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

Posts tagged ‘urban foraging’

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.

Passionflower eases stress-related sleeplessness and anxiety

Passiflora incarnata looking like it's designed to communicate with extraterrestrials.

Passionflower is an example of how we can lose an appreciation for the familiar. The exotically beautiful, though completely native, passionflower vine (Passiflora incarnata) is one of the few Passiflora species which grows in our temperate climate, and for this we can be thankful. This backyard remedy is tremendously useful for stress-related conditions: sleeplessness, tension, muscle spasms, irritability, restlessness, teeth-grinding, headaches, high blood pressure, attention-deficit, and even for withdrawal symptoms from addictive substances.

Passionflower is a deciduous vine with three-lobed leaves that smell like peanut butter when crushed. Its highly complex flowers bloom from June-October, and look as if they’re designed to communicate with outer-space extraterrestrials – though the passionflower is actually named by imaginative 16th century Spaniards for its symbolic imagery of Christ’s passion.

Passionflower fruits of Passiflora incarnata.

Edible, sweet-tasting fruits form after the flowers are finished, and ripen from green to yellowish-orange two months after forming. The vine often crawls along the ground, and when you step on the fruits they may pop, giving passionflower its other popular name, ‘maypop’.

Although the passionflower vine will grow in clay, it is most happy sprawled out over your vegetables, taking advantage of loose, fertile soil. To introduce passionflower into your garden, prepare a sunny spot as you would for tomatoes, and plant the seeds from a dried passionflower fruit. Give it space and a trellis or fence to climb. Venturing young shoots and leaves can be eaten when boiled and then sautéed.

Medicinally, passionflower is traditionally indicated when someone cannot sleep due to repetitive, worry-filled thoughts circling all night. Passionflower stills the rambling, anxious thoughts, bringing a calm and relaxed sleep without any sleep-medication “hangover”.

Numerous pharmacological investigations have confirmed passionflower’s ability to relieve anxiety. In one clinical trial of 36 people with generalized anxiety disorder diagnosed by DSM-IV standards who were randomly given either passionflower or oxazepam, a benzodiazepine prescribed for anxiety and alcohol withdrawal symptoms, the results found that passionflower and the pharmaceutical relieved anxiety equally; however, passionflower affected the participants’ job performance far less than oxazepam. An additional difference is that passionflower is safe in moderate amounts and non-addictive.

Studies also report its efficacy in reducing drug withdrawal symptoms for nicotine, alcohol, and opiates, such as morphine by increasing the effects of GABA, a neurotransmitter which calms the body’s response to stimuli.

Surprisingly the flowers hold little medicinal value, besides looking at them. The majority of the nerve-calming qualities come from a tea or extract made from the leaves and stems, either fresh or dried. Commercial sources of the live plant are few. It’s more common to find the South American blue passionflower (Passiflora caerulea), which has five-lobed leaves, an edible fruit and is almost evergreen in Athens.

Old-timer herbalist Tommie Bass said that passionflower brings people together by helping them to relax. He suggested it for domestic partners who’ve grown annoyed with the little things over the years, losing appreciation for the familiar. Cherokee Indians similarly used passionflower as a social beverage. If fences make good neighbors, then maybe passionflower should grow along the fence.

This article appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald on July 4, 2010.

Pictures of other species of Passiflora:

Passionflower botanical (1902) Dodd, Mead & Company. This botanical print came from a book. I have it in a simple frame.

Princess Charlotte's Passionflower, Passiflora racemosa, at Druid Hill Park Victorian Conservatory, Baltimore, MD

Magnificent mullein: A friend to those with lung issues

Mullein at the State Botanical Gardens of Georgia. Looks like Verbascum olympicum, which has showier flowers than V. thapsus.

Mullein, Verbascum thapsus or V. olympicum, is that plant along the roadsides with a towering spike of yellow flowers which lingers all through winter as a dried-out, brownish-black spike. Being a biennial, mullein will grow as a circular, basal rosette in its first year where all its leaves come from the central stem. In the second year, the flowering spike will grow straight up from the middle, and the leaves will grow upwards on the stem until the flowers begin. It then ends its life-cycle when it goes to seed and becomes a stalk. New basal rosette mullein plants will grow in the surrounding area the following year.

You might notice the 6″ to 2′ bluish-gray-green leaves, which resemble the common landscape plant lamb’s ears because they are furry and soft. We typically consider this plant a benign weed, but I think it’s gorgeous and deserves to be appreciated in a garden. It’s easy to start from seed.

The whole plant is medicinal with dozens of uses. Legend has it that mullein was one of the plants so cherished by European women that when they migrated to the U.S., they sowed its seeds into the hems of their skirts, making sure they would not be without their medicine. It’s easy to understand how they felt if you’ve grown to appreciate how mullein can soothe irritated or congested lungs.

Many mullein, Verbascum thapsus. Big mullein leaves in right forefront.

American Indians quickly saw mullein’s virtues as the plant was introduced to North America. In Daniel Moerman’s tome, Native American Ethnobotany, over 25 tribes are listed to have used mullein. The uses range from applying the leaves to swollen glands or skin sores, to sore throats, to cough remedy, and asthma. Several tribes used it for magical or ceremonial purposes, attesting to the high regard the American Indians held for mullein.

Mullein is anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory which is great when there is an infection in the throat, lungs, or on the skin. It’s also an expectorant, helping to move the damp congestion (catarrah) in the lungs. And as a soothing, anti-inflammatory herb, when someone has a non-productive cough that is hard, sore, and a little burning coming from the chest, not the throat, mullein is excellent. Mullein serves as a safe and effect tonic for chronic, dry respiratory inflammation in adults and kids.

For the lungs, the best method of taking mullein is through steeping the chopped leaf in boiling water for about 8-10 minutes. You will need 4-8 grams, three times a day, which is a lot because mullein is very light. Strain the tea through an unbleached coffee filter before drinking to make sure the little hairs don’t bother your throat. A common Indian method for administering herbs quickly was through smoking them. Powdered mullein leaves were smoked to help with asthma and catarrah (damp congestion in the lungs).

Mullein is a great first aid plant. If you’re out in the field and get cut, or develop a rash or athlete’s foot, find some mullein. Make a damp poultice with the leaf and then wrap another leaf around the poultice.

Mullein flowers make a famous ear oil to remove excess wax or relieve pain. A tincture of the flowers is also useful for someone prone to nervous throat clearing.

Speaking of wax, the dried stalks would be dipped in wax and burned as torches. I haven’t tried this, but I think they’d make awesome party torches for a harvest celebration.

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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