Before you pull it
A new perspective on common Chico weeds
A recent post on Chico Garden Share, a Facebook group for local gardeners, had a link to an online article about using dandelion roots for tea, wine and more. The thought of utilizing the common weed—which has edible roots, leaves and flowers—made one commenter cringe.
“I know it is closed minded, but I just cannot imagine” using dandelion, said the woman in her post. Other gardeners—including several prominent local permaculture enthusiasts—responded.
Leslie Wilson Corsbie, owner of Performance Design & Landscape, said she juices the leaves to drink, and she also cooks them up and serves them to her unsuspecting teenage son. Another woman, Marirose Jimenez Dunbar, swears by roasted dandelion-root tea—commonly touted as a liver cleanser—as a detoxifying and tasty tea.
Like many plants commonly thought of as weeds, dandelion—Taraxacum officinale—has plenty of uses, and consequently lots of fans.
One local dandelion cheerleader is Sherri Scott, of GRUB Grown Nursery, who suspects that the common aversion to dandelions began in the 1940s and ’50s with the rise of the well-manicured lawn—and the associated herbicides used to maintain it.
“Broadleaf weeds [like dandelions] … were the sign of a bad lawn,” Scott noted. When she first moved to the GRUB Cooperative on Dayton Road, “there was barely any dandelion or purslane,” two common weeds that she sought out. She now offers dandelion-plant starts, which sit on her display table at Chico farmers’ markets next to tomatoes, basil and sage.
“I get people laughing at me, like, ‘Hey! That’s a weed!’” she said. “I realized there was a great potential … to educate people. Whether or not [the dandelion plant] was actually sold, I can talk to people about its benefits. Not only is it medicinal, and good for bees, but it’s also a ‘dynamic accumulator’ plant, as it moves minerals up from the soils to make them available to the rest of the plants around it.”
Stephanie Ladwig-Cooper, co-owner of Gaia Creations Ecological Landscaping and co-organizer of the Chico Permaculture Guild, explains that dynamic accumulators like dandelions “have a really big, long taproot,” which reaches mineral-rich subsoils. “When they decay and die, they release all of those nutrients into the surface soils, for all the other plants. …
“So what I do is I chop them and I drop them”—meaning she doesn’t pull them out by the roots (or spray them with herbicides) but rather chops the leaves off to allow the plant to regrow. Ladwig-Cooper suggests either dropping them on the ground as a mulch or into the compost pile—the “drop” part of “chop-and-drop”—in order to create nutrients that will go into topsoil. According to the Chico Permaculture Guild’s dynamic-accumulator chart, dandelion pulls up eight major nutrients from the subsoil, including magnesium, calcium, potassium and iron.
While those who carefully tend lawns may find dandelions unattractive, both Scott and Ladwig-Cooper often find the lawn itself to be the problem. Scott calls the common Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon) “my lifelong nemesis,” admitting that, when househunting, she rejected a house because it had a Bermuda-grass-covered yard, “but then … they sell the seed for lawns.”
Ladwig-Cooper cited Bermuda grass and “sticky grass” (also known as cleavers or bedstraw, from the Galium genus) as two plants she considers weeds, as they “are really pervasive, really noxious.” Yet, Scott puts that same sticky grass into the category of “good medicine,” highlighting the problem with the whole idea of weeds—that every plant has a purpose, and one person’s garden weed is another person’s garden need.
As for the lowly dandelion, Scott hopes readers follow the advice she gives to farmers’-market shoppers: “Go ahead and eat [a dandelion] before you destroy it. Some people are fascinated and thankful, and some people just … continue shopping.”
Kalan Redwood of Redwood Seeds in Manton warns her customers to beware, because milk thistle, Silybum marianum, one of several debatably weedy seeds the company offers, “has the potential to be a nasty invasive species,” as the company’s website states. The plant is offered in Redwood Seeds’ medicinal-herbs category, as a liver stimulant and blood cleanser.
Lamb’s quarters, of the Chenopodium genus—like its cousin, quinoa—is another weedy plant that sprouts thickly in gardens around Chico. The young plant, with pleasant light silvery-green leaves, is noted to taste like spinach when cooked, and is cultivated as a leafy vegetable in other regions of the world. Instead of pulling the weed, Max Kee, a farmer at Heartseed, a new CSA farm at the GRUB Cooperative on Dayton Road, harvests “volunteer” lamb’s quarters on the farm. At the beginning of May, Heartseed sold a dozen bunches of lamb’s quarters at the Chico Natural Foods Cooperative and hopes to provide it to future CSA customers.
“It is so prolific—it’s a blanket. It fully covers everything,” said Kee, adding that the weed’s omnipresence on the farm “turned around my mental state” regarding weeds. “A weed is kind of like waste—it’s a resource that’s not being made use of,” he explained. “With the style of farming that we’re doing, it’s so based off of compost,” that building the compost pile has become a priority—and the weeds fill that need.
Before he composts it, though, Kee lets some of it grow. “I top it, then come back through to cut the side shoots, and then I pull it,” he explained. He uses the top and side shoots as food, but after harvesting, he pulls the plant to prevent it from going to seed.
Ladwig-Cooper summed up the weed advocates’ general take on weeds: “I usually use the word ‘weed’ in quotations. Half the plants … that other people consider weeds, I find useful.”