BLACKSBURG — Fresh fruit and vegetables pop with vitamins and healthful nutrients.
They lure us to the supermarket during a pandemic.
But within a few miles or even blocks of every market grow wild foods that are equally nutritious, untouched by human hands, and free.
They’re usually called weeds.
Virginia Tech professor Shawn Askew sports “Weed H8R” on his truck license plate. As one of a handful of state weed specialists, Askew has spent the past 20 years developing and communicating ways to eradicate weeds, especially those popping up in lawns.
But he doesn’t really hate them.
“I learned about weeds in order to kill them,” Askew said. “I’m not an eco-zealot. I am quite satisfied with the food our society provides in this age. But I am a student of nature. I’ve wanted to learn more about these plants that often show up where they aren’t wanted. I found many of them are here because they were once useful.”
As a side interest, Askew delved into history to rediscover how edible and healthful some weeds are. Those who attend Askew’s presentation, “Primitive Uses of Wild Plants,” travel through time from shamanism to the pharmaceutical age, with a stop at Harry Potter’s fictitious potion class in between. They learn that the ubiquitous ground ivy weed was brought here by European settlers to flavor beer, and that stinging nettle, dandelions and chickweed came into the New World as tasty health food.
On weed walks, Askew likes to demonstrate the value of broadleaf plantain, the scourge of all lawn specialists. It’s his go-to plant for minor bee stings.
“You can find broadleaf plantain everywhere, even behind our weed science offices,” Askew said. “If you get stung, grab a couple of leaves, mash them in your mouth, and plaster them over the sting. The plantain does three things: numbs the pain, reduces the swelling, acts as an antiseptic.”
The remedy is meant for people who are not threatened with a serious reaction to stings.
In a typical suburban setting, Askew can always find at least half a dozen edible wild plants. His favorite is wood sorrel, which has a tangy flavor and no poisonous lookalikes. The inner stalk of Canadian thistle tastes like celery, and garden mustard works fine in a salad, he says. The native American weed lamb’s quarters is highly nutritious and similar to spinach. Poke weed will taste like bacon if you boil the shoots a few times and then cook them with bacon, he says lightheartedly.
“Poke is really a failure as an edible plant,” Askew said. “All parts of the plant are poisonous, from the roots to the berries. You certainly can’t eat it raw. There was no such thing as ‘poke salad’; it was called ‘poke salat’ because early explorers boiled it in their salats, their helmets.”
When Virginia Tech hosted the Northeastern Weed Science Contest several years ago, Askew made a point of including a simulation of poke berry poisoning in the weed problem-solving section of the contest. Tech’s team, which he helped to train, went on to win top honors at the North American Weed Science Contest last year.
Askew keeps a mental catalog of sustenance plants that can keep a person alive while lost in the wilderness: the inner cambium layer of pines and spruce, nuts inside pine cones, burdock root, cattail shoots, acorns, rose hips, yellow-flowered Indian mock strawberries and many more.
“You can eat any of the sedges and grasses – the seeds; we can’t digest all that grass the way cows do. Just make a soup with the seeds,” he said. “You can eat violet leaves, but they taste crappy.”
With a few exceptions, the flavor of most wild-plant foodstuffs is not especially appealing to Askew. Boiled leaves, roots and seeds routinely fail to reach his gold standard for tastiness: nacho cheese Doritos.
“If you look on the internet, you can find someone commenting on the ‘nutty, slightly buttery’ flavor of plantain or the ‘hints of smokiness’ in another weed. But I don’t taste it,” said Askew. “I think you might have to change your eating habits to appreciate the nuanced flavors of wild plants.”
Of the nearly 400,000 species of plants in the world, 2,000 to 3,000 are consumable, Askew says. But modern people eat only about 300 species.
“And half our calories come from only three species: corn, wheat and rice,” Askew said. “Eating wild plants requires one to collect a diversity of material to obtain enough sustenance. By nature, diversifying your diet will diversify your nutrition. A walk in the wild is a path away from a diet dominated by processed foods. Processed foods epitomize ‘lack of diversity’ from a nutritional standpoint. I say this not to say that we should not consume processed foods but that we should not let them dominate our diet.”
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