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Saturday, August 13, 2011

One Man’s Weed is Another Man’s Soup…or Medicine…

A weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows.

Doug Larson

P namuGladys and I rattled our way across the Lower Loop Bridge the other day. Up ahead I noticed a very small lady pulling weeds and thought, “Certainly Willie Green doesn’t expect that little woman to weed his acres and acres of produce!” I watched her pull a weed or two and was surprised to see her tuck them into a white trash bag. “And so tidy; not only pulling weeds but hauling them away, too!” I stopped and watched her slip one last handful into the trash bag and load it in the trunk of a silver Camry alongside two other bulging bags. I recognized those weeds; if you turn your back on your garden for a week, that very same weed will rule the rows. piglet weedRip them out, expose the roots: “Dry up and shrivel, you!” If you don’t pull them in their infant stage, in two weeks you’ll need a chainsaw to fell them.

Turns out this spry little lady of Asian persuasion was not pulling weeds but harvesting them. My journalistic curiosity kicked in and I asked her what she was harvesting. She turned, plucked a sprig from the trash bag and presented it for inspection: “P-dum-namu,” she said in that lilting oriental way (I render the word phonetically—and not well, I might add). “For salad?” I asked. She is puzzled. Communication has stalled.Big Pigweed “Salad. Salaaaad?” I repeat. Suddenly the light of understanding winked on: “No! No! Soup! Soup!”the weed picker exclaims. I ask her her name. “Meddy,” she tells me. “Meddy?” I say. “No…Meddy!"Ahhh! Now my own light bulb glows. “Mary?” “Yes! Yes! Meddy!” I ask permission to take a picture of her trunkful of weeds. She steps aside but I’m careful to include Mary in the shot. “You must have a large soup pot,” I laugh, point to the three bags of soup stock, and make a wide circle with my arms. “No! Freeze! Freeze! For one year,” she explains. I want to ask her more about the recipe. Does she include meat? If so, what kind? Fish? Pork? Chicken? Eggs, maybe? But our languages are worlds away…me, occidental…Mary, oriental, so I thank her for her time and pedal off.

The next day I stop to talk to another weed puller in Paul Bischoff’s vegetable patch. She is ripping P-dum-namu from the soil and casting it aside (“Wither, you…And die!”) “What is that stuff?” I asked. “Pigweed,”she informs me. I tell her she should locate Mary and enlist her help rooting out the pigweed. She says Mexicans use young pigweed like spinach. I inform her Mary harvested the plant for soup.

Back home I do a little research on pigweed and discover our local variety is Amaranthus retroflexus, common name “red pigweed.” A. retroflexus, according to the research, is an edible weed, and given this year’s deplorable garden season maybe I ought to be harvesting a little pigweed myself, although it seems a meager substitute for corn (pigweed fritters??).

I was surprised to learn our Valley is a treasure trove of edible weeds. A day or two later I happen upon another diminutive Asian lady at the intersection of Sargent Road and Tualco. Again I thought she was weeding. This time on the corner by Jim Werkhoven’s communal corn patch. Pigweed, though, was not her target weed; she was snipping and cutting vines from in and around small patches of pigweed. Some sort of succulent plant it was. Her basket bulged with the stuff. This plant, too,  The healing weedI recognized as another weed that has sprouted in abundance in our garden this year. Once again I forged ahead into the area of uncertain communication and inquired after the name of the plant.The Medicine Lady She stands and smiles and I notice she is rather nattily dressed for a weedpicker: “P-dum-sheh-buh’-dum.” “Tweedle-dum?” I venture. She frowns and shakes her head vigorously. I try time and again until she grins that I have it right. Ahh, another weed of the “P-dum” family I think. “For soup?” I asked, trying to appear knowledgeable. Her brow wrinkles in confusion; she struggles with her English lexicon. “No, no…medicine, medicine!” she exclaims. “Medicine?” I wonder for what ailment and point to my head (headache?). A shake of her head. I point to the stomach. No, it’s not about digestion. And apparently not for other specific body parts either. A few more hand gestures and head shakes later I’m led to understand the plant is used for “whatever ails you,” first dried, then powdered, and taken as a cure-all like castor oil or Grandma’s spring tonic. I say good-bye, ride off, repeating the unfamiliar phonetics so I’ll be able to render them in print: “P-dum-sheh-buh-dum, sheh-buh-dum…dum, dum, dum….”

At home The Ripple shoots off a quick email to the research department along with the following image.just another man's weed

My research team (daughter Marika) gets right on it, and soon I learn the intruder I’ve been pulling and casting aside in my garden is Portulaca olercea, common name purslane and is used as a form of leaf vegetable. Purslane also is included in the ancient Chinese pharmacopeia as a treatment for an assortment of ailments. Those of you who suffer from oral lichen planus (OLP) will be gratified to learn that consuming copious quantities of P. olercea radically reduces the effects of that condition. (For more information on ulcerative OLP, feel free to consult The Ripple’s research department.) You are welcome to gather all of both species of weeds you can find in my garden, by the way.

During those cold, dreary weeks of winter it is tradition in this household to have a weekend soup. “Saturday Soup,” we call it, a hearty concoction simmered for hours on the woodstove. I am always on the lookout for new soup recipes. As I look out at this year’s tomato patch and see the blighted vines and clusters of brown, rotting tomatoes, I think of the two Asian weed pickers and their harvest. Maybe they’re onto something after all. For a winter’s meal how does a steaming bowl of Pigweed soup accompanied by a purslane side salad sound to you? If served with plenty of homemade bread, it might just be fine.

Footnote: This morning I thought I’d check on Matt Higgins’ bees at Broers’ Farms. On my way out to the bee stand, I met Ginnifer B. She was hoeing pigweed from between the young strawberry vines in the new planting. I told her she was wasting  good food. She knew what I was talking about. “You know, we used to let people come in and pick the weeds, but the weed gatherers just snipped the stalks and left the roots. The roots would grow and be much harder to hoe out.” I know what she’s talking about. Pigweed roots have a life of their own; if you don’t pull the entire weed, the roots get such a purchase in the soil you practically need a backhoe to remove them.

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  1. Great post! I had no idea when I was researching & found the weeds edible that you intended on your post being about just that! Neat!!

  2. There's a flagged stake in the garden. Lots of edible weeds in that row!

  3. That first one looks a little like basil...but is it as tasty???

  4. I haven't quite reached the point where weeds are a part of my diet, but that time may be coming.... And I have a garden that will provide, too!

  5. Nice post! So what to do when the blight shows up in the maters? Plant some pig weed in their place. I am familiar with pig weed but did not think to include it in my list of edibles. I will give you a report when it shows up in the garden this year. As to weeds in the garden, I believe that not all weeds are created equal. I know one gardener who plants nitrogen fixing weeds under his tomatoes. I guess if you are going to have weeds, we can always be a little more tolerant of the "better" ones. I am now starting to consider collards, cilantro and tomatillos weeds as they are showing up everywhere. Happy weeding : )