“Did you know that wild foods have at least 10 times more nutrients than cultivated foods?” So said Tracy Armbruster, who conducts wild food courses in Villiersdorp.
I have always known that there is something special about weeds. Natural, indigenous, resilient plants that arrive uninvited. We all know that spraying them to death with toxic chemicals, killing the rest of the ecosystem, is the daftest thing you can do. Yet there are different opinions about how to respond to them.
Some say use lots of mulch to prevent them from arriving. Others to dig them into the soil to add their nutrients, as specific weeds arrive to supplement exactly what the soil needs there. The conventional farmer believes that weeds will compete with their crop for nutrients. The biodynamic farmer ‘listens’ to his weeds as they communicate what is missing and what needs balancing.
I have found that weeds protect my plants, as they strengthen them against pests. Also, the pests will usually go for them and leave your crop alone. As soon as some new garden helper had yanked out my weeds, in a bid to ‘clean up’ my ‘dirty’ garden, the pests arrive. Like clockwork. Then I have to explain again that this crazy gardener does not look at a garden in the conventional way.
I have no doubt that nature knows best. My journey is to learn more about listening with my inner ear to what Nature comes to teach. To observe more carefully and to grow my learnership of living in connection with the earth.
Indigenous knowledge for self-sufficient living
Naturally I did not miss the opportunity of learning from Tracy (below) in the scenic village of Villiersdorp, so off we travelled over the mountain to hone my skills. My mission to remember the indigenous knowledge, which our ancestors surely relied on, and which any budding self-sufficient urban farmer needs for health and nutrition. Intuitively I longed to open another gate to knowledge – this time to these free and abundant gifts from nature, and excellent source of food and medicine.
Why would one bother to learn about foraging for wild foods?
“There is a growing need for people to become more self–sufficient: escalating food prices, failing crops worldwide due to erratic weather conditions… not to mention the failing economy which has practically wiped out the middle class and is causing untold suffering amongst the poor.
What’s wrong with buying your food in the shops?
“The quality of store-bought food these days is pretty dismal. Irradiated… full of preservatives… loaded with GMO’s… and containing an endless list of harmful chemicals and additives. Over the years our cultivated crops have been overbred and hybridised, mostly for the wrong reasons (looks, adaptability, etc.).
“Weeds, on the other hand, have developed alongside on their own. Most have become very hardy and able to handle pests, poor soil, little water and both cold and heat. They haven’t been tampered with so their genes are intact and provide super high nutrition (e.g. Purslane has the highest omega 3 of ANY plant; Dandelion and Nettle are so nutrient rich they can be used to supplement your diet). There are over 120,000 edible plants worldwide. About one thousandth of those ends up in markets. Of those, about 30 of those are used the most.”
Can one really take care of your health with wild plants?
“Less than one percent of the over 250 000 plant species on earth have even been studied for their medicinal properties,” said Tracy.
Yet over many centuries, man’s experiments with plants have yielded a vast stock of natural medicines to help us heal many ailments, and almost always without harmful side effects. Many pharmaceuticals are still derived from the extracts of wild plants, such as digitalis from the purple foxglove flower. Herbs, spices and other nutritional substances are the oldest form of medicine known to man. While modern or “allopathic” medicine is barely a century old, the practice of natural medicine using nature as a pharmacy can be traced back through all of the ancient civilizations.
The course started off with steaming cups of Nettle tea in hand around Tracy’s kitchen table. And this little prickly plant seems to be top of the list of amazingly nutritious greenies. It has ten times the nutrients of spinach, she said. This is quite a statement in our home, where we rely heavily on spinach for iron and calcium. Nettle is also high in chlorophyll and a gentle diuretic.
Nettle for removing chemicals and toxins from environment
Nettle is good at detoxing toxins from pesticides – so a good way to clean up a contaminated garden. Nettle is also good for Arthitis, as toxins lead to acidic build ups in the body.
Every 100g of nettle contains on average around 3000 mg calcium, 680 mg phosphorous, 32 mg iron, 650 mg magnesium, and also potassium, beta carotene and various vitamins. Weed teas must never be boiled. Pour boiling water on and let it steep for 5 minutes, then strain and drink hot.
Tracy showed us how to make a calcium supplement, that is also rich in many other vitamins and minerals, using Nettle.
Nettle is also good for digestive upsets, fluid retention, as a kidney flush and for urethra blockages, as an anti-allergy, prostate problems and the list goes on… and on. Large doses cn be irritating to the kidneys if given over an extended period of time – so use in moderation and don’t use if you have a pre-existing kidney condition. It is also a good nitrogen fertiliser for the garden, companion to potatoes and spray for aphids. This is truly a magic plant. Luckily, after enjoying the most delicious Nettle soup at the McGregor Poetry Festival, I had planted a couple in the garden. Of course now many more are needed for that daily cuppa goodness.
It is important to note that you do NOT want to start harvesting wild weeds from your garden without being totally sure what they are and how to use them. That’s why I feel a good course is essential – some plants are poisonous and could kill you. Some you can drink a tea made from the leaves, some you can rub onto your skin, others only the roots are used, or the stems. You need to know what you’re dealing with, so be warned.
Dandelion for joint strength
Second on the list was Dandelion. Now this one has been keen in my garden for years, but I was not sure how to handle it. It is high in Vitamin A and great in smoothies, salads and stir-fries.
No more need for expensive supplements with heavy environmental footprints. This powerful plant, which you recognise by its lion’s teeth (dande-lion) strengthens your joints, builds strong teeth and the blood. The taproot makes a great detoxer – a gentle laxative and diuretic that supplements the body while it flushes it out – so that you are not left depleted of minerals. Dandelion is a wonderful liver tonic. Very effective against environmental contaminants and it is very effecting at whisking away free radicals. It contains 20% protein, plus vitamins A, E, D, calcium and potassium. It warms the digestion and is good to take before meals.
You don’t want your Dandelion anywhere near your spinach or anything you don’t want to go to seed, as this little lion gives off ethylene gas, which encourages plants to ripen and go to seed.
Sow’s Thistle for Omega 3’s
Sow’s Thistle is super high in Omega 3’s. A great salad leaf or in a smoothie. Diuretic, balances menstrual flow, can cause abortion so not for pregnant moms. It’s a liver cleanser so good for skin problems or dark rings under the eyes. It is a hepatic and acts on the liver for better or worse – do not use if there are any pre-existing conditions. It has been used as an anti-cancer treatment and is very high in antioxidants. It’s highly nutritious, reduces body heat and fever and is a great tonic.
Chickweed is great for the chickens – as my 5 hens had clearly indicated. (They grew on my potato harvest which I dug up yesterday, so off I walked to the dam to dig up more and bring them home.) High in Rutin, vitamins A, D, B complex, and C, iron and calcium, zinc,potassium, copper, manganese and silica. It has a cooling effect, hence clears heat toxins from the body, skin rashes and eczema – even used effectively on seizures and convulsions. Also a great liver tonic and hangover cure.
By now I was in awe at the healers which Nature provides freely, while we turn up our noses. The list and benefits went on and on. We learned how to make natural sunscreen, natural toothpaste, infusions and tinctures. Later we went to forage on the pavements of the little village. There we found everything Tracy didn’t have in her garden.
Luckily they do not spray the curbs with herbicides there the way they do here in the City of Cape Town. This means we cannot forage anywhere in our neighbourhoods, as the toxins will be retained in the plants. I trust that one day the City will wake up to the harm they are doing. Not only do high numbers of people come down with flu- and cold like symptoms once a year, myself included, in fact some of us get very ill. They are also poisoning a potential source of food and healing.
Family wild weed meals
Arriving home after a fascinating weekend I immediately started cooking with weeds. My ever willing family enjoyed weed soup, pasta with weed pesto, weed smoothies, lots of weed teas. And we are thriving. My pooch gets it in his food too. (Only problem is he contracted contact dermatitis from rubbing over the nettle plants in the garden – so those had to move to where he can’t reach them.)
I found foraging communities online across the world. This is a whole new way of living, a new way of looking at the free gifts we are given and learning about nutrition and vibrant free foods. While doing this story I soon realised that we can never in one piece do justice to this incredible knowledge, which I believe needs spreading. So I have asked Tracy to write us a monthly column.
By Elma Pollard