With the current drought here in southwestern New Mexico only getting worse right now, I have never been so grateful for widely available, locally abundant, feral as all hell weeds. So much of the land in every direction is eerily brown and dormant despite the warm weather. There are very few birds or insects compared to a normal May in the canyon. And from photographs, you’d be likely to think it’s Winter right now. The quickest way to get a fix of lush green is to find a perennial waterway like our lovely San Francisco River running just below the mesa our cabins are situation on and…. checking out the weeds in people’s yards, in vacant lots and other disturbed areas. Some of these species are native, some are not, but what unites them is a particular tenacity and insistence. While many other plants have pulled back into dormancy to await the next rains, this particular botanical cadre is fiercely green in the face of unquenched thirst and scorching sun.
One of the primary indications that a plant will be called a weed is that it is common and thus giving the implication of being vulgar. And in fact, the word vulgar has its roots in the Latin vulgus, which appropriately enough means “folk” or “common people” but has the common definition of something (or someone) that is unrefined, ordinary, coarse… and even indecorous (lord protect us from indecorous plants) to the point of being obnoxious. Low class in other words, usually relegated to that status primarily by their commonness, their ability to thrive. This is not a matter of competition between plants within a particular habitat but rather a troubling projection of human origin. Wherever we are, modern humans have a tendency to most highly value what is hard to come by, that which is rare, exotic and comes at a great price.
It seems to me that if we’re going to place value judgments on plants as medicine and food, it makes a hell of a lot more sense to greatly value (getting past ingrained ideas about economics) what we have access to, what is sustainable and what we are able to cultivate intimacy with. The herbal community often excels at this, and I am eternally heartened by the excitement that a patch of Chickweed or stand of Wild Roses can evoke in any number of plant people. The exuberant pointing, shrieking and jumping up and down of otherwise dignified adults at the sight of Stinging Nettles on a riverbank is certainly one of the reasons I adore what I do.
The Why of Weeds
Personally, as much as I love and work to preserve rare or endangered plants, it is the common weeds that I am most likely to get excited about as an herbalist. Why? Because there’s lots of them and lots of potential for working with them and helping people without endangering the species. Think about it, a tiny stand of delicate and slow growing plants may have good medicine but the capacity for real life use is small. On the other hand, a yard full of Dandelions, Chickweed and Mallow that just seems to multiply like rodents in Spring no matter how much you pick, pull, chop and run over them has HUGE capacity for treating and feeding people in a way that doesn’t harm the plant community. This seems especially important if we recognize that plants have intrinsic value in and of themselves outside of human use and deserve to thrive and live their own lives regardless of their value to us.
I also appreciate the feral nature of plants that survive where and when they can, digging in with roots and tendrils and running wild across the face of buildings, fences, lawns and whatever else will sit still long enough for them grow in, over or through. For me, the plants serve as role models and teachers, friends and confidantes. I’ve always found this especially true of unruly wildflowers and rebellious weeds that give the finger to herbicides and lawn regulations, busily growing and blooming from every crevice and empty patch of dirt.
Especially during dry times like these, I’m incredibly grateful for the soothing mucilage of Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) and Mallow (Malva spp.) that somehow still manage to leaf out and spread along sidewalks and doorsteps. Last week, I was struck by the sight of a young Elm tree sawed down about four feet from the ground and all its branches stripped off with its remaining trunk a strange black color. It was positioned in the middle of a gravel pile at the center of the village in a place where everything near it was dead from lack of water and soil. And yet, the Elm tree had dozens new leaves emerging from its ragged stump. Not just growing back from the roots, but shooting out from where it was broken. I keep its image in my mind as an emblem of hope right now as the leaves on the Oaks hang shriveled and black and the absence of the Canyon Wrens’ song renders the mesa scarily silent. Life is insistent, it will find a way.
What qualifies as weeds surely differs from place to place. Herbs like Plantain often known as weeds in moister climes are actually fairly difficult to track down here in southwestern New Mexico. And this year, with scarcity and fragility of many otherwise moderately common plants has me carefully considering what’s really ethical and sustainable to harvest and use as medicine. My goal is to adapt my current practice to what the land can easily bear and what the people need. I aim to be flexible enough to provide effective treatment while not presenting a burden to already stressed land. Some elements in this approach include:
- Only harvesting from plants and plant communities that appear to be healthy and able to reproduce. This means staying away from plants that have only partially leafed out, are dropping leaves, have brown or black leaves or are unable to flower. Another reason for this, besides consideration for the plant, is that stressed plants can have somewhat different balances constituents than what we’re accustomed to and the medicine may not behave as we expected.
- Going out of my way even more than normal to help plants reproduce by dividing roots and replanting rather than taking the whole root system when harvesting, waiting until a plant is in seed before harvesting roots and being sure to spread the seeds, making cuttings of plants easily spread that way as with Salix species and even being extra careful where I walk on wild land. This may seem somewhat ridiculous in lush habitats, but here in the dry SW, compressing the soil and squashing barely surviving plants can have a very noticeable effect.
- Sorting through my existing stock of herbal preparations and preserved foraged foods and being sure to carefully note what I have and what I really need more of. Then making a point of using what I have abundant stores of rather than impulsively going after whatever new creature catches my fancy. It’s likely that even the weeds are under stress this season and I prefer not to add to that if possible. I’ll also go out of my way not to recommend larger doses than necessary and more likely to admonish people not to lose, ruin (kindly don’t leave your tincture bottles and tea mixes on the dash of your sealed car in an Albuquerque parking lot, people) or otherwise waste existing medicines.
- And for my own sake, I’ll spend a great deal of time with both the thriving and hurting plants, noticing how they respond to the current conditions and appreciating even the ones I know are dying, thanking them for their beauty even as they lose their life to this painfully dry season.
As I mentioned above, here in the SW we don’t always have the same weeds as other places, but here are a few of our most persistent and multi-purpose weedy plants at the middle elevations along with a selection of their primary qualities and uses.
- Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) – Basically interchangeable with Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra), making it an exceedingly useful constitutional tonic for those who tend in the direction of dry as well as a remarkably effective gut healer, useful even in extreme digestive debility where there is inflammation and pronounced irritability of the gastric mucosa. Also useful externally as a drawing agent or soothing abraded areas.
- Sweet Clover (Melilotus spp.) – This fragrant and abundant roadside weed is not only an excellent wild food (especially in pesto) and tasty beverage tea but also a useful medicine. A notable aromatic, its carminative properties work well on their own to resolve bloating and discomfort or blend well with more obvious choices such as Chamomile. Sweet Clover is also a very useful anti-inflammatory, especially for soft tissue and the vascular system. Topically, it makes an excellent first aid salve and a poultice, soak, salve for vascular weakness.
- Periwinkle (Vinca major) – The astringent flowers and leaves of vining, groundcover-like Periwinkle are an effective vascular tonic, serving to tighten up the tissue of the vascular system wherever there is laxity. Based on this same systemic tonifying action, I frequently utilize Vinca as a vasoconstrictor for certain kinds of migraines.
- Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp.) – Despite its delicate appearance, I’ve seen Evening Primrose bloom from the cracks in rocks, in parking lots and even sprout of the crevices of old building foundations. The aromatic species are relaxant nervines and very effective antispasmodics, especially useful in the treatment of mild to severe uterine/ovarian cramping with accompanying tension and irritability. All species seem to act as mucus membrane tonics, reducing inflammation, tightening lax tissues and preventing further degradation. This is especially useful in formulas for gut, reproductive or respiratory inflammation.
A Feral Heart
Yes, I love and identify with the common and vulgar, the feral and fierce. I’m as likely to call myself a weedwife or plant lover as clinical herbalist, although I would consider all of these term to be true to my work. I value the common, the ordinary even, for its vitality and profusion. For its resilience and flexibility in the face of droughts and floods, habitat change and ever shifting interactions with the humans they share land with.
This applies to herbalists as well. Sure, there’s lots of us at the level of herbwife, kitchen herbalist, practitioner and village herbalist. There are no rock star requirements for what we do and in fact, such a status can keep us from being maximally approachable and accessible to others. There’s an ancient lineage for our work, for mothers and wildcrafters and weedwives, of the common people working together with common plants to bring a bit more healing and beauty to the world with our work. Our resilience and adaptability is part of why we survive and revive time after time, despite periodic suppression and stifling regulation.