Weeds With Benefits

By Chandra Orr

July 9, 2010 5 min read

Weeds can be a good thing.

Sure, dandelions can wreak havoc on your lawn, but they also improve soil conditions, prevent the growth of more destructive plants and attract bees to pollinate your flower garden. And they aren't the only pesky plants with surprising benefits.

After all, weeds are just plants that happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and all plants have their perks. It's a matter of perspective.

"A weed is simply a plant out of place, and most plants have beneficial aspects -- pollination services, erosion control, even anti-cancer compounds," says invasive plant expert Guy McPherson, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona. "The hearty Southwestern mesquite tree, for example, is the bane of ranchers trying to grow forage for livestock, but it provides shade, pollen for wonderful honey, and sufficient wood for commercial enterprises."

With the trend toward green gardening, so-called weeds are getting an image makeover as people rediscover their benefits.

"Plant fashions come and go as other fashions do," says Betty Pillsbury, co-owner of Green Spiral Herbs, an educational herb farm and a United Plant Savers certified botanical sanctuary. "What was useful and necessary in one generation became 'mother's old thing' to the next generation. If a plant's use was forgotten and that plant was joyfully abundant in someone's prized hosta garden, it might be thought a weed and dug up."

You may not want these proliferous plants running amok, but there are some big benefits to letting them live, from organic pest control to natural soil enhancement. Some even make for good eats.

--Dandelion. The ubiquitous golden flowers attract pollinators, such as honeybees and butterflies, and the seeds at the ends of the white fluffy fibers make great food for finches. The strong taproot breaks up hard clay soils and draws nutrients to the surface so other plants can thrive. The flowers make a tasty tea and killer fritters, and the vitamin-rich leaves are prized by chefs as an exotic salad green.

--Milkweed. The fragrant purple blossoms attract butterflies and bees, and the seed parachutes lure orioles and other birds, which use the fluff as nesting material. The immature seedpods are edible and said to taste a bit like green beans. The plant also emits a chemical that breaks up the soil, so nearby plants can develop healthier root systems.

--Nasturtium. The entire nasturtium plant is edible, and the beautiful leaves and flowers add a dash of pizzazz to otherwise ordinary salads. In the garden, nasturtium attracts predatory wasps, which feed on pests. It also lures caterpillars and black aphids away from garden vegetables and repels harmful squash bugs, cucumber beetles and woolly aphids.

--Stinging nettle. Used widely in herbal medicine, the nettle plant makes a nutritious tea and an excellent spinach substitute. Cooking renders the sting inert, but take care when harvesting the serrated, heart-shaped leaves, as the tiny hairs will irritate your skin. Nettle also attracts bees for pollination.

--Wild carrot. Also called Queen Anne's lace, these plants have flowers and young taproots that are edible, and they taste a lot like their supermarket cousins. Great care should be taken, though, as wild carrot closely resembles poisonous hemlock. The plant appeals to predatory wasps and flies for natural pest control.

--Lamb's-quarters. Characterized by broad silver-green leaves with a white powderlike substance on their undersides, lamb's-quarters attract hover flies, which feed on destructive aphids. The leaves -- which are high in vitamin B, protein and iron -- can be steamed or served raw in salads.

Weeds are renowned for their tenacity, but it is possible to let them take hold without taking over. Consider a dedicated "weed garden," and treat the plants as you would any other garden crop.

"To keep weeds under control, use them," Pillsbury says. "Cook those dandelion blossoms as fritters before they seed. Keep the nettles cut back while using it as a vegetable and it's less likely to spread. Recognize the beauty and value of these weeds; they can be a useful addition to the family kitchen and medicine chest."

Just be sure you know a plant's true identity before exploring its benefits. Many plants are poisonous, so consult a guidebook before you serve that wild weed at the dinner table -- and, as you would do with produce from the grocery, wash the plants thoroughly to remove dirt, insects, herbicides and pesticides.

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