Common Local “Weeds” as Food and Medicine…by Michele Cooper

01 Jan

Warning: Never eat a wild plant unless you are 100 percent positive of its identification. Get yourself a good field guide like “Edible Wild Plants – A North American Field Guide”.

Most of these ‘weeds’ grow all over the US and I have personally seen them growing locally here in NE Oregon, except Lobelia (I keep hoping to find it) but, since I use it for asthma, it will be growing in my yard this next spring.
Chickweed is abundant and easy to find in the early spring. Gather fresh edible plants as soon as flowers appear, it can be used fresh or be dried for later herb use.

Chickweed is medicinal and edible, they are very nutritious, high in vitamins and minerals. It can be added to salads or cooked as a pot herb, tasting somewhat like spinach. The whole plant is used in alternative medicine as an astringent, relieves flatulance, soothes and protects mucous membranes, diuretic, expectorant, laxative, brings down fever, heals wounds.

A decoction (strong tea) of the whole plant is taken internally post-partum as it promotes menstrual discharge, promotes secretion of milk and is a circulatory tonic. It is also used to relieve constipation. An infusion of the dried herb is used in coughs and hoarseness, and is beneficial in the treatment of kidney complaints.

New research indicates its use as an effective antihistamine. The decoction is also used externally to treat rheumatic pains, wounds and ulcers. It can be applied as a medicinal poultice by bruising the leaves and applying to a wound. It will relieve any kind of roseola and is effective wherever there are fragile superficial veins or itching skin conditions.


To 1 Tbsp dried herb, 2 if fresh, add 1 cup boiling water steep for 10 min. Take in ½ cup doses 2 to 4 times daily, during a cold or flu.
Poisonous look alikes: None


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACleavers is very easy to cultivate it prefers a loose moist leafy soil in partial shade, this plant does not really need any help to reproduce itself and can be invasive. The stems and leaves are covered with little hooked bristles, which attach to passing objects, in this way it fastens itself to adjacent shrubs, to climb its way upwards through dense undergrowth into daylight, often forming matted masses. Leaves are narrow, lance-shaped and are rough along the margins and surface, the prickles pointing backwards. The flowers are white, tiny, 1/16 to 1/8 inch in diameter and star-like. Flowers bloom April thru Sept. Gather the above ground plant, being careful not to gather whatever it touches. Dry for later herb use, should be picked through before drying to ensure herb is contaminant free.

Cleavers is edible and medicinal, it has been used for centuries as an alternative medicine by indigenous peoples on many continents. It is edible raw though said to be unpalatable, mainly used as a pot-herb or as an addition to soups. Using the plant as a vegetable has a slimming effect on the body. Cleavers seed is one of the best coffee substitutes, it merely needs to be dried and lightly roasted and has much the same flavor as coffee.

Cleavers has a long history of use as an alternative medicine and is still used widely by modern herbalists. It is used both internally and externally in the treatment of a wide range of ailments. The dried or fresh herb is alterative, anti-inflammatory, laxative, astringent, increases perspiration, diuretic, reduces fever, tonic and useful for healing wounds.

It is often taken to treat skin problems such as seborrhea, eczema and psoriasis, and as a general detoxifying agent in serious illnesses such as cancer. It has a mild laxative effect and stimulates the lymphatic system and has shown benefit in skin related problems.

The fresh plant or juice is used as a medicinal poultice for wounds, ulcers and many other skin problems. An infusion of the herb has shown of benefit in the treatment of glandular fever, tonsilitis, hepatitis and cystitis.

The infusion is also used to treat liver, bladder and urinary problems, stimulates the uterus and affected blood vessels.


To 1 pint of boiling water add 3 heaping Tbsp of dried or fresh herb, steep 10 min. Take in mouthful doses throughout the day.
Poisonous look alikes: None

Dandelion (no need for a picture – we all know what it looks like!)

Yep, that weed you’re always trying to get rid of in your lawn. Dandelion is one of the most nutritious plants you can find, having more vitamins and minerals than most vegetables. It is a great spring tonic.

Dandelion is found growing in pastures, lawns, waste ground, sand, rocks, even cracks in concrete. From a thick, long, tap root, dark brown outside, white and milky white inside, grow long jaggedly toothed leaves, shiny, dark to light green and growing in the shape of a rosette close to the ground.

Dandelion is also used for the treatment of the gall bladder, kidney and urinary disorders, gallstones, jaundice, cirrhosis, hypoglycemia, dyspepsia with constipation, edema associated with high blood pressure and heart weakness, chronic joint and skin complaints, gout, eczema and acne. As a tonic, Dandelion strengthens the kidneys. An infusion of the root encourages the steady elimination of toxins from the body. Dandelion is a powerful diuretic but does not deplete the body of potassium. The fresh juice of Dandelion is applied externally to fight bacteria and help heal wounds. The plant has an antibacterial action, inhibiting the growth of Staphococcus aureus, pneumococci, meningococci, Bacillus dysenteriae, B. typhi, C. diphtheriae, proteus.

Gather edible leaves and flowers anytime, roots in spring. Dry for later medicinal herb use.


Dandelion Herbal Tea: 2 oz. of the dried herb or root in 1 quart of water, boiled for 30 min. take in ½ cup doses every 3 hours for stomach, kidney, gallbladder, and liver problems. Used as spring tonic.

Tincture: Use roots and leaves. Dig up and rinse off, then slice roots thinly and fill your jar ½ – ¾ full of roots and leaves. Fill with 80-100 proof vodka, and shake frequently for 4-6 weeks. Decant plant material and compost.

Poisonous look alikes: None

Lobelia siphilitica and Lobelia inflata have basically the same uses. Lobelia was a highly prized medicinal plant and used extensively by Native Americans. It was considered a panacea, being used for just about everything that ailed them.

Lobelia stimulates the respiratory center of the brain, producing stronger and deeper breathing, making it very useful in treating many respiratory complaints, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, whooping cough, spasmodic croup, and pneumonia. It also relaxes the respiratory and neuro-muscular system and acts as a nervine and antispasmodic.

The seeds contain a much higher percentage of lobeline than the rest of the plant. The whole plant is used as an analgesic, cathartic, induces vomiting at higher doses, is an expectorant, induces perspiration, anti-asthmatic, antispasmodic, narcotic, and sedative. It is also used to treat convulsive and inflammatory disorders such as epilepsy, hysterical convulsions, traumatic injuries, tetanus, sores and abscesses, colds and fevers, diphtheria and tonsilitis.

When chewed it tastes similar to tobacco and produces effects like those of nicotine. It is used in some antismoking products.

Also used for scorpion and snake bites.

A poultice of the root has been applied in treating pleurisy, rheumatism, tennis elbow, whiplash injuries, boils, ulcers and hard to heal sores.

Lobelia is native to Eastern North America south to Alabama and west to Kansas, from southeastern Canada (Nova Scotia to southeast Ontario), but it can be grown from seed in USDA hardiness zones 3-9.


Infusion: Pour 1 cup of boiling water into l/4 to l/2 teaspoonful of the dried herb and let steep for l0 to l5 min. Drink three times a day.

Tincture: Lobelia tincture is made with apple cider vinegar instead of alcohol. Alcohol does not extract the medicinal qualities of lobelia. Take l/2 ml or 15-20 drops of the tincture.

Caution is advised as an overdose of lobelia may cause dizziness, nausea, hypotension, vomiting, stupor, tremors, paralysis, convulsions, coma, and death. Fortunately, very small doses of the tincture – 15 to 20 drops is VERY effective.

Lamb’s Quarters
While my husband and I lived in La Pine, OR, we had a wonderful neighbor who took care of our home while we were away. On one of those rare but incredibly hot days, Don came over and watered out tomato and pepper plants in the green house. While he was waiting, he decided to pull all those pesky weeds that were growing so healthily. I nearly had a heart attack when I came home and all my lovely lambs quarters were pulled and laying in a pile. Fortunately, they were not too wilted, so I gathered them up and brought them into the house, washed them and started cooking them. Then my husband nearly had a heart attack – I expected him to eat weeds???!

Believe it or not, this common garden weed is actually tastier than spinach is far more nutritious, and grows for free all over my yard. The whole plant is edible, but the seeds should be eaten sparingly unless they are cooked. Lamb’s Quarters are great raw in salads, or steamed/lightly cooked the same as spinach or chard.

Lamb’s Quarters contains iron, vitamin B12, B1, C, A and protein, phosphorous, calcium than even cabbage and spinach. Popeye might have been indestructible if he’d have had cans of Lamb’s Quarters instead of spinach.

Like spinach, Lamb’s Quarters (and especially the seeds) contains oxalic acid, which can prevent the absorption of iron and calcium, but the oxalic acid breaks down when cooked. Do not harvest from roadsides, industrial areas, as plants growing in these areas could have high amounts of nitrates.

Poisonous look alikes: Species of Chenopodium which have a bad odor and taste and can be somewhat toxic. Some say the crushed leaves smell like turpentine.

Mallow (common mallow)

Mallow was the bane of my existence this past summer in my corn patch. I swear, for every one I pulled up, 50 more grew in its place. However, that being said, this is extremely nutritious and is one of the richest sources of vitamin A. It has a very mild flavor, and is excellent dried and powdered and used to thicken soups, add to smoothies and even for sore throats and make cough syrup, as it has many of the same medicinal uses as marshmallow.

Common mallow is useful externally for wounds, boils, skin rashes, insect bites, pimples, eczema, acne and swellings. It is commonly used to treat respiratory problems since it has healing properties that may help the mucosa of the upper respiratory tract by coating the inflamed tissue with a protective layer.

I have read somewhere that giving chickens a lot of this will cause them to produce poor quality eggs, but my rabbits and goats loved them.

Poisonous look alikes: None

Miner’s Lettuce
miners lettuce4249
Without a doubt, this was my favorite as a child, I picked and crunched on this stuff by the handfuls. It is sweet and crunchy – absolutely delicious! It is so high in vitamins that it will cure scurvy. Only 100 grams (about the size of a decent salad), contains 1/3 of the daily requirement of Vitamin C, 22% of Vitamin A and 10% of iron. Add stinging nettles, and you have everything you need to revive from a winter’s worth of heavy meats, dried grains and roots. It is one of the first greens available, along with chickweed and dandelion after a long winter.

I suppose you could cook miner’s lettuce, but I cannot imagine why you would. It is delicious just crunched on raw or made into a salad. All parts are edible.
Poisonous look alikes: None

Mullein is found all over in North America it is exceedingly abundant. Mullein is found growing on by roadsides and on waste ground, sunny positions in uncultivated fields and especially on dry soils. However, please do not harvest Mullein right next to roads – all kinds of things leak from cars then wash out into the soil when it rains.

Mullein is an easily-grown plant, it succeeds in most well-drained soils, including dry ones, and prefers a sunny position. Dislikes shade and wet soils. The leaves (first season) at the base of the stem form a rosette of numerous, large, 6 to 15 inches long and up to 5 inches broad, but become smaller as they ascend the stem, on which they are arranged on alternate sides. They are whitish with a soft, dense mass of hairs on both sides, which make them feel very furry and thick. The root is a long taproot with a fibrous outer cover and fleshy inside. The flower-spike (second season) has been known to attain a height of 7 or 8 feet, covered with densely crowded, sulphur-yellow, flowers about an inch across with five rounded petals. Blooming during July and August. Harvest the entire plant when in bloom and dry for later herb use.

Mullein has been used as an alternative medicine for centuries, and the value of Mullein as a proven medicinal herb is now backed by scientific evidence. Research indicates some of the uses as analgesic, antihistaminic, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, antioxidant, antiviral, bacteristat, cardio-depressant, estrogenic, fungicide, hypnotic, sedative.

An infusion is taken internally in the treatment of a wide range of chest complaints and also to treat diarrhea and bleeding of the lungs and bowels. The leaves, root, and the flowers are anodyne, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent, demulcent, diuretic, emollient, expectorant, nervine, and vulnerary.

Mullein oil is a very medicinal and valuable destroyer of disease germs. An infusion of the flowers in olive oil is used as earache drops, or as a local application in the treatment of hemorroids and other mucous membrane inflammations. This infusion is a strong antibacterial. The oil being used to treat gum and mouth ulcers is very effective.

A decoction of the roots is used to alleviate toothache and also relieve cramps and convulsions.

The whole plant possess slightly sedative and narcotic properties. The seeds are considered toxic. They have been historically used as a narcotic.
The dried leaves are sometimes smoked (yes, smoked – even though that sounds counter-intuitive) to relieve the irritation of the respiratory mucus membranes, and the hacking cough of consumption. They can be employed with equal benefit when made into cigarettes (although – to avoid the burning paper, I’d use a pipe), for asthma and spasmodic coughs in general. Externally, a medicinal poultice of the leaves is applied to sunburn, ulcers, tumors and piles.

The dried leaves are highly flammable and can be used to ignite a fire quickly, or as wick for candles.


Tea: An aromatic tea can be made by boiling 1 tbs. dried leaves or root, in 1 cup water for 5 – 10 min. A sweeter tea can be made by infusing the fresh or dried flowers. Or for children and the elderly use milk instead of water. Sweeten if desired.

For chest complaints, smoke the leaves – 1st year leaves are the best.

Mullein oil: Use flowers or root. Place in blender or crush, fill jar, cover with olive oil, set in warm place for 2 weeks. Strain before use.

Poisonous look alikes: Comfrey and foxglove. Note: Comfrey is not really poisonous, but in larger internal doses can cause liver problems. Foxglove has been used for centuries for heart ailments, but in very small quantites and under the care of someone who knows what the heck they are doing – foxglove is potent, ingesting .5 grams dried or 2 grams fresh could be deadly.

Nettles (urtica dioica) is better known as stinging nettles, for good reason.
These plants have little hollow hairs that break off when touched and contain several compounds that cause painful stinging. Therefore, picking nettles should be done while wearing long sleeves and rubber gloves. And, regardless of the sting, you are going to want to pick some of these (with the aforementioned safeguards) because nettles are both nutritious and medicinal.

Oh, and by the way, if you do get stung, grab a plantain leaf (next herb down) bruise it and rub the juice over the sting – it is relieved almost instantly. Other herbs that will reduce or entirely reduce the sting are dandelion, horsetail, leaf of dock (sheep sorrel, yellow or curled dock although not burdock which is a member of the aster family), and jewelweed.

Once dry, the hairs will no longer sting you, and nettles make both a delicious tea as well as being a very tasty pot herb. As a potherb, nettles tastes similar to spinach and cucumber when cooked, and is rich in vitamins A, C, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium. It is best picked and eaten in the spring before flowering.

Nettles is listed as one of the 30 best herbs by the herbalists of the California School of Herbal Studies.

Medicinally, nettles are excellent for arthritis and rheutmatism, reducing inflammation, treatment of the kidneys and urinary tract – bladder infections and kidney stones (a great diuretic), gastrointestinal tract, cardio-vascular system and high blood pressure, hemorrhage, flu (reduces inflammatory cytokines), sciatica, bursitis, tendinitis and gout.
Nettle tea taken regularly helps reduce allergies and the symptoms of allergies and can even help with asthma.

For men, nettle root treats symptoms of benign protatic hyperplasia (BHP) and increases free testosterone.

For nursing women, it promotes lactation.

Nettle shampoo is great for preventing baldness and dandruff.


Tea – use 1 TBL per cup of boiling water. Allow to steep for 5 – 10 minutes. Sweeten if desired.

Soup: Bring a pot of water to boil. Add nettles and allow to stew for a few minutes. Strain nettles from the liquid, and then strain liquid to remove any dirt or debris. Make a roux with butter and flour, then add back the strained water. Chop nettles finely and add back to roux/water mixture. Add chives, onion, garlic, chervil or fennel if desired.

Potherb: Cook nettles in a little water same as spinach.

Nettles can also be boiled and the resulting liquid used for a coagulant for making cheese.

Poisonous look alikes: None

Plantain is a perennial herb, thought to be of Eurasian origin and now naturalized throughout the world. Plantain is considered a common and noxious weed by some and a miracle plant by others. There are several varieties of plantain, Plantago major (shown) and Plantain Lanceolata (narrow leaf). Both have similar qualities.

Plantain is very easy to cultivate, it succeeds in any soil and prefers a sunny spot. Harvest fresh young edible leaves in spring. Gather plantain after flower spike forms, dry for later herb use.

Plantain is edible and medicinal, the young leaves are edible raw in salad or cooked as a pot herb, they are very rich in vitamin B1 and riboflavin. The herb has a long history of use as an alternative medicine dating back to ancient times. Being used as a panacea (medicinal for everything) in some cultures, one American Indian name for the plant translates to “life medicine”, and recent research indicates that this may not be far from true!

The leaves and the seed are medicinal used as an antibacterial, antidote, astringent, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, cough suppressant, cardiac, soothes and protects mucous tissues, diuretic, expectorant, stops bleeding, laxative, poultice, brings down fever, and killing or expelling worms. Medical evidence exists to confirm uses as an alternative medicine for asthma, emphysema, bladder problems, bronchitis, fever, hypertension, rheumatism and blood sugar control.

A decoction (STRONG tea) of the roots is used in the treatment of a wide range of complaints including diarrhea, dysentery, gastritis, peptic ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, hemorrhage, hemorrhoids, cystitis, bronchitis, inflammation of mucous membranes, sinusitis, coughs, asthma and hay fever.

It also causes a natural aversion to tobacco and is currently being used in stop smoking preparations.

It is a safe and effective treatment for bleeding, it quickly stops blood flow and encourages the repair of damaged tissue. The heated leaves are used as a wet dressing for wounds, skin inflammations, malignant ulcers, cuts, stings and swellings and said to promote healing without scars. Poultice of hot leaves is bound onto cuts and wounds to draw out thorns, splinters, boils and inflammation. The root is said to be used as an anti-venom for rattlesnakes bites.

Plantain seeds contain up to 30% mucilage which swells in the gut, acting as a bulk laxative and soothing irritated membranes. The seeds are used in the treatment of parasitic worms.
Poisonous look alikes: None

Believe it or not, this ‘weed’ you pull from your garden is sold in stores in Europe, and was Ghandi’s favorite food. High in omega 3’s – more than some fish oils. In fact, 100 grams of leaves contain about 350 mg of a-linolenic acid. It is also an excellent source of Vitamin A (1320 IU/100 g – 44% of the RDA), vitamin C, some of the B-complex vitamins like riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine and carotenoids as well as iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium and manganese.

To retain the majority of vitamins, eat purslane raw. It, like some other vegetables like spinach contains oxalic acid, so people with oxalate urinary tract stones, should probably cook it slightly which reduces/removes the oxalic acid. Sauteed and gently stewed, it makes a nice side dish for fish and poultry. It has also been used in soup and curry and eaten with rice.

Poisonous look alikes: Spurge

Redroot Pigweed
Pigweed is a form of Amaranth, which is one of the seeds that contains complete proteins, and all parts of the plant are edible. The greens are rich in iron, calcium, niacin, and vitamins A and C, and the seeds are high in protein (15 to 16 %), and fiber (~8%).
Young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked like spinach, sautéed, etc. Pigweed has a mild flavor and is often mixed with stronger flavored leaves such as dandelion or lambs quarters.

Fresh or dried pigweed leaves can be used to make tea. Medicinally, a tea made from the leaves is astringent. It is used in the treatment of profuse menstruation, intestinal bleeding, diarrhea etc. An infusion has been used to treat hoarseness.

The seed is very small but easy to harvest and very nutritious. The flavor is greatly improved by roasting the seed before grinding it. The seeds may be eaten raw, cooked as hot cereal or mush, ground into flour, popped like popcorn, or any number of ways, it can also be sprouted and added to salads.

This is one of the good weeds to feed your livestock as well.

Poisonous look alikes: None – BUT pigweed is a nitrate concentrator, so plants from nitrate-fertilized areas should only be eaten in moderation.

Yarrow is a perennial herb. It is found worldwide and grows almost in all places. The plant can be found flourishing in waste lands, countryside, meadows, pastures, edges of the railway tracks, along the highways.

Yarrow makes it a versatile remedy which when applied externally is useful in curing cuts and wounds, burns and ulcers as well as swollen and irritating (inflammatory) skin. A piece of the plant held against a wound will staunch bleeding.

When taken internally, yarrow invigorates appetite, increases digestion as well as absorption of nutrients by the body. The astringent feature of yarrow makes it useful medication in stopping diarrhea. In addition, yarrow’s sterile and anti-inflammatory qualities help in healing infections and swollen organs like in the case of gastritis and enteritis. The bitter properties of yarrow make the herb in invigorating the liver. Yarrow is also helpful in relieving cramps arising out of tensions, gas, colic or imperfect or painful digestion.

When consumed hot, yarrow is a superb medication that helps in getting relief from fevers and contagions like coughs, colds and sore throats. Yarrow is also beneficial in bringing down fever and removing toxins from the system through increased perspiration. Yarrow can also be used as a stimulant for the circulatory system and is also useful in lowering blood pressure. It helps in healing varicose veins, hemorrhoids, phlebitis (inflammation of superficial veins that results in pain) and thrombosis.

Yarrow is also an efficient diuretic (an agent that promotes urine production and flow) and helps in letting out excessive fluids and toxins through enhanced urination. Yarrow also helps to get relief from a bladder infection marked by pain as well as frequent, painful urination, irritable bladder, bladder stones and irritation. In addition, the herb is useful in soothing painful joints and also clears the skin.

Yarrow is an extremely beneficial remedy for womenfolk; it acts similar to hormones and aids in controlling the menstrual cycle, moderates serious bleeding during menstruation as well as heals uterus blockages. It also helps in providing relief during heavy periods.

Do not use yarrow during pregnancy, for undiagnosed bleeding, or for more than two weeks.

Poisonous look alikes: Poisonous plants with small white flowers that may be confused with yarrow include mayweed chamomile (Anthemis cotula), western water hemlock (Cicuta douglasii, poison hemlock) and spotted water hemlock (Cicuta maculata, spotted parsley, spotted cowbane). Other look-alikes include wild carrot (Daucus carota, Queen Anne’s Lace) and water parsnip (Sium suave, swamp parsnip). All parts of water hemlock are highly poisonous but wild carrot and water parsnip have parts that are considered edible.

NOTE: The easiest way to distinguish yarrow from its look-alikes is to remember that “its flowers stagger and its roots crawl” (


Posted by on January 1, 2015 in food preservation, General


2 responses to “Common Local “Weeds” as Food and Medicine…by Michele Cooper

  1. Glenn

    January 2, 2015 at 7:20 am

    Good story, I have been useing the wild plants from my garden and beyond for many years now. This will be a important food and medicine source in the future.

  2. cat

    August 5, 2015 at 4:46 am

    Your pictures are great making it easier to identify in my yard as eating poisonous plants has stopped me from trying out all these wonderful beneficial greens.


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