Tangent Regarding Wild Food Plants

Many of the best edible plants, as well as the most easily available, are European imports, nearly all of which are considered “weeds,” although they are, as weeds go, far less weedy than the majority of their fellow immigrants.  One thing that nearly all of them have in common is that they are homebodies, able to thrive only in the familiar settings of gardens, farmyards, vegetable patches, truck farms, orchards, almost any small-scale agriculture.  Familiar neighbors, not exactly domesticated, but domestic.  Almost none of these benign “weeds” can hack it away from the comforts of home, either among the stickery grasslands of the open range, where the serious weeds hold every inch of ground, or even in the native forests, shrublands, and wetlands.  The only consistent exception is chickweed, which thrives in patches on wooded slopes, virtually always in company with a native salad-plant, miner’s-lettuce.  How two such culinarily compatible, tender, lush little winter annuals from opposite hemispheres came to form such a close, nearly exclusive association almost throughout California, is one of those mysteries that have intrigued me for decades.  There are other such unexplainable close associations of this sort that are equally mysterious, for example that between two low-growing stoloniferous perennial “ground-covers” the tasty little California strawberry and the fragrant tea plant yerba buena; and why does every wintering family group of Western Bluebirds always seem to have a little flock of Audubon’s (Yellow-rumped) Warblers tagging along with them?  But at least all of these other inter-species “relationships” involve only native species.  You would almost think that the chickweed and miner’s-lettuce were two long-lost twins who at last found their way back together.  Getting back to the subject at hand, i.e. the common edible “vegetable-garden weeds,” there are good reasons why they are ready to be encountered in “wildlands” of any kind.  First, they are all annual plants, and like many other annuals (especially native ones) they need bare ground to germinate on, and preferably tilled ground if they are to thrive.  One major exception to this is the multi-virtued dandelion* (*Be careful not to make the common mistake of confusing this with the much more common (and worthless) hairy cat’s ears, and hawkbit), which is a perennial plant and quite unlike its annual counterparts in its choice of habitat, as almost any purist [better words? analysis?] lawn-grower will tell you.  Anyway, the other thing that most of our edible backyard weeds appreciate is irrigation, or at least a modicum of water during the dry season, something they are sure not to get back in the hills.  Anyway, the impression you get from these home-loving plants is that they are practically begging to be domesticated—offering their useful charms, waiting for some creative gardener to take them up on their humble offer, but almost invariably meeting only with scorn and rejection in the form of hoe or herbicide.  A harsh judgement, considering that many of our present cultivated crops had their origins in “weeds” no more promising-looking than these; and even without “improvement,” almost all of these little plants make worthwhile provender in their own right.  Chief among these underappreciated veggies are:  Brassica rapa (the ancestor of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc., and the plant responsible for the glorious yellow undercarpet of old apple orchards in late winter), Stellaria media (chickweed), Capsella bursa-pastoris (Shepherd’s-purse), Poa annua (annual bluegrass), all in winter and early spring; the following grow in summer:  Chenopodium album (lamb’s-quarters), Amaranthus retroflexus (pigweed), Portulaca oleracea (purslane).  Another oddball perennial-like dandelion is Oxalis pes-caprae (Bermuda buttercup), a very common, ephemeral winter/early spring plant that spends most of the year in the form of dormant bulbs.  Both the pleasantly sour stems of the plant and the starchy bulbs are edible.  In some agricultural fields near the coast, this plant creates huge carpets of absolutely dazzling yellow in early spring.  When the fields are plowed, flocks of band-tailed pigeons come to gorge on the bulbs.  Gophers are another big fan of oxalis; they collect the bulbs and store them in their spherical larders, from which emerge dense clumps of oxalis plants in the spring.  In general, the wildlife value of these backyard-garden weeds is extraordinarily high in comparison to many comparable wild plants.  Flocks of migratory sparrows and other songbirds congregate around old vegetable plots and agricultural fields in the fall and winter to glean the thousands of weed seeds.

Among their all-time favorites are the seeds of amaranth and a summer-growing grass, Echinochloa crus-galli (barnyard grass), which frequently pops up along ditches or in any moist patch of ground.

There are other charming little agricultural weeds you hardly ever see in any other environment.  Among these is my all-time favorite “weed”—actually one of the least weedy “weeds” I have ever met—called henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) with its little tubular flowers of brilliant velvety purple.  And others like Veronica persica (speedwell) with its cheerful, light-blue flowers, Spergula arvensis (spurrey), a slender plant with lots of little white flowers on goose-neck stems.

Of course there are some less-charming players on the ag-field stage as well—mallows?, thistles, dock, . . .  But even many of these have unexpected values, as larval food for various butterflies (especially mallows and thistles and nettles).

All in all, an orchard or vegetable garden or small agricultural field, managed in the traditional way without poisons or excessively “clean” cultivation, can produce a wildlife haven far more lively and cheerful than almost any “wild” habitat you could name.