By Matt Gibson
Some of the most common weeds that you can find in your lawn or popping up where they are not wanted in your garden, are actually beneficial herbs. Some of these often misunderstood beneficial herbs are edible. Many of them have medicinal value. A handful of them produce glorious flowers that can rival many of the ones that are commonly cultivated in ornamental beds.
Weeds are often described with negative adjectives and descriptions. They are called pesky, invasive, annoying, and irritating. Sometimes, garden weeds are referred to as pests. Poisonous sprays have been made to kill off weeds wherever they pop up. Mulches are often recommended to spread out in garden beds and one of the reasons why they are used is to keep weeds from growing up through the mulch layer and competing with the plants in the same area for water and nutrients.
To put it simply, many gardeners look at common weeds as nothing more than a nuisance. But in actuality, many weeds are beneficial herbs and valuable resources which are more than just a bit underappreciated. Here we have gathered 45 examples of garden plants that are commonly thought of as weeds, but are actually useful medicinal herbs, edible herbs, or ornamental flowers
Amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus)
Amaranth is a beautiful flowering plant from the Amaranthus genus that has been cultivated for over 8000 years. The genus is composed of over 60 plants, including edible leafy vegetables, pseudocereals (meaning the plant bears seeds that can be ground into flour, or used as an edible grain) and ornamental plants. The grains used to be a major food source for the ancient Maya, Inca, and Aztec civilizations. Some species of amaranth are cultivated for culinary purposes, as their leaves can be eaten like leafy green vegetables, and their seeds can be eaten like cereal as well. Some species of amaranth are cultivated for their ornamental value, producing clusters of densely packed maroon to crimson flowers in summer and autumn.
Arnica (Arnica montana)
Arnica flowers look like miniature sunflowers, standing 10 to 20 inches tall. The bright green oval leaves of the arnica plant make a nice backdrop for the bright, yellow, sunflower-like blooms, which sit atop each upright stem. Applied topically, arnica oil is used to relieve muscle pain and treat arthritis. Arnica is toxic when ingested. This so-called “weed,” has medicinal and ornamental value.
Burdock (Arctium spp.)
Burdock is a very tasty edible weed. It is cultivated as a vegetable in many Asian cultures, where it is known as gobo. It can also be made into an essential oil tincture and has medicinal value due to its anti-inflammatory properties. All parts of the burdock plant are edible. It’s roots are commonly used in curries, and its leaves are used to wrap dishes before cooking them on a campfire.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Chickweed is a highly invasive, low-growing groundcover that has both culinary and medicinal value. Unrestrained, it can quickly take over a garden. However, chickweed’s leafy greens are very tasty, and can be used to make an excellent pesto. Made into a tincture, chickweed has both external (antibacterial) and internal (antihistamine & anti-inflammatory) uses. Chickweed can also be made into a reparative and restorative salve to soothe overworked hands, which is perfect for gardeners who have cultivated their crops by hand all day long.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
Chicory is a versatile herb with culinary, medicinal, and ornamental value. Its small, light blue flowers are pleasant and delicate. Culinarily, chicory roots are often baked, ground, and blended with coffee to make a New Orleans style coffee blend, which is delicious. Chicory leaves are boiled and added to soups, stews, and rice dishes. Medicinally, chicory leaves are brewed into a tea to treat internal parasites, upset stomach, and constipation, as well as liver and bladder issues. Chicory is also occasionally used as an appetite stimulant and a diuretic.
Cleavers (Gallium spp.)
Cleavers (also known as bedstraw) is very invasive and is used medicinally as a diuretic, and to treat nausea and urinary tract infections. Cleavers seeds are also occasionally roasted and put to use as a herbal coffee alternative. Keep cleavers out of your garden beds, as you will have a hard time getting it out once it has taken hold.
Clover (Trifolium spp.)
Children pull the flower apart to taste the drop of honeydew nectar that rests at the base of the blossom. The flowers are used culinarily in several ways. The petals can be steeped in hot water to make an herbal tea, ground into clover flour, a flour substitute, and baked into clover cookies and other various baked goods. Clover leaves are harvested as wild salad greens. Medicinally, clover tea is used to treat the flu, common colds, and coughs. Clover oil is used to treat various skin conditions, including eczema.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
People in comfrey’s native territory (Britain, Ireland, Russia, and Scandinavia) have cared for the plant in their gardens for millenia and used it medicinally and as food for livestock. (Occasionally, comfrey has served as food for humans, too.) People have historically used comfrey to support healthy bones (which is why one of its common names is knit-bone). It’s also been used on arthritis, acne, broken bones, bruises, burns, sprains, and to build healthy teeth. Modern research has shown that comfrey should only be used externally, however, because studies have linked its consumption to liver damage. Comfrey can benefit the plants in your garden, too, because it adds nitrogen to the soil for other plants to use, making it a perfect ingredient for compost.
Daisy (Bellis perennis)
Daisies are one of the most beloved weeds in the world, as they are aesthetically pleasing, and are not terribly invasive. Though they are known to have a slightly bitter flavor, daisy petals, leaves, and stems, are all edible. Due to its anti-inflammatory properties, the daisy flower is commonly brewed into teas to treat gastrointestinal and respiratory tract problems.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
We’re familiar with dandelion’s densely packed yellow petals that turn into fluffy seeds. In fact, as a child, you probably made a wish (or many wishes) on a dandelion seed head before blowing on it, distributing the seeds while activating the magic of the wish. It’s less common for people to know that dandelion is not only an herb but an edible herb. Dandelions are perennials that humans have put to use in the kitchen and medicinally for centuries. Its medical use stems from Asia and Northern Europe, while dining on dandelions is part of the culture of Greece, Korea, and Slovenia. Every part of the dandelion is edible, though you normally hear about people eating the greens blanched and prepared similarly to the way we cook spinach. Dandelion wine is made from the flower petals, which are also an ingredient in root beer. The roots can be roasted and used to make a beverage that somewhat resembles coffee. Medicinally, dandelion is a natural diuretic that also promotes a healthy liver and soothes digestive issues. There’s even a possibility that dandelions can strengthen the bones in human teeth, though more research is needed before that claim is proven.
Dock: Yellow, Curly, & Broad (Rumex)
Dock, which is commonly called yellow dock, curly dock, and broad dock, is a widespread weed that is very tough to eradicate. High in beta carotene and other nutrients, the entire plant is edible and can be eaten cooked or raw. The crisp stems are often added to salads and stir-fries. Those who have a history with kidney stones should keep away from using dock culinarily, as it is high in calcium oxalate, which is the cause of calcium-based kidney stone formation. Medicinally, dock has been used as a laxative, an astringent, and to heal wounds.
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
Feverfew is a perennial flowering plant from the daisy family that tends to pop up in unwanted places where the ground has been cultivated. Calming tea can be made by steeping the leaves of the feverfew plant, and is used to treat migraine headaches and arthritis pain.
Goldenrod is a naturally occurring weed from the Soledago genus, and was used medicinally by Native American medicine men to treat respiratory issues. Goldenrod has also been put to use medicinally as a treatment for wounds, tuberculosis, and diabetes. It’s leaves are made into a tea that is used to calm nerves, lower stress, and alleviate depression symptoms.
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)
Jewelweed has been called on by humans for years to counter the effects of poison ivy. It’s especially convenient because jewelweed tends to grow where poison ivy also thrives. If you want to make your own poison ivy treatment from jewelweed, you can do so by boiling the chopped leaves and stems until the water turns orange, pouring the concoction into an ice cube tray, and freezing for later use.
Kudzu (Pueraria montana)
Kudzu is actually from Japan, but after being introduced to the United States, it’s spread like wildfire. This beefy weed can add up to a foot each day to its size, making it formidably invasive. Young shoots are cooked in a variety of dishes because they tend to absorb the flavors of other ingredients. Dried, ground kudzu roots can be used much like cornstarch to add heft to soup or gravy. The leaves can also be fried and enjoyed like potato chips (well, more like kale chips). In Chinese medicine, kudzu is called upon to treat allergies, diarrhea, and migraine. Researchers are working to determine whether it can also help people overcome alcoholism.
Mallow was a culinary delicacy in Roman days and was also used in ancient Egypt to make a treat similar to modern marshmallows by combining it with honey and rosewater. The entire plant has lots of applications both in the culinary realm and to promote good health. Leaves can be added to soups and stews or mixed into salad. The flowers add flavor to cold salads and recipes that feature fruit. Even the boiled roots can be used in the kitchen, as a substitute for egg whites. The plant has also been used to calm sensitive skin or relieve tummy trouble.
Most of us are familiar with the flavor of mint and how it can be used in the kitchen. Humans have also used mint throughout the ages to freshen the air in their homes, served it hot as a tisane (herbal tea), and taken it to soothe stomach trouble. In the kitchen, mint has a long history of being used as a garnish for iced tea or lemonade or as an ingredient in sweet treats like ice cream and candy.
People have found countless ways to use mullein. It’s been called on to serve as a fire starter, to make candle wicks, for cosmetic purposes, and even as toilet paper. Medicinally, people have used it since the time of Pliny the Elder in ancient Rome as a tea or medicinal smoke to treat respiratory conditions like asthma and bronchitis.
Peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum)
Peppergrass is indigenous to the United States and Canada. It’s sometimes called “poor man’s pepper” because of its kick when used raw or blanched. (Cooking for long periods removes much of the flavor.) Enjoy peppergrass in salads or as a seasoning for soup and stew.
Plantain (Musa x paradisiaca)
Plantains are everywhere—well, almost. They’re the most widespread weed that people use for medicinal purposes on the planet. Of course, the fruit of the plantain can be eaten, as is common in South American cuisine. (The taste is like a nuttier, more savory version of a slightly underripe banana.) The veins in plantain leaves have a rubbery texture that makes it possible to use them as cord, fishing line, or even as sutures. The leaves of the plantain plant also have culinary uses as well as a history of being used in medicine. People have cultivated plantain for hundreds of years and used it to relieve pain, boost the immune system, and to take advantage of its anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antibiotic properties.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
Purslane is cultivated as an herbal remedy and can be found in dried form in health food and vitamin stores due to its high omega-3 fatty acid content. It’s also rich in several important vitamins and minerals. Purslane leaves are used in the kitchen to add a salty and tangy punch to soups and stews, and are occasionally breaded and fried tempura style in several Asian cuisines. It’s salty, sour flavor is considered an acquired taste. Medicinally, purslane oil has been used to treat insect bites, skin sores, bee stings, and hemorrhoids. It is also brewed into a tea to treat diarrhea. Warning! – Purslane’s succulent-like leaves are often confused with the similar-looking poisonous spurge plant. Make sure you have identified purslane correctly before ingesting.
Sheep’s Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)
The sour taste of sheep’s sorrel has historically been put to use in soups or stews, and the herb also has a history of medicinal use. It’s been called upon to help regulate menstruation, to treat kidney stones, and also to treat problems with the bladder, breasts, liver, stomach, and kidneys.
Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
Shepherd’s purse has been cultivated by humans throughout history and utilized both in the kitchen and to treat illnesses. People have harvested the tender new shoots to cook and serve similarly to spinach, and it’s also been put to use in stir-fry and soup. In folk medicine, shepherd’s purse is used to treat allergies, problems with the joints, osteoarthritis, and inflammatory disease.
Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica)
Stinging nettles have been revered since Norse mythology was simply called Norse religion. The plant is one of nine herbs bestowed on humanity by Wotan (also known as Odin). Comfrey is used in cooking for its flavor, which is like a cross between cucumber and spinach. The plant also contain a natural form of rennet, which is why humans put them to use in the cheese-making process. People in Western Europe have a history of using stinging nettle treat arthritis, gout, and other conditions.
Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum)
Often confused with wild onions, wild garlic is generally hated by gardeners, as it tends to pop up repeatedly in lawns where it was once established. Wild garlic is not commonly used in culinary circles, but the small herb does have a handful of household uses. The entire plant is believed to repel a number of garden pest insects and moles. The juice from the plant can also be extracted and used as a moth repellent.
Wild Rose (Rosa)
The petals of wild rose plants can be dried and steeped in water to make a tisane, or herbal tea. The fruits of the plant, which are commonly known as rose hips, can be transformed into jelly and used in honey or syrup. One word of caution: before you use rose hips, remove the fine hairs you’ll find inside to avoid irritation.
Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)
Wild strawberry is widely considered an invasive weed because of its voracious spreading habit, but it also has culinary and medicinal value. The entire plant is edible, but the leaves, which can be tossed raw into fresh salads as a micro green, are the most commonly consumed part of the plant. Wild strawberry is used medicinally for its anticoagulant and antiseptic properties. It is used to reduce fevers and politics are made from its leaves to treat boils, burns, insect bites, and ringworm.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow, nicknamed Devil’s Nettle, is a tough weed to remove from lawns and garden beds. Its fragrant, feathery leaves are occasionally tossed into fresh salads to add a peppery flavor. Medicinally, the leaves have been crushed into a paste and used to slow bleeding. The oil from yarrow plants is used as an insect repellant. Yarrow leaves are chewed to relieve toothache pain, while tea made from the leaves is said to help relieve the symptoms of the common cold. Politics made from yarrow leaves are used as a hemorrhoid treatment. Warning – Yarrow has a highly poisonous look-alike plant called poison hemlock, so make sure you have the right plant if you are considering putting yarrow to use culinarily or medicinally.
If you are surprised to find out that there are so many useful weeds, it is because many of these plants are very widespread since weeds tend to be invasive. Because these plants tend to pop up everywhere, it’s no wonder people began experimentation on how they could best be put to use. Now that you know how many common weeds have medicinal, culinary, and ornamental value, it will be hard to look at your backyard weeds as an annoyance again. Instead, you might find yourself harvesting a few weeds yourself, and you may even begin putting them to use.