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The Secret Allure of "Weeds”

The Secret Allure of "Weeds”

Discover the history of edible wild plants, nowdays back in vogue in the most exclusive kitchens, but once eradicated at the root like weeds.

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Blessed be the hated and feared Dust Bowl. Had it not been for that widely cursed series of sandstorms that struck the wide plains of the central states of North America between 1931 and 1939, we would probably not be here now, writing about Euell Gibbons, one of the greatest authorities on edible wild plants. 

Indeed, he knew them so well that he even risked gathering many varieties with a milky stem, notoriously poisonous, and even took it upon himself to declare to the four winds: «I do not know of a flowering plant that tastes good and is poisonous. Nature is not out to get you.» For Gibbons, plants, grasses, mushrooms and wild herbs held no secrets, and his golden rule was that you just need to get to know them. How? By opening an illustrated book and starting to memorise them one at a time, and then practising for a few days, looking for that specific plant that you have learnt to recognise. Sounds easy, right?

Euell Gibbons was born in 1911 in Clarksville, Texas, and he grew up in New Mexico with a mother and grandmother who were both experts in what most people would label as “weeds”, such as burdock, sorrel, ragweed, corn chamomile, Canada thistle, plantain, pansy and hundreds of others among their countryside companions. Euell felt the love for these plants that ran in his blood – and he invented his first wild plant-based recipe - a candy bar made of hickory nuts and berries - when he was just five years old. He continued to come up with new herbal gastronomic ideas for a further sixty years, and many of them are gathered together in a half-dozen books that he wrote.

And so, when the worst food crisis ever to strike the United States – as dramatically recorded in the famous photographs by Dorothea Lange – drove Euell's father to set off from home in search of work, leaving his wife and four children with nothing to eat and not a penny in their pockets, Euell decided the time had come to put his knowledge to good use. 

Every day for a month he took his empty rucksack out into the meadows and woods and other wild areas, returning in the evening with a bag full of mushrooms, pine nuts and prickly pears, all bursting with vitamins, minerals, complete proteins and sugars, to keep the family in good health until he managed to find himself some kind of work. 

In a long interview given to Playboy in 1972, speaking of nature, Gibbons said, «It's the greatest chemist the world's ever seen. We can't duplicate many of the tremendous chemical compounds nature can make.» 

Before Gibbons, it was the philosopher and writer Henry Thoreau (1817-1862) who celebrated the pleasure of gathering wild plants in the meadows and woodlands. «The bitter-sweet of a white oak acorn which you nibble in a bleak November walk over the tawny earth is more to me than a slice of imported pineapple.» Because all that interested Thoureau was that his life should be connected to what he called the “marrow” of life. 

But Thoreau's America no longer exists. And when in 1868, architect and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted created one of the first suburbs in the US, on the outskirts of Chicago, and decided that each house would stand some ten metres from the road, from which it would not be separated by hedges or fences, his aesthetic rules became the standard for the years to come, and in many areas they are as current as ever. 

Since then, tufts and untidy wild flower borders are not to be tolerated in the 130,000 km² of front gardens that together would cover the state of Iowa. Indeed, they are evicted using weedkillers prepared according to uncertain recipes in the darkness of folks' garages. Beware, all who would stand up against the powerful sect of the weekend gardeners. 

Michael Pollan is the author of the unforgettable The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals – in his book Second Nature. A Gardener’s Education (New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991). He tells the story of a rebellious home owner with a garden on the outskirts of Buffalo, New York, who, rather than a boring lawn, preferred a garden full of wild flowers. 

How can flat grass compare, thought the man, with the random, colourful tufts of spontaneous buds and petals, untended and impertinent, with which to make a herbal tea or a healthy, medicinal salad? No hope: the garden was mown away by zealous, infuriated neighbours. But the disturber of the grassy peace did not give up, and in the middle of his now-bare plot, he planted a sign that read, «this yard is not an example of laziness, but a natural garden growing according to God's design.» 

However, the apparent divine intervention was of little help. Indeed, the already-critical situation worsened considerably. The neighbours appealed to the district judge, who ruled – as a colleague from Houston had previously done – that these were not wild flowers, but “harmful weeds”. He was ordered to eliminate them, or pay a penalty of 50 dollars a day. We do not know how the story ended.

Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature, Richard Mabey, Profile Books, 2010

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