Before you pull up those backyard “weeds” for disposal, consider this: a rich healing potential may be at your fingertips. Whether these plants are viewed as an invasive weed or medicinal powerhouse is highly related to cultural worldview. These plants can be considered edible landscaping—plus, by not destroying the plant, you are actively saving the variety for future generations.
There are hundreds of edible and medicinal species in the Southwest. This article focuses on four, some of which are endemic to the Southwest while others are species introduced from other continents. All are nutritionally dense.
The Plants All Around Us
Purslane (Portulaca olearacea) is a succulent herb with fleshy leaves and yellow flowers. This herb tastes like watercress or spinach and is a nutrient-dense gem, high in Omega-3 fatty acid and melatonin and with stems high in vitamin C. Look for it to appear after rain, let it grow for a couple of weeks or more, then harvest the plant in the morning or evening to retain juiciness by pinching the plant to encourage regrowth. How to eat it: Add to a salad or a soup, steam, or lightly sauté with garlic and/or vegetables. Terrific when added to a vegetable juice or on a sandwich.
Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium berlandieri), locally called quelites or “wild spinach,” are a nutritious treat containing iron, protein, calcium and phosphorus, as well as vitamins A, B1 and B2. How to eat it: Cooking is recommended; stem, roast or add to soups and sautées such as vegetable or rice dishes. Harvested seeds can be boiled or made into a seed bread. Eating raw in small quantities is another alternative.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is known as a powerful detoxifying food, rich in vitamin A (more than carrots), iron, calcium, phosphorus and potassium. Harvest in the spring before blossoming to avoid a bitter taste, cutting rather than pulling up, to yield several harvests. How to eat it: Eat in small quantities, owing to the diuretic quality of this plant. Make a dandelion salad, steamed and served with butter, sautéed with garlic and olive oil, or in a juice. The roots are also edible.
Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is nutrient-abundant in vitamins A, C and E, high amounts of iron, calcium, iodine and folic acid. The plant has a tangy or peppery flavor. Harvest along stream banks where water is known to not be contaminated, or soak with halazone or chlorazene tablets for safety. How to eat it: Eat raw young greens and flowers in salads or sandwiches, or add to a soup.
Cota (Thelesperma gracile) also known as greenthread and, in New Mexico, as Indian or Navajo tea, contains luteolin, a flavonoid with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. This plant is in the sunflower family. How to eat it: Dry and store in bundles for later use. Steep a tea with the flowers and leaves for 4 to 5 minutes.
When gathering, avoid pesticided areas in yards or by the edge of the road. In terms of yard care, gathering is a healthy alternative to poisoning local environments with pesticide use. And, if you don’t have a yard, many of these plants are available at Santa Fe Farmers’ Market.
To learn more about edible wild plants, the following guides may be helpful: Edible and Useful Plants of the Southwest, by Delena Tull; Medicinal Plants of the American Southwest, by Charles W. Kane; and Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants, by Steve Brill.
HARVESTING WITH RESPECT
In a hierarchical view of nature, some plants and animals are considered to be of more value than others. This view leads to eradication of some species with yet “undiscovered” nutritional and medicinal value. In contrast, Native American belief honors the healing potential of all plants, through thousands of years of gathering, eating and observing health effects. Western science is just beginning to understand the value of biodiversity—over 10,000 micronutrients are now known—and research is continually “discovering” more.
To ensure the survival of wild plant species, harvesting with respect, or using the ancient wisdom imbedded in gathering techniques is vitally important. Tending wild plants by cutting encourages more growth. Not pulling the plant out by the roots, unless the medicinal value is in the root, also encourages regrowth. Gathering in a way as to thin the number of plants leaves space for growth and doesn’t deplete the local supply.
The principle of honoring nature by taking only what you need and not depleting an area is central to maintaining biodiversity. Nurture nature in your backyard by leaving plants for seeding next season’s growth. This is considered respectful of the plant. If you don’t want spreading, for plants like dandelion or thistle, harvest before the plant produces seeds.
In the Native American world view, all plants are medicines. Take care of Mother Earth, and she will take care of you.
Susan Guyette, Ph.D., is of Métis heritage (Micmac Indian/Acadian French) and a planner specializing in cultural tourism, cultural centers, museums and native foods. She is the author of Sustainable Cultural Tourism: Small-Scale Solutions; Planning for Balanced Development; and the co-author of Zen Birding: Connect in Nature. firstname.lastname@example.org