The well-known American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked, "What is a weed?," and answered his own question with, "A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." In Gretchen VanLoozen's mind, a weed is a plant whose virtues have been forgotten.
It is these forgotten plants that will be the topic of discussion at an upcoming workshop and lecture on Wednesday, May 18 at North Central Michigan College taught by VanLoozen, an organic and biodynamic farmer who lives in northern Emmet County. "Eat Your Weeds" is part of the college's Farm and Garden series and will explain the importance of many common backyard weeds and class participants will learn about the nutritional and medicinal value of these plants.
"Our ancestors knew about the virtue of these plants and incorporated them into their diet," VanLoozen said. "Over the years, we have lost track of our understanding of the medicinal and nutritional properties of these plants and have settled for our standard American diet."
VanLoozen, who grew up in Florida, gardening with her father and exploring wild edibles with her Girl Scout troop in Florida, has continued to work with the Earth and seek out wild edibles here in northern Michigan.
"When I first started my garden, I noticed certain weeds grew in the garden and I started to explore what they were," she explained. "I found that they were far more nutritious than any produce you'd buy in the store and it's fun to see how many things I can find to put in my salad, especially in the spring," she added.
VanLoozen noted that there are around 10 to 12 varieties of edible weeds in her backyard at this time of year. One common example that most people have in their yard is dandelions, she said.
"People curse this weed more than any other, but every portion of the plant is edible," she said.
Young dandelion greens can be used in place of spinach or lettuce and added to stir-frys, soups, quiches or casseroles, VanLoozen said. The roots can be chopped up and added to food or can be used to make a tincture or infused vinegar. Dandelion flowers can be used to make wine or even beer.
The health benefits of this plant (and many others) are unrivaled, Van Loozen said. Dandelion, for example, is extremely restorative to the gallbladder, liver, urinary tract, blood, and skin, just for starters.
"Everyone could benefit from some dandelions this time of year," she said. "They are referred to spring liver tonics, because they help to restore the liver, which stores and processes all of the body's toxins."
VanLoozen noted numerous other springtime edibles can be found in one's backyard and offer a wide-range of health benefits.
"Violets are coming up right now and are delectable in salads and have very high levels of vitamin C," she said. "One of the most valued plants that's out now is the stinging nettle. Now, most people would be pretty bummed out if they found one of these in their backyard, but they are highly nutritious and there is a way to harvest and use them so that you don't get hurt when you pick them."
Another benefit to backyard edibles is that it is one of the best ways to eat local, VanLoozen said.
"Why do I need my produce trucked in all the way from California when I have food springing up in my garden that I didn't even have to plant?" she asked.
VanLoozen said northern Michigan is a great place to find a wide variety of wild edible plants. She suggest those new to seeking out these plants become familiar with what is growing in their immediate area and learn about one or two plants per season. She recommends people err on the side of caution when dealing with plants they are not familiar with.
"Plants in the northern temperate zone are much more forgiving than plants in the tropics, but there are some that can cause problems, so it's important to be careful," she said. "I think it's really nice to take the time to develop a relationship with a plant and then see how your body benefits from using it. There are whole families of edible plants growing here, from wild edible greens to plants used for tea."
VanLoozen will introduce workshop participants to a wide variety of backyard edibles during her class. Samples of plants will be provided to taste, with the opportunity to create a medicinal vinegar.
The class takes place on Wednesday, May 15 from 6-8 p.m. The cost is $20 per person (includes materials), and the class will take place in room 536 of the Student Community Resource Center on the Petoskey campus of North Central Michigan College (1515 Howard Street). To register for the class, go to www.ncmich.edu/cce2/index.php/2-uncategorised/21-registration-form or pick up a hard copy of class listings and registration at the college. For questions about the class, or any others in the Food and Gardening series, call 231-348-6613 or 231-348-6705.