By the Handmaiden
Many of the wild edible and medicinal plants gathered by today’s foragers were brought to the Americas by the Pilgrims and other early immigrants. These were plants known to be valuable as food and medicine, and naturally enough early colonists wanted these plants around them in the new world.
In other words, plants that are today disdained as weeds, were highly-desirable plants treasured by our forefathers, who knew of their beneficial uses. Think of the “weeds” that herbicides are created to kill--dandelions, lambs quarters, chickweed, plantain--these plants traveled here with people who brought them as seeds or rootlings. They were planted in herb gardens, but being hardy and prolific, they began to multiply and spread quickly. Today, they are all over the country, having traveled with, and in spite of, people’s efforts.
I have a book called Just Weeds: History, Myths and Uses by Pamela Jones. I bought it used through Amazon for about $10. And it is worth every penny for all the entertaining stories about weeds, which are generally the plants we harvest when foraging. Jones gives historical information, herbal recipes, food recipes, discusses what various herbalists and medical men have written about the plants and their properties; she even mentions magical uses, keeping away bad spirits and the like. This is the kind of book you sit down to read rather than a field guide; it informs you as well as entertains.
Jones writes that most if not all of the widely-foraged weeds were brought by colonists to America, that is, if the plant wasn’t already here in various related species. (Poison ivy was already here, it’s a native.)
Here is a list of a few excellent culinary and medicinal weeds with some background information about them (taken from Just Weeds):
Yarrow--an herb used for wound-healing, is an ancient Eurasian plant. It has been carbon-dated back 60,000 years and was probably known to Egyptian, Indian and Chinese healers. Brought over by the colonists.
Burdock--was known in ancient and medieval times in Europe and was brought over by early immigrants. It has both medicinal and culinary uses--excellent as a blood purifier in the spring (the root), crushed leaves can be applied to mosquito bites; and the stalk can be eaten in the spring or the root eaten in spring and fall.
Black mustard, which grows all over the place--you see its yellow flowers in the spring in fields, was mentioned in the Bible as well as in the Code of Hammurabi in Babylon. Everyone knows of the bright yellow mustard condiment, or honey pepper mustard or spicy dijon. Used for food (the Roman army took the plant with them and ate it as a cooked vegetable) and for medicine (heard of mustard plasters?) Grows worldwide.
Shepherd’s Purse was unknown in the Americas before the Pilgrims. These days, it is a weed of ancient lineage, used for food and medicine. High in Vitamin K, it helps to clot the blood.
Lambs quarters: Originated in the Mediterranean region (as do quite of few of these plants). Also known as pigweed, this family of plants has 60 species. Lambs quarters is an incredibly hardy plant--it can grow in poor soil, and seeds found in an archeology site where they were buried 1700 years ago actually germinated! It was grown as fodder for livestock and poultry, and raised for human food by Indian farmers.
Plantain, which became known as white man’s foot to Native Americans, is a plant so common you probably have never noticed it. It also traveled with the Roman army as it tramped around the world. It is very useful for insect bites, rashes, light burns, sores and wounds and antidote to poison. Crush the leaves and apply them as a poultice to the area affected. The seeds, known as psyllium, are widely used as a laxative. The entire plant is rich in potassium salts, and is a very useful herb to know.
Chicory--you know, that spindly plant with the lovely blue flowers you see at the side of the road--has been cultivated for 5,000 years. Thomas Jefferson sent to Italy for chicory seeds, which he harvested for his table and for cattle fodder. The roots can provide a coffee substitute (or be added to coffee when brewed as the French do). You will also find it in grocery stores as endive, a bitter lettucy green. There’s also a forced form, pale and crisp, that you pay top dollar for. It’s been used medicinally for thousands of years.
Queen Anne’s lace or wild carrot--brought over by colonists. Member of the parsley family, which includes parsnips, celery, parsley, dill and caraway. It also contains poisonous plants such as water hemlock, the deadliest plant in North America. The root of Queen Anne’s lace is carrot-like, and edible. The herb portion (the leaves) of the plant can be decocted and used to wash wounds and boils.