An integrative approach to healing ourselves and our world: honoring people, plants, planet

Posts tagged ‘edible weeds’

Cleavers for internal spring cleaning

Cleavers in Athens, Georgia, US at the Brick House

Before there was Velcro, there were cleavers, a bristly, weak-stemmed annual with whorls of narrow leaves and inconspicuous white flowers. Arising from its winter bed during the seasonal transition into early spring, cleavers (Galium aparine) embody juicy, springtime vitality.

Growing in areas of moist, partial-shade, cleavers, also known as goosegrass and lady’s bedstraw, typically are thought to have originated in Europe. According to the USDA Plants Database, however, cleavers are considered native to the United States. Whether native or not, cleavers are found throughout the entire North American continent and have been used in Native American medicine.

According to traditional Western herbal healing, cleavers cleanse accumulating toxins from the fluid and its channels, such as the blood, lymph, sweat, bowels and kidneys, which can become stagnant during the colder months.

The fresh, brilliant-green cooling juice released from its stem and leaves contains citric acid, sweet-smelling coumarins (which is not the same blood-thinning compound, Coumarin), and asperuloside, a laxative.

Signs of stagnation for which cleavers are used in order to nudge the fluid channels toward more efficient elimination are swelling of the hands and feet, or nodule-like cysts on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet; fibrous tissue in the breasts; inflammation in the kidneys or urethra, or kidney “gravel”; constipation; and cystic acne.

The Nitinaht people of British Columbia are reported to have used cleavers as a hair wash to make the hair grow long.

Harvest the above-ground parts while they’re bright green, before the weather becomes too hot in late spring when cleavers become stringy, yellowed and has gone to seed. On a daily basis while locally available, gather a handful of cleavers – carefully removing co-existing plants unless it’s chickweed (Stellaria media), which has properties similar to cleavers – and either juice them, or chop the herbs, putting them in a pitcher and pouring about 32 ounces of boiling water over them. Allow the cleavers to steep for 8-10 minutes. Strain and drink a couple cups a day. Cleaver tea smells like spinach-water and tastes like grass, so one might want to add lemon juice for flavor.

A member of the Madder family (Rubiaceae), the same family with coffee, cleaver seeds can be roasted as a caffeine-free coffee substitute.

One can experience spring by drinking cleaver tea, bathing in cleavers, or wearing sprigs of cleavers, which make a natural springtime corsage, adhering to any article of clothing when applied.

Paying attention to the plants of the season, and accepting their gifts, brings us closer to the natural, healing rhythm of Earth.

Perilla frutescens (shiso) is a novel vegetable

Perilla frutescens var. crispa, shiso, in Crawford, GA. Notice the ruffled edges.

Perilla frutescens, a relatively new green-leafy vegetable introduced to North America from Asia and naturalizing throughout the eastern US, is popular in Asian dishes and a source of expensive omega-3 essential fatty acid supplements.

Growing in the Athens area are two variants: one is called shiso (Perilla frutescens var. crispa), which is either green or purplish-burgundy with ruffled, deeply serrated edges, and the other is egoma (Perilla frutescens var. frutescens), which has flat, green leaves with serrated edges.

When identifying either variety of Perilla, a distinguishing characteristic is in the anise-basil smell of the foliage when it’s crushed. Since Perilla’s in the mint family (Lamiaceae), it will have a square stem. Flowers rise up on four-sided stalks, resembling basil, but are taller and more pronounced. I usually find Perilla in a moist, semi-shade habitat, such as the Fred Birchmore Nature Trail in Athens.

Listing the health-promoting properties of Perilla would appear to place it in a panacea, cure-all category of potential world crops. Evidenced-based research matches the claims, which might make this a top-ten plant in usefulness.

Perilla frutescens var. frutescens, egoma, on the Fred Birchmore Trail in Athens.

Perilla’s antimutagenic, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities lend it to be a traditional herb for treating cancerous tumors in Asia. Research studies of Perilla leaf extract have found the herb efficacious in treating human leukemia and human hepatoma cells by increasing apoptosis-related genes and apoptosis (programmed cell death) in the cancer cells. In one study on liver cancer, scientists compared the Perilla leaf extract to rosmarinic acid, a potent antioxidant compound found in high quantities in Perilla, to determine whether the activity is attributed to the rosmarinic acid. The study found the whole-leaf extract of Perilla was significantly more effective than the isolated constituent—a possible argument for wholeness.

Scientific studies have also verified the efficacy of using Perilla as an antidepressant. The studies were based on a Japanese herbal remedy which uses Perilla for its effect on depression associated with chronic unpredictable stress. There’s a lot of that going around.

Oil extracted from the seeds is high in omega-3 essential fatty acids, and can be an alternative to fish oil. Perilla oil has a neuroprotective and cardiovascular-protective effect, and is a possible preventative for strokes, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

There’s no need to make an alcohol tincture or water extract of Perilla because it’s an excellent, flavorful, cooked veggie, which has up to five times the carotene found in carotene-rich vegetables. Nutrition studies compared Perilla to spinach and found Perilla to be significantly higher in lutein than spinach. In addition to the carotenes, Perilla has an abundant supply of antioxidants, such as rosmarinic acid, flavonoids, and anthocyanins.

The omega-3-rich seeds of the flat-leaf Perilla can be used as a topping for salads or a spice. In Japanese cooking, the leaves of the ruffled-leaf Perilla are dredged in tempura batter and fried. The purple leaf variety is added to vinegars, pickled foods and rice to give flavor, a pinkish hue, and antimicrobial properties.

There’s no telling who is responsible for introducing Perilla to the US, but since it’s here, I’ll learn how to put it to good use.

Evening primrose oil treats several ailments

The entire plant of evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) is edible, and a good source of GLA, an essential fatty acid.

As the sun lowers toward the horizon, the yellow evening primrose prepares to bloom. For those who like to be enchanted by nature, gather a few friends at twilight, and wait for the blooms to open right before your eyes.

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) is native to North America, and is no relation to the English cowslip primrose (Primula veris). When evening primrose makes an appearance in the spring, it is a low-growing, basal rosette mass of leaves speckled with red. Throughout the summer, a very leafy reddish stem grows up from the center of the basal rosette, eventually reaching 3 to 5 feet.

The four-petaled, yellow flowers are unusual in that they flower at the end of a long pipe attached to a tube-shaped ovary, which will become the seed-containing fruit. Within the seeds of the evening primrose, a valuable oil is held. I eat the whole fruits to get the oil.

The entire plant is medicinal and edible. Currently, however, the seeds are the most used part of the plant. The oil found in evening primrose seeds is high in gamma-linoleic acid (GLA), an essential fatty acid (EFA) converted from linoleic acid by an enzyme called delta-6 desaturase.

Some people inherit an abnormality in EFA metabolism because they lack the delta-6-desaturase enzyme needed to convert linoleic acid to GLA.

This creates problems since GLA prevents proinflammatory eicosanoids, such as prostaglandins and leukotrienes, from becoming excessive and causing chronic illness conditions associated with inflammation, such as atopic eczema, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, PMS and breast pain.

Since the 1980s, many clinical trials have shown efficacy in using evening primrose oil to treat atopic eczema, an escalating condition among children.

Trials reported that after administering evening primrose oil for four to eight weeks, the roughness, redness and itchiness of the skin was reduced. After discontinuing the evening primrose oil, the improvements remained, and the condition did not revert back to the pre-evening primrose state. Studies indicate evening primrose is less effective in people who have received frequent corticosteroid treatment.

Another interesting use of evening primrose oil is in the treatment of the neurological effects of alcoholism. Long-term alcohol use decreases linoleic acid in the blood, and creates a deficiency in EFAs, which isn’t good since EFAs provide the structure for nerve conduction. Alcohol use also blocks linoleic acid from converting to metabolites used in brain structure. Further, alcohol increases the manufacturing of proinflammatory prostaglandins.

Administering GLA and other EFAs has seemed to minimize the negative effects of alcohol.

Medicinally, Cherokee Indians have used an infusion, or tea, of evening primrose leaves to stimulate weight-loss. The Ojibwa soaked the entire evening primrose plant in warm water and applied it as a poultice to burns.

As food, Cherokees also cooked the spring leaves as vegetable greens, and boiled the fall roots like potatoes.

The Gosuite of Utah ate the tiny, oil-rich seeds, which is the most direct, and cheapest way of getting your GLA.

The above article originally appeared in the Urban Forager column of the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, September 5th, 2010.

Lamb’s quarters is a nutritious wild veggie

Chenopodium album, lamb's quarters, white goosefoot, fat hen

Depending on one’s perspective, when lamb’s quarters volunteers itself in your yard, garden or field, it’s either a welcome wild vegetable or an unwelcome weed. Scientific research takes one side or the other: either it is a promising plant for world food security and an excellent way to clean up toxically contaminated sites, or it’s a weed for which people develop new herbicides to eradicate.

Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album), also called white goosefoot and fat hen, is an introduced Eurasian species found in most of North America, and is related to the Andean quinoa grain (C. quinoa). Its upper diamond-shaped leaves look as though they’ve been dusted with white powder, and the stem of the more mature plant is vertically striped yellow, green and fuchsia. This annual prefers sunny, moist, cultivated soils; however, it can also grow through gravel, demonstrating its tolerance for difficult, abusive situations.

Being a culinary vegetable staple in Old World cuisine, lamb’s quarters was introduced early in the colonization of North America. It spread throughout the continent and was quickly adopted into the diets of many Indian Nations, including the Iroquois, Cherokee, Navajo, and Eskimo. In ethnobotanical accounts, many nations ate the young shoots of lamb’s quarters boiled, and then cooked with grease. Cherokee ate raw greens as a salad for good nutrition. Shoots and seeds were dried for winter food storage. The seeds have been ground into flour for bread and made into porridge.

Medicinally, in addition to being a nutritious vegetable, the Navajo used lamb’s quarters as a topical poultice dressing for burns, and more unusually would make snake figurines out of the young shoots to use as antidotes for snakebites. Recently, lamb’s quarters has been found to prevent the proliferation of two strains of breast cancer cells.

Researchers in South Africa have looked at the nutritive quality of lamb’s quarters and its potential for providing food security. They found lamb’s quarters to be as high in minerals as spinach, lettuce and cabbage, and a good source of micronutrients, such as cancer-protecting flavonoids and polyphenols. As a vegetable cooked like spinach with butter or olive oil, lamb’s quarters has a pleasant taste which pairs well with many types of meats or beans. When cooked with beans, lamb’s quarters shows its hidden carminative benefit, neutralizing the undesirable, gaseous effects of bean dishes.

Ecologically, lamb’s quarters provides an economically and environmentally beneficial answer to wastewater contamination from agricultural fields. Studies show that lamb’s quarters growing in agricultural ditches absorbs organophosphates and pyrethroid (permethrin) pesticide runoff, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), all very toxic compounds capable of disrupting human hormones. Lamb’s quarters also holds promise in the re-vegetation of mining sites.

Which perspective of lamb’s quarters will you have when you see it growing into your life?

If you need more persuasion, you can sample it from Athens locals who are choosing its benefits by selling it at the farmers markets. Athenians can also find lamb’s quarters growing along roadsides and the North Oconee River Greenway.

If you find and harvest lamb’s quarters, keep in mind that it’s an annual. If you don’t leave some to go to seed, it will cut down on the chances of having lamb’s quarters around the following year.

Cut the stem above the last “good leaf”, above any yellowed leaves. If you don’t use lamb’s quarters right away, you can wrap them loosely in newspaper and place in a plastic bag. That will keep the lamb’s quarters fresh in the fridge for a week or even two. Lamb’s quarters can be dried or frozen for future use, as well.

When you’re ready to cook lamb’s quarters, you’ve got as many options as you do with other greens. Strip the leaves from the tougher, lower, stems. The tops are tender enough that you can cook and eat the stems if you like. You can chop the leaves further, or leave them whole. I add a cup of water to a stock pot, and place on low-medium. Add the lamb’s quarters, some green onion, and a splash of vinegar. Put a lid on the pot, and stir occasionally. Cook for about 8 minutes. The greens get slightly steamed and boiled. If you choose, you can sautee garlic and onions in butter on the side and combine it with the cooked greens before serving.

Lamb’s quarters can be cooked into soups and casseroles, quiche, or a greens pie.

This article was published in the Athens Banner-Herald, July 11, 2010.

Dining on Delicious Wild Foods: Salmon with Poor-man’s Pepper and Lamb’s Quarters

Wild-caught salmon seasoned with poor-man's pepper, accompanied with wild greens mixed with local collards and local zucchini and onions.

What a delicious dinner, and much of it came from WEEDS in the yard!

OK, so the salmon wasn’t local, but it was wild-caught and shipped flash-frozen to The Herbal Gourmet on Baxter St. in Athens. The zucchini, onion and collards are from Athens Locally Grown, the awesome and easy online local food ordering service. The weeds, lamb’s quarters and poor-man’s pepper, were very-locally grown in my friend’s unmanicured backyard.

Poor-man's pepper growing on East Broad St., Athens

Poor-man’s pepper, Lepidium virginicum,  is from the mustard family and is a common weed in disturbed areas. It will grow in gravel and through sidewalk cracks. The plant is easily recognizable by its profuse display of seed pods, which have a spicy flavor. To harvest just cut a few plants and bring them inside. Strip the seed pods and leaves from the stem and add them to your meal. It doesn’t matter if the pods are still green or dried. Plants in the mustard family can cause a little bit of skin irritation, so wash your hands after handling.

For the seasoned salmon, add some dill to the poor-man’s pepper and liberally apply to the top of the salmon. Over medium heat, melt butter, and place the salmon face down in the pan for 2 minutes. Carefully flip the salmon over and place a lid on the pan. Cook for an additional 8 minutes, more or less, depending on the size of fish and your preference. Serve immediately, or chill for a salmon salad.

Lamb’s quarters, Chenopodium album,  also grows in disturbed ground. The diamond-shaped foliage is a lightish green with the top leaves looking like they’ve been dusted with powder. The stem of more mature plants is often streaked with purplish-red lines running the length of the plant. Strip the leaves from the stem and rinse them very well. Lamb’s quarters are way more nutritious than spinach, and I think they taste better, too. Cook lamb’s quarters like spinach or other leafy greens. You can supplement lamb’s quarters with another leafy green.

In a big stock pot add olive oil, and place on medium-low heat. Add the freshly rinsed greens and roughly chopped green onions. After cooking for a couple minutes, stir and add your favorite vinegar and some garlic, as much garlic as you can handle. I think ume plum-shiso leaf vinegar is delicious, or you can use herbal vinegars. Salt and pepper to taste. Be careful not to overcook the greens. They’re done in about 8 minutes.

And for desert, just-picked mulberries with a dollop of Greek yogurt!

Lamb's quarters growing on East Broad St, Athens

A great patch of lamb's quarters!

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