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The Benefits of Weeds

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Tags: weeds, violets, maple tree, lake trout, spring

Created: 6/10/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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Ok. Ok. There are a lot of Norway maple haters out there, and I think they are justified in their position.  I agree with everything Seth said in this post, and I’d certainly see a sugar maple instead of a Norway.  That said, there’s an old one outside my house and everyone (including me) enjoys the shock of bright yellow when the leaves turn colors overnight in the autumn. Few people though notice the flowers of the maple. Lots of trees flower before they leaf out in the spring and maples are among these. The flowers are pretty small and the petals are about the same color as the bracts, resulting in a powdery yellow cloud appearing in a cloud around the twigs of the tree. If you’re lucky enough to have squirrels in your neighborhood, you may notice them clipping off these flowers. They are doing this to access the sweet sap, maple syrup in the raw, and unintentionally they are pruning the tree, keeping it a nice, compact shape. They are also delivering little monochromatic bouquets of maple flowers to you.  My kids have been decorating the dinner table with bowls of floating bouquets of maple flowers and arranging them in tiny vases in their doll house. Take a moment to give inconspicuous flowers like those of the maple a close look. You’ll find a cheerful beauty.

Norway Maple Blooms
Norway Maple Blooms

Speaking of cheerful weeds, violets are blooming in profusion these days. Sure they’re weedy but they are not to aggressive and I think they are cute. Plus, their flowers make any dish more beautiful. Sometimes the flowers even have a delicate violet pastille flavor, but you can’t guarantee this with the weedy ones.

Violets
Violets

Finally, this is the week to work on garlic mustard. It’s a vilified weed in this country and rightfully so.  It crowds out our native wildflowers both physically and chemically. (Within its native range, it is a valued wildflower itself and host of a butterfly). Wherever you see it, pull up the beast. This is the best time of year to do so because it has not begun to seed and the soil is easy to work. You may see patches of trillium, ginger or other wildflowers that are surrounded by garlic mustard. Help them out and carefully pull all the mustard nearby. Make sure to clean your boots and pats when you are done though, especially once the plants begin to set seed. It has been observed that garlic mustard is often more common in the gardens of nature lovers and their neighbors. Presumably we are tracking seeds around. 

Lake Trout with garlic mustard pesto
Lake Trout with garlic mustard pesto

The reason this is my favorite week for pulling garlic mustard though is because the plants have begun to bolt—they’re sending their flower stalks up. Pick these stalks before many flowers have opened and steam them as you might asparagus, or mince them into a pesto. You can eat the leaves, too but they are often more bitter. No matter what, I like to add quite a bit of salt to counteract the bitterness and I often cook the shoots with an acid like lime juice or balsamic vinegar, depending on the cuisine. You can often add garlic mustard to Southeast Asian dishes without modifying the recipe. Burmese and Cambodian both regularly make use of bitter herbs; my daughters love adding garlic mustard to Vietnamese spring rolls. As with violets, since these are not cultivated m the flavor can vary from plant to plant so taste as you pick. By adding a bit of garlic mustard to your springtime diet you are helping native ecosystems, eating sustainably, and adding interesting variety to your diet. 

Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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