A delicacy for a spring cleansing
On the first warm days of spring, my garden suddenly awakens, after suffering the cooler temperatures of winter. Plants bloom profusely, producing hundreds of flowers of all colors, and bringing a festive atmosphere to this small piece of paradise. Although it happens every year, this spectacular display of colors always astonishes me. Amazingly, many other plants I haven’t brought to the garden, the so-called “weeds”, also contribute to this joyful color palette. Wood sorrel (oxalis pes caprea), wild garlic (Allium triquetrum), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and nasturtiums (tropaeolum majus) add extra shades of yellow, white orange and red to my oasis.
Spring is the busiest time of the year in the garden. There are so many things to do: sawing, pruning and weeding are imperative chores.
Weeding is always the most difficult task to do. It not only requires quite a long time of bending down, but also that I choose which “weeds” should I pull, and how many should I leave in the garden. These wild plants are a precious contribution to the well being of the environment and, as a bonus, they are a delicacy to my salads.
Dandelion – the wish plant
Blowing the dandelion seeds was a funny thing I used to do with my friends when I was a child. We used to compete with each other to see who would blow the higher number of seeds off the stem. According to the tradition, blowing the seeds and catching them in the air meant that we could ask for a wish and hope that it would come true.
When visiting my garden, many English tourists shared with me their experiences with dandelion. They used the bright yellow petals to prepare ‘dandelion wine’, and the roots, they boiled and fermented them together with burdock roots, to prepare a drink, they said, that could easily compete with coca-cola. Dried and roasted roots were used since the First World War to prepare a substitute for coffee, which was scarce on those difficult times.
They call dandelion the bed wetting plant. Maybe due to its diuretic properties, children were often advised by their mothers, not to pick up dandelion flowers. No wonder, for the English, dandelion is a good subject of conversation, almost as good as talking about the weather.
The French too, are aware of the diuretic properties of dandelion. Hence, they name it ‘pissenlit’, the equivalent to the English word wet-the-bed. Regardless of this, the French consider dandelion leaves a delicacy. In spring, when the young leaves are less bitter and very rich in minerals, especially potassium, they add them to their salads, as part of a group of vegetables the French use for a spring cure.
An interesting fact about dandelion is that it produces both bitter and sweet components. Depending on which season the leaves and roots are harvested, they may have higher or lower concentration of these substances. Roots in the fall are much richer in inulin, a starch-like substance, with a slight sweet taste. The leaves contain taraxacin, a bitter substance that is more concentrated in the summer.
Taraxacin is a bitter resin, that functions as a tonic, stimulating the release of bile from the gallbladder, thus preventing it from becoming stagnant and from forming gallbladder stones. In addition, it facilitates the absorption of calcium, magnesium and the fat soluble vitamins A, K and E.
Bile acids are important to properly metabolize fats, preventing their accumulation in the ‘wrong’ places of the body.
Inulin is a slightly sweet substance that dandelion stores in the roots, in high amounts, during the fall, as an energy reserve. In our body, this sugar works as a prebiotic. It feeds gut flora, which helps the immune system fight diseases; slows down the digestion, so that we feel full for a longer period of time; and reduces hunger spikes, an important action when it comes to preventing sudden increases in blood sugar. This has a benefit for diabetics because it keeps their blood sugar under control.
Inulin is only soluble in hot water, therefore dandelion tea should be prepared by decoction of the roots. Cut the root in small pieces and let it simmer in water for 10 minutes.
Among gardeners, some of us have a rule when it comes to vicious ‘weeds’ – “If you can’t beat it, eat it!”
Oxalis pes caprea
Wood sorrel, with its bright yellow flowers, is one of the most beautiful ‘weeds’ we find all over the island of Madeira. The volcanic and acidic soil of the island has the perfect conditions for this herb to proliferate. In spring, this is a weed we can always count on.
Biting and chewing a little bit of the flower stem is an experience most children, in Madeira, have had. I was not an exception! The sour astringent flavor made my mouth feel dry, my teeth harsh; it felt similar to drinking vinegar.
Flowers, leaves and stalks of wood sorrel contain a very acidic component, oxalic acid. This same acid is found in many other vegetables such as rhubarb, beet, spinach and parsley. The sour taste, in sorrel, lowers the pH in food, enhances all the flavor sensations in the mouth, and lengthens their duration, making food more appetizing. In addition, it stimulates salivation, speeding the production of digestive enzymes necessary to properly metabolize food.
Oxalic acid in plants has a double role: it binds calcium as a means to store it for later use and it protects plants from herbivorous animals. When animals eat these oxalate rich plants the acid damages their teeth, mouth and throat, preventing them from eating them any further.
The human body itself also produces oxalic acid as a byproduct of the metabolism of substances like vitamin C. Oxalic acid in high amounts is toxic to our body. In moderation, our gut flora can easily break it down, inactivating its toxicity. When gut flora is compromised, oxalic acid follows into the kidneys were it binds to calcium and forms kidney stones.
In these cases avoiding oxalate rich foods is a must.
There are three main strategies we can use to eat these nutritious vegetables, while avoiding the absorption of oxalates.
– As oxalates are water soluble, a technique of blanching the vegetables before cooking cuts down a third of the oxalic acid.
Bring the water to a boil, add the vegetables and let it simmer for two minutes. Discharge the water and add the vegetable to your recipe.
– Using calcium rich foods will make oxalates bind to calcium in the meal, instead of running loose through the digestive system to cause damage.
– Feeding gut bacteria is a means to successfully reduce the absorption of oxalates. Add yogurt to your salad sauce. Besides the calcium content, yogurt feeds gut bacteria that will, in turn, break down oxalates in food.
– Reduce vinegar in the sauce for salads if you are using any sort of sorrel, spinach or any other vegetables with oxalates. The pleasantly sour taste of these vegetables is already a substitute for vinegar.
Sorrel is the herb I reach for immediately, whenever I feel a tongue ulcer start to appear. I pick up a leaf from the plant, chew it for a few minutes and leave the juice on the ulcer. The acidity, kind of, numbs the pain and speeds the healing process.
In Madeira, wood sorrel is still part of our traditional medicine. The tea is used to speed recovery from feverish conditions, maybe because oxalic acid reduces the over activity of the immune system.
Identifying stinging nettles is the easiest thing. Don’t bother looking for it in a field. It will probably find you first, when you brush against it.
Whenever I see stinging nettles in my garden, it always comes to my mind the time, in my childhood, when my best friend and I decided to keep a caterpillar. We had collected it from a stinging nettle plant, and cared for it until the chrysalis became a beautiful orange/black butterfly, the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta).
Stinging nettle hairs have miniature needle like substances that pierce the skin and inject a mixture of various chemicals: histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin and formic acid, which cause pain and irritate the skin. If this happens to you, an easy and simple way to end your suffering and soothe the itching, is to pick up a dock leaf (Rumex obtusifolius), a plant related to sorrel, and rub it on the affected area.
No wonder dock plants usually grow in places were sting nettles thrive!
I found no scientific explanation for this fact, so I gave it a try. I stung myself with stinging nettles, and immediately after, I rubbed dock leaf on the skin. It works like magic!
As an alternative, wash the skin with soap and water.
In Madeira, stinging nettles are still important plants for healing. I remember, as a child, hearing adults talk about brushing a bunch of stinging nettles on the skin to alleviate the pain of arthritis. This process is not unique to Madeira. ‘Urtication’ is a means to stimulate circulation, making blood flow. Applied topically, at the site of pain this is an old remedy to treat rheumatism.
Crushing nettle leaves and extracting the juice is another use for nettles in Madeira; it is a stimulant for the hair, making it healthier, thicker, thus preventing baldness.
For many years of my life, it never occurred to me that stinging nettles could be edible. Looking at the small needle like-hairs, which I knew would sting, was enough to discourage me to even consider nibbling the leaves. Only after talking to some Chefs, regular visitors of my garden, I learned how to eat the leaves without getting stung. The trick is to inactivate the stinging action of the tiny hairs: if you grab the leaves tightly with your fingers, it destroys the hairs and then, you can chew the leaves without getting stung. If you want to try it on your salads, cut the leaves with a knife in small pieces, to crush the needle hairs and inactivate them. It is worth savoring this inexpensive vegetable for its great nut-like flavor.
There are several recipes with stinging nettles, but my favorite is stinging nettle soup.
Stinging nettle tea, prepared by infusion of the leaves and roots, is valuable as a strong tonic for its high content in minerals and vitamins. Moreover, it reduces inflammation from arthritis, stimulates the kidneys to eliminate uric acid, reducing pain caused by gout, and is a blood thinner, which lowers blood pressure. People taking blood-thinning medications should have this into consideration before drinking the tea.
Besides its culinary use, stinging nettles are a good source of fibers, which have been used in the clothing industry for over 2000 years. This activity is in the urge of coming back. German and Italian textile companies, have recently been interested in bringing back stinging nettle fabrics as an alternative to cotton, flax and hemp. Its production is cheaper and ecologically friendly, due to the fact that it doesn’t require the use of pesticides. Fibers are woven to make tissues for clothing, such as shirts, jackets and jeans.
Good gardeners never throw away the stinging nettles they remove from the garden. It would be a waste! In the compost pile, stinging nettles are a good source of minerals and they also accelerate the composting process. Another use, is macerating it in water, to then use it as a liquid fertilizer.
Instead of treating ‘weeds’ as invading plants, why shouldn’t we take profit from them? After all, “weeds are just plants in the wrong place”, and no matter what you do, one thing is certain: they will come back!