By Carly Leusner
Nestled near these cultivated patches of earth we call farms and gardens, often amongst the familiar vegetable celebrities such as tomatoes, broccoli, and lettuce, are the others—the uninvited lot of plants that don’t solicit patronage with shiny photos on seed packets. Party crashers, they arrive early in our gardens and never leave, bully our seedlings, and feed on our precious compost.
Perhaps you are familiar with weeds? Do you have dark fantasies of ripping them out and suffocating them slowly in a black plastic garbage bags to be forever buried in an anaerobic heap of trash? Do you act out those fantasies?
Conceivably, there is another story to tell about these plants, much less frightening than the nightmare of freeloading garden gangsters. Could it be that these “weeds” have something else to offer beyond headaches? What if many of these plants were long lost friends we’d forgotten about, an epidemic of mass cultural amnesia?
Many of these “volunteers,” so to speak, are among the most nutritious plants in the world. Not only do they come in peace, but they are true delicacies and generous in their offerings—patron saints of nutrition. They are the garden coming to you, at no cost of cash or labor.
Purslane, one of my favorite free-ranging garden guests, is surely super food royalty, beloved by humans around the world for thousands of years. I look forward to this creeping succulent plant with anticipation every summer. When she arrives, I prepare her daily in as many ways I can manage. Bringing brightness and crunch when raw, she complements any salad, be it garden, potato, grain, or chicken. I make an extra effort to store purslane treasures in sealed jars or bubbling crocks for my winter self. Using wild foods in preserves is a way to double down for maximized nutrition during the chilly season.
Cooling, calming, and nutritive, purslane’s juicy stems and leaves soothe my parched summer body, quench my thirst, and nourish my brain with healthy fats. Wild plants, on average, boast significantly higher levels of omega-3s than domesticated vegetables. Purslane’s essential fatty acid content is superlative; in fact, her holdings are the highest of any plant in the world. Americans currently eat a tenth of the amount of omega-3 fatty acids required for normal functioning. This makes her anti-inflammatory, focus-enhancing, mood boosting nutrition a helpful friend for the vast majority of us. Her high levels of vitamin C support our skin and immune integrity. Her abundance of magnesium and calcium help balance our nervous system and feed our bones.
You get all that and more in your daily multi-vitamin you say? Science shows we cannot cherry-pick compounds from food that we believe are healthy for us, synthesize them in a lab, then expect those “vitamins” to work the same way in isolation. A recent systematic review of scientific papers assessing the long-term efficacy and health benefits of antioxidant supplements of vitamins A, C, E, and selenium concluded, “We found no evidence to support antioxidant supplements for primary or secondary prevention [of diseases of any kind].” Our bodies have evolved to receive and metabolize nutrients in complete packages. Across edible plant varieties, there are thousands of phytonutrients that support human health beyond the commercially available alphabet soup of vitamins and minerals. Elegantly, these same phytochemicals that buffer plants against pests and diseases can protect people from premature aging, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
We are coming back around to embracing complexity as a cornerstone of health. We are discovering what our ancestors knew through experience: Our bodies feel best when we are eating a diversity of plant foods, in their whole form, especially wild varieties. This makes sense when we consider that that’s how humans have been eating for much of their history. To function well, our cells expect the bath of micronutrients and protective array of antioxidants found in high concentrations in wild plant foods.
Worldwide, we are seeing biodiversity bulldozed by the promised security of sameness. Globalization and neoliberal trade policies replace “self-supply economies” with “profit-oriented foreign trade.” High-calorie, nutrient-poor foods move in, while the traditional cultural knowledge of wild plant foods is being lost. When diets are simplified, we lose more than nutrient density. We lose connection and intimate knowledge of the land base that feeds us.
I have a friend who just turned 70. Last summer, she met purslane for the first time. I’m fairly certain she won’t go another summer without eating this crunchy, sour plant in a few salads and slathering some homemade purslane-relish-enhanced Russian dressing on her sandwiches. Last year, we made this relish together. (I enjoy it classically on a nice grass-fed burger. My mother discovered that it makes a nice topping on baked fish.) When we reaccept wild food as an elemental piece of being connected, happy, healthy creatures rather than a last-ditch survival trick, there is a feeling of openness to and appreciation for how the earth takes care of us. Introducing some of these forgotten feral darlings to our plates helps us soften to wonder and awaken with curiosity. What other “monsters” lurk out there that are really just sweethearts waiting to befriend us?