattered wildflower seeds where the yard borders the street, and this spring, a few came up. But she knows a meadow-like yard would mean extra work keeping out the invasive and noxious weeds.
"In the meantime, making it diverse and flat is tolerable to the neighbors and fun for me."
First Published August 6, 2009 12:00 am